September 5, 2018

Looking for Emily Brontë in the “Wild Workshop” of “Wuthering Heights”

By Stuart Mitchner

The image of Emily Brontë on the cover of Robert Barnard’s contribution to The British Library Writers’ Lives series is a retouched detail from the portrait of the three Brontë sisters, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte, painted by their brother Branwell. Two years ago at the Morgan Library’s Charlotte Brontë bicentennial, I stood in front of the original painting (circa 1834), with its folds, creases, and marks of wear. The contrast between the spectral Emily I saw then and this radiant girl is eerie. There’s color in the cheeks and brow and lips and the light of thought in the eyes. What had seemed a neutral expression now appears appealingly impertinent. It’s incredible to think this fresh-faced human being aglow with attitude was born 200 years ago, July 30, 1818, and died at 30 in 1848, a year after the publication of her only novel, which came into the world with its author concealed behind the pen name Ellis Bell. Wuthering Heights has been synonymous with mystery ever since.

Is This Emily?

This was a question I found myself asking as I read the second chapter, prompted by the face on the cover of Barnard’s brief, nicely illustrated biography, and by his reference to a first-hand observer’s insistence that “E. was not timid” but “the reverse.” Seeing this trait as further evidence of her “contempt for the enervating banality of social intercourse,” Barnard quotes someone else who knew her: “Imagine Emily … ‘taking wine’ with any stupid fop and preserving her temper and politeness!”

There’s nothing stupid or foppish about her novel’s narrator, Mr. Lockwood, when he enters his landlord Heathcliff’s residence for the first time to be rudely greeted by a young woman he mistakenly assumes is Mrs. Heathcliff. Staring at him “in a cool, regardless manner, exceedingly embarrassing and disagreeable.” she makes it provokingly clear that she has no patience for small talk and no interest in polite “social intercourse.” When he makes reference to the “rough weather,” she says nothing, and when she does speak, she expresses herself even “more repellingly” than Heathcliff himself.

After a closer look, Lockwood sees that she’s “slender, and apparently scarcely past girlhood” with “an admirable form, and the most exquisite little face that I have ever had the pleasure of beholding; small features, very fair; flaxen ringlets, or rather golden, hanging loose on her delicate neck; and eyes, had they been agreeable in expression, that would have been irresistible: fortunately for my susceptible heart, the only sentiment they evinced hovered between scorn, and a kind of desperation, singularly unnatural to be detected there.” When Lockwood offers to help her reach down a tea canister, she snaps at him (“I don’t want your help!) and upon finding that no one has actually asked him to have tea, “She flung the tea back, spoon and all, and resumed her chair in a pet