The North of England is considered ‘grim’ for so many different reasons: the weather, industrial pollution, industrial illness, post-industrial poverty, lack of employment options, pay rates lagging far behind those of the South. I could go on. As a Victorianist, I have always assumed the industrial revolution was the starting point of this stereotype. But, having recently re-read Wuthering Heights and having regularly spent time in the countryside surrounding Leeds in the last few months, I’ve come to think that the landscape’s role in creating this stereotype shouldn’t be underestimated. Also, like all good feminists who like to take the power out of stereotypical appellations, I think there are some excellent opportunities for reclaiming the term ‘grim’ in a positive way if we focus on the landscape.
Of all the novels by the Brontë Sisters, Wuthering Heights most insistently features the landscape as both a setting and an influence in the characters’ behaviour. This influence could be either positive or negative; no one representation of the landscape really dominates. The reviewers reacted intensely to the more morbid aspects of the landscape, regardless of the descriptions of its beauty and the characters’ enjoyment of it. After Emily’s premature death, Charlotte Brontë defended her sister’s dark novel by arguing that Emily herself was a product of this landscape and that her novel should be appreciated for its wild, rustic qualities. Furthermore, Wuthering Heights‘s graphic depictions of domestic violence, addiction and mental illness expose social problems as does much of the accepted canon of feminist writing.
Victorian Reviewers on Wuthering Heights
In 1847, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë succeeded in securing a publisher for their first novels after many months of sending copies for consideration, which were rejected and returned over and over. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appeared in December 1847 and Jane Eyre followed in October 1848. Their use of the ambiguously gendered pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell inspired a drawn out debate about the gender of the authors as well as whether they were actually separate people. Many speculated that Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were early specimens from the now mature and superior hand that produced Jane Eyre.
Reviews of Wuthering Heights were very mixed, but every reviewer had a strong reaction to the novel. Some reviewers moved from being impressed, to astounded, to baffled to disgusted, all within the same brief assessment of the novel. After all, Wuthering Heights truly was innovative for the time period. The only comparable genre of novels available at the time would have been the Gothic novel, but these were much more obviously based in fantasy and they usually depicted corrupt noblemen who sought to take advantage of helpless noble women, rather than everyday people. Servants certainly were not central characters in these works, at least not before 1847.
In contrast, Wuthering Heights’s characters were middle class northerners and their servants, whose behaviour, accents and language were sometimes unintelligible to a southern readership (as pointed out by both the reviewers and later Charlotte Brontë). Also, the women were far from helpless or innocent. The first Cathy refuses to be dominated by any male character, regardless of the consequences, and the second can fend for herself in the toxic setting of the Heights under Heathcliff’s charge. Isabella also organizes her own escape from the Heights and lives independently for eleven years with her son after her dramatic departure. The graphic portrayal of Heathcliff and Hindley’s violence was surely also an extreme application of realism for the time.
So what did the reviewers think? In the Examiner, the reviewer did not differentiate the men from the women, condemning the behaviour of all in the novel: ‘the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages ruder than those who lived before the days of Homer’. The New Monthly Magazine was equally disgusted by the characters, writing that the novel ‘should have been called Withering Heights, for any thing from which the mind and body would more instinctively shrink, than the mansion and its tenants, cannot be easily imagined’.
What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the tendency to associate the wild landscape of the moors with the deplorable state of the characters. For the New Monthly Magazine, ‘our novel reading experience does not enable us to refer to any thing to be compared with the personages we are introduced to at this desolate spot—a perfect misanthropist’s heaven’. The landscape and isolation of Wuthering Heights are viewed as the origin of the corruption of the characters here. Alternatively, the Examiner asks that the author show more judgment in what and how much distressing behaviour be represented in the novel:
We detest the affectation and effeminate frippery which is but too frequent in modern novels, and willingly trust ourselves with an author who goes at once fearlessly into the moors and desolate places, for his heroes; but we must at the same time stipulate with him that he shall not drag into light all that he discovers, of coarse and loathsome, in his wanderings, but simply so much good and ill as he may find necessary to elucidate his history.
In other words, just because a location like the Yorkshire moors can breed such violent, deformed characters as Heathcliff, an author does not have to represent every single detail of his misdeeds. Perhaps the digging up of Cathy’s grave and lavishing of affection on her corpse was a bit much for the Examiner.
The Moors in Wuthering Heights
While the reviewers might be preoccupied with the dark, frightening, corrupting influence of the landscape, this is far from the only representation of the moors in Wuthering Heights. Not much of the action takes place outside the two houses, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, but the moors are always lurking, constantly traversed in between the periods of action in the houses and almost daily walked by various characters. For Heathcliff and the first Cathy, the moors are an escape from the abusive conditions of the household run by Hindley. The second Cathy goes for pleasant walks on the moors with both Nelly and her father, always in areas deemed safe from Heathcliff or any other dangers.
The most detailed description of the moors in the entire novel appears when Cathy describes her disagreement with Linton about what heaven is like:
He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy. He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee.
