Jenny Farrell discusses ‘Wuthering Heights’, and its subtle, skilful imagining of a more humane, classless society, where unequal gender difference is replaced by an equality of personhood.
30 July 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth. Her novel “Wuthering Heights” (1847) is an amazing, creative challenge to the personal cruelties and oppressions based on class, gender and ethnic background which were being generated by the hardening class divisions of English society in the 19th century.
Emily was one of four Brontë children to survive into adulthood. Their father was an Irish clergyman, from an impoverished family, who moved to Cambridge to study for holy orders, became a Tory and received an Anglican parsonage on the Yorkshire moors. Three sisters wrote novels, which they first published under male pseudonyms. Charlotte became most famous for her novel “Jane Eyre”, Anne also wrote fiction, and Emily wrote poems and just one book, “Wuthering Heights”. Their hapless brother Branwell’s claim to fame is a portrait of his sisters, still exhibited in London’s National Portrait Gallery. All Brontë children died before the age of forty – Emily was thirty when she perished of TB.
England in the mid-1840s was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, vividly described by Brontë contemporary Friedrich Engels in his first book (1845) “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. Growing up, they would have been aware from the newspapers they read of the devastation of hand-workers, especially the handloom weavers in their region, and the resulting large-scale impoverishment. Haworth, homestead of the Brontës, lay near the Yorkshire mill towns, badly hit by the Hungry Forties. Their adult lives coincided with struggles against the Corn Laws, factory reform, strikes and the height of Chartism. Ireland was haemorrhaging from its holocaust, the Famine. All this affected the writings of the Brontë sisters, filtering through in one way or another.
Emily’s profound understanding of 19th century England, and capitalism, is reflected in “Wuthering Heights”. This novel shocked the Victorian reader, and its violence still alarms readers today. At its heart is the story of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a destitute, probably Irish child brought home by Mr Earnshaw from Liverpool. A deep bond develops between the children. Catherine is a tomboy, the opposite of the Victorian idea of a female. Mr Earnshaw protects Heathcliff, and insists he be treated as a family equal. Catherine’s elder brother Hindley detests Heathcliff, and torments him physically and emotionally. After Mr Earnshaw dies, this abuse escalates. Hindley, who had been away for three years, returns with a wife and orders the servants and Heathcliff to stay away from the family living quarters:
Hindley … won’t let him sit with us, nor eat with us any more; and, he says, he and I must not play together, and threatens to turn him out of the house if we break his orders. He has been blaming our father … for treating H. too liberally; and swears he will reduce him to his right place.
Catherine and Heathcliff, however, remain inseparable. Cathy teaches Heathcliff everything she learns. In a key episode, they roam over to Thrushcross Grange, home of the Linton family, the largest capitalist landowners in the area. It is very different to the Heights – a Victorian mansion furnished in the most expensive style. Mr and Mrs Linton are absent; Edgar and his sister Isabella are seen violently pulling a dog between them for pleasure, a thing Heathcliff cannot comprehend.
When the Lintons become aware of two onlookers outside, whom they mistake to be after the rent money, they let the bulldog loose on them, and it gets a hold of Catherine. When they are brought into the Linton house, Heathcliff is sent away, whereas Catherine is deemed respectable and treated for her wounds. She stays five weeks and returns a young lady.
Increasingly, Catherine is sucked into the prevalent class values, spending less time with Heathcliff and more with the Lintons. Unsurprisingly for the reader of Victorian novels, Edgar asks Catherine to marry him. However, contrary to Victorian expectations, Brontë makes clear that Catherine’s acceptance signifies her betrayal of Heathcliff, of their absolute loyalty, of their impassioned and classless relationship.
Catherine reveals to the housekeeper Nelly Dean that it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff. Heathcliff overhears this but disastrously does not hear her continue:
He shall never know how I love him; and that not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.
Catherine’s bowing to money and convention triggers the tragedy. Heathcliff, devastated, leaves Wuthering Heights, not to return for three years.
The turn of events in the second half of the novel is unprecedented for the Victorian and uncomfortable for the modern reader. Heathcliff has acquired money and an understanding of law. He returns to “settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself”, but Catherine’s welcome rekindles all the old passion. Heathcliff puts into operation a plan that is designed to beat class society at its own game. He gambles with Hindley, taking his property. He marries Isabella Linton in order to gain Linton property. He treats Isabella brutally, as just what she is in terms of Victorian law – his property. Interestingly Heathcliff tells Nelly about Isabella:
No brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury! … set his (Edgar’s, JF) fraternal and magisterial heart at ease: that I keep strictly within the limits of the law. I have avoided, up to this period, giving her the slightest right to claim a separation; …
Edgar makes clear their new relationship: “she is only my sister in name: not because I disown her, but because she has disowned me.” Who disowns whom is a matter for the reader to decide. The institution of the Victorian family as a harbour of humanity is shattered at every level.
Heathcliff becomes master of Wuthering Heights and many years after Catherine’s death forces a marriage between his weakling son Linton, “my property”, and Catherine’s daughter Cathy, again to acquire Linton property. He even imprisons Cathy to do so. Interestingly, Linton immediately turns tyrant to Cathy:
She’s my wife, and it’s shameful that she should wish to leave me. He says she hates me and wants me to die, that she may have my money; but she shan’t have it: and she shan’t go home! She never shall! …. uncle is dying, truly, at last. I’m glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him. Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine.
With this action, Heathcliff parodies, in a grotesque way, Catherine’s class marriage to Edgar. In the likely event of son Linton’s death, Heathcliff not Catherine would inherit. Everything is turned into its monstrous extreme.
Hindley’s son Hareton, who resembles both the young Catherine and Heathcliff remarkably, is Heathcliff’s fiercest and most loyal defender. And despite himself and his best laid plans, Heathcliff likes Hareton. Heathcliff treats Hareton and the servants at the Heights without much social difference. They all work, live and eat together. Women coming to the house, such as Isabella and later Cathy Linton, are stripped of their property, by marriage, and of their class comforts. They work for their living.
The only person who enjoys a work-free existence is son Linton, whom Heathcliff despises but has educated. When he is dying, shortly after his marriage to Cathy, Heathcliff comments: “but his life is not worth a farthing, and I won’t spend a farthing on him.” Repeatedly, the reader is shocked at the lack of sentimentality. Over and over, we are confronted with the reality of cash nexus and the law.
Hareton, Hindley’s son, is not educated and cannot read, write or use numbers. Again, this is in keeping with the rules of class society – why educate a farm worker? Heathcliff has pared down all his dealings to the bare logic of capitalist rationality. There are no frills, no pretences of kindness. Heathcliff’s tenants too are treated roughly. There is no humanity. It is only in this stark, unmasked form that readers realise this is the true nature of their own society. It is hyperbole, yes, but for that reason all the more effective in revealing the essence.
The union of Hareton and Cathy, which concludes the novel, is a rebellion against a world governed by the iron grip of inhumanity. Although they will overcome the property barrier with their marriage, they will accommodate themselves in the ‘respectable’, ‘civilised’ Thrushcross Grange. And yet there is hope for a relationship of equality, untypical of the Victorian era.
What remains with the reader, however, is the tragedy of Catherine and Heathcliff whose absolute freedom from all the dictates of class and hierarchy was the essence of their relationship. This kind of relationship is doomed. That is the tragedy.
I often think of Heathcliff in today’s world, as the ruling class increasingly reveals its profoundly barbaric nature. There is ever less pretence of culture and humanity. Education and health care are business, the state extracts itself progressively from a duty of care. Politicians set ever-decreasing value on a shallow veneer of humanity. We are seeing the beast for what it is, perhaps most grotesquely in Donald Trump, but certainly not only in him. The difference to Heathcliff is that Heathcliff cannot reach personal fulfilment by living this way. He wreaks revenge on the class system, but the price is his own humanity, indeed his life. Class society is the root cause of Heathcliff’s inhumanity.
Brontë does not spell this out in quite these words. Her very clever and innovative narrative ensures that the reader is taken in by the double, prejudiced Victorian class lens of Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean. Even Isabella’s letter, the only verbatim document apart from Heathcliff and Catherine’s direct speech, quoted by Nelly and filtered again via Lockwood, expresses her class point of view. Therefore, the reader has to do what readers of the bourgeois press must do daily: read between the lines and presume that we are dealing with half-truths, omissions and fake news.
Heathcliff only responds humanely when he is with Catherine, and in his torment after she dies. They can only be together in death, buried beside each other outside the church: “on a green slope in a corner of the kirk-yard, where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry-plants have climbed over it from the moor; and peat-mould almost buries it.”
The sides of their coffins are open to each other. Heathcliff’s love for Catherine, is his humanity, and it is a world apart from Victorian class marriage. In their relationship of unequivocal equality Emily Brontë anticipates a more humane society, one that reaches far beyond hierarchical systems. It reaches into a time when unequal gender difference is replaced by an equality of personhood. In her subtle, utopian vision, Emily Brontë anticipates a humane society, unrestrained by the class-based laws that Heathcliff reveals to be barbaric.
If the meaning of life is to create conditions that are commensurate with humanity, then Emily Brontë’s remarkable novel highlights this. Her dream is yet to be achieved.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.