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Thread: The strange cult of Emily Brontė and the 'hot mess' of Wuthering Heights

  1. #1

    The strange cult of Emily Brontė and the 'hot mess' of Wuthering Heights

    1) I love Wuthering Heights
    2) WTF?


    But was Emily Brontė really such a finely tuned instrument, exquisitely alert to the psychic vibrations around her? For four brief months in 1842 she was employed to give piano lessons to three sisters by the name of Wheelwright. Despite her pupils’ sturdy-sounding surname, the setting was not Yorkshire but Brussels, where all the young women attended the Pensionnat Heger, one of the best schools in the city. Technically, 24-year-old Brontė was a student-teacher, earning her board and tuition by providing music tuition to the smaller girls. But when it came to deciding the timing of the lessons, Miss Brontė was careful to arrange things to suit herself. Refusing to break into her own precious study time, she insisted on receiving her pupils only once the school day was over. The result, reported the oldest sister Laetitia, was the sight of three girls ranging from six to 10 years old emerging from the music room in tears at having lost so much of their playtime. Fifty years later Laetitia Wheelwright was still recalling Emily matter of factly: “I simply disliked her from the first.” Not “hated”, not even “snarled”, “growled” or “foamed at the mouth”, which is how the characters in Wuthering Heights let you know they are feeling cross. No, what Laetitia experienced was a cold, enduring “dislike” towards an adult woman who put her own needs above those of the children she was paid to teach.

    This Emily Brontė – self-interested, pragmatic and stonily indifferent to her moral responsibilities – is not the one the literary heritage industry will be celebrating later this month. I have never understood the cult of St Emily of Haworth. Indeed, I have spent a reading lifetime struggling to get to the end of Wuthering Heights, the screechy melodrama about two families living on the Yorkshire Moors who inter-marry, squabble, die, buy land, lose land, beat each other up and have children to whom they give bafflingly identical names. In this bafflement I am in good company. Virginia Woolf who, along with Sylvia Plath, thought it a sacrilege to scribble in her books, broke her rule with Wuthering Heights, sketching out a family tree on a blank page, in a desperate attempt to sort out how all those multiple Catherines, Heathcliffs and Lintons fit together. Part of the problem, of course, is that they all sound the same, speaking at a hysterical pitch, as if straining to make themselves heard over a permanent gale.


    In order to excuse the coarseness of Wuthering Heights, with its madness and perverse sexuality – elements that were also worryingly present in Jane Eyre – Charlotte turned Emily into an idiot savant, who “did not know what she had done”. Being “a native and nursling of the moors”, Emily had made a book that was “hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials”. The result was “moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath”, an involuntary exhalation rather than an act of conscious creation. Bringing her apologia for her sister to a thundering climax, Charlotte concluded that Emily was “stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone”.


    Personally, I can’t see how either the “suckled by wolves” or “literary historian” narrative helps to make Brontė more palatable. This, after all, is the girl who, on the evidence of Wuthering Heights, seems to have considered hanging a small dog an act of sexy foreplay. If you want to find a way of redeeming her I would suggest that it lies not in explaining away her raging unlikability but in thinking of it as a kind of performance art situated within a very particular social and economic context. Brought up at a time when the daughters of poor clergy were expected to squeeze themselves into tiny spaces dictated by other people’s needs – as caregivers to elderly relatives, as governesses to the young, as the harried wives of impoverished curates – she simply refused to comply. While her sisters trudged out to work as governesses and hated nearly every minute of it, Emily lasted just six months as a schoolteacher, souring the mood irrevocably when she told her pupils that she was fonder of the house dog than she was of them. She also, and this seems like the final touch of unpleasantness, became testy with her sisters when they dared to complain about the awfulness of having to earn their keep by living with strangers.

    Having talked (or rather, not talked – she used silence to bully) her way out of paid employment, Brontė contrived to return to where she had wanted to be all along – at home in Haworth. Despite there being two servants to look after the modestly sized parsonage and one modestly sized parson, Emily made a case for needing to be onsite as an extra housekeeper. And to offset her lack of income, she became an expert financial investor, studying newspapers to ensure that the family’s modest savings were placed in the best-performing railway stocks. She was cannily alert, too, to the way that the literary market worked. When the Brontės’ first book, a joint collection of poetry, sold only a handful of copies, she was quick to turn to the much more profitable genre of fiction, in the same way that Plath self-consciously set out to write a “potboiler” of a novel – The Bell Jar – as a break from the slow and thankless business of trying to sell her verse.

    Victorian women choosing to duck the demands of domestic life to spend their time doing something they enjoyed is hardly a novel idea. Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Barrett Browning used invalidism as a way to carve out time, space and mental freedom so that they could get on with reforming the Indian army and writing lyric verse respectively. The difference here is that Nightingale and Barrett were both from wealthy households that could easily afford the extra labour involved in supporting an adult woman in expensive, non-productive seclusion. The family at the parsonage enjoyed no such financial elasticity, which makes Brontė’s insistence on the right to abandon her economic obligations all the more audacious. There is a certain topsy-turvy irony too in the fact that, unlike Nightingale and Barrett, Brontė was actually pretty sick. Yet she refused to use her rackety health as an excuse, instead throwing herself into strenuous physical domestic labour. Charlotte wrote sadly to her old friend Ellen Nussey that “to offer any help is to annoy … you must look on and see … her do what she is unfit to do, and not dare to say a word.” Even in her domestic rebellion Brontė managed to invert the usual terms. Not that she’d have seen it like that. Having lived through the dreadful industrial unrest of the 1830s and 40s, Emily remained sympathetic to a high Tory worldview (Charlotte used her as the model for her strike-smashing heroine Shirley). And if by time travel magic we could fast forward Brontė to the age of the suffragettes we would find her snorting in derision and, quite possibly, setting a large dog on the women in purple and green. In other words, Brontė is not on “our side” and were we to meet her, we would not like her.

    And that, really, is the point. In the place of Emily Brontė the wuthery maiden of the moors, we need to put Emily Brontė the ruthlessly self-defined artist. I happen to hate that art – no many how many popularity polls it wins, and no matter how many literary critics point out how cleverly it is crafted, nothing will convince me that Wuthering Heights is anything but a hot mess. But the fact that it exists at all, written in such unpromising circumstances by a woman who was convinced of her right to produce it, has a certain magnificence. Emily Brontė is the patron saint of difficult women. For that alone, she is to be admired, if only grudgingly and from a safe distance.
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  3. #2
    Cool topic! Gotta luv the film versions of WUTHERING HEIGHTS!

  4. #3
    AYN RAND had her moments, too!

  5. #4
    I am a big fan of the classics, but I can't say Emily Bronte is my favorite. The Bronte story is rather interesting, however. The Bronte girls--Emily, Charlotte, and Anne--were the daughters of a rector. Their father thought their brother was talented and the girls were made to support the ne'er do well. The children were all very close, and they all spent time writing little stories and verses.

    In any case, the girls turned out to be great successes, but not for long. Their brother died of typhoid, exposed the girls to it and they all died very young. Some of their lesser known titles are quite interesting and off the template.

    That's the short version. The PBS docudrama To Walk Unseen is pretty good.
    "There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought."~~Charles Kingsley

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