The above couldn’t be more different from the setting of Wuthering Heights as described by the reviewers. Sunshine, warmth, humming bees and warm breezes are never mentioned by the reviewers, but they are clearly intended to be considered a prominent part of the landscape.
However, not all depictions of the moors presented by Emily Brontë are positive either. Nelly sees what she believes to be the ghost of Hindley at a crossroads on the edge of the moors and immediately makes for Wuthering Heights out of fear that the vision is a supernatural premonition. Isabella has to desperately make her way across the moors at night when she escapes the Heights, ‘rolling over banks, and wading through marshes’. The proximity of the first Cathy’s grave to the moors and peat is probably the reason why her body is so well preserved.
The landscape also plays a role in initiating the plot that brings the second Cathy into a life of misery at the Heights. She develops an obsession with Peniston Crags, especially after a servant mentions that there is a ‘fairy cave’ there, continually asking to visit them over a period of years. Nelly describes her obsession:
The abrupt descent of Penistone Crags particularly attracted her notice; especially when the setting sun shone on it and the topmost heights, and the whole extent of landscape besides lay in shadow. I explained that they were bare masses of stone, with hardly enough earth in their clefts to nourish a stunted tree.
After tricking Nelly into walking with her much further than intended, Cathy meets Heathcliff for the first time at Peniston Crags and discovers that ther cousin Linton has been living there since he left Thrushcross Grange. The developing relationship between Cathy and Linton is encouraged and then used by Heathcliff to force their marriage and ensure his tyrannical control over both estates as well as the second Cathy. Again, the landscape lurks in the background and eventually drives the plot along through its influence.
Charlotte Brontë’s Justification of Wuthering Heights’s ‘Rusticity’
After the tragically early deaths of Emily in 1848 and Anne in 1849, Charlotte Brontë wrote a defence of her sisters’ work in a biographical notice to a new edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, where she attempted to set to rest the debate about the identity of the authors once and for all. In it, Charlotte accepted the criticism that Emily’s work was immature and clearly not the work of an experienced writer, but suggested that this very rawness of her work was what should be appreciated: ‘In Emily’s nature the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero’.
Charlotte also accepted the charge of ‘rusticity’ launched by reviewers in a new preface to Wuthering Heights, agreeing that the novel is
rustic all through. It is moorish and wild and knotty as a root of heath. Nor was it natural that it should be otherwise; the author being herself a native and nursling of the moors. . . . Ellis Bell did not describe as one who found pleasure in the prospect; her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle; they were what she lived in, and by, as much as the wild birds, their tenants, or as the heather, their produce. Her descriptions, then, of natural scenery, are what they should be, and all they should be.
Emily was not a tourist; she intimately knew this landscape and this intimacy was the most powerful aspect of her writing. No visitor could have created such an intense and truthful representation of the West Yorkshire countryside; only a native could provide a depiction worthy of the landscape, though this argument has its own problematic politics.
More interesting still is Charlotte’s description of the work involved in writing the novel:
Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor, gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head, savage, swart, sinister; a form moulded with at least one element of grandeur—power. . . . With time and labour, the crag took on human shape; and there it stands colossal, dark and frowning, half statue, half rock: in the former sense, terrible and goblin like; in the latter, almost beautiful, for its colouring is of mellow gray, and moorland moss clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows faithfully close to the giant’s foot.
Here, the moors themselves inspired the novel, shaped its contents and gave it its strange beauty, a beauty that is not to all tastes but its power cannot be underestimated nonetheless. Unlike the reviewers, Charlotte is sure to refer to the ‘blooming bells and balmy fragrance’ of the pleasanter aspects of the moors that the reviewers were so quick to dismiss.
Owning the Grim North
Emily and Charlotte Brontë were clearly very proud of the varyingly stormy, desolate, warm, sunny, beautiful landscape that surrounded them in their home in Haworth. The way Charlotte describes the landscape’s central role in the work of conceptualizing the novel is an intriguing one.
Perhaps, more importantly though, I am inspired by the Brontës’ fearless identification with the Grim North. Realism was the dominant literary form of the novel in the Victorian period. While Wuthering Heights is more a Gothic novel than a realist novel, it does graphically represent addiction, domestic violence and male tyranny over women in an isolated community. These aspects of the novel raise awareness of these issues and speculate on their consequences for the individual, regardless of whether they are pleasant material for readers or reviewers.
Emily Brontë represents both the disturbing aspects of these issues and the mesmerizing beauty of the landscape. The reviewer charges of repulsiveness of landscape and people simply do not give her enough credit. In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë fearlessly carries out a very feminist act in representing violence (largely against women) and in reclaiming the eerie beauty of the moors in her artistic work.
Readers, can you think of any other women writers who claim the Grim North as their own inspirational territory as fiercely as the Brontës?
Emily Brontë, By Patrick Branwell Brontë (http://www.abm-enterprises.net/emily.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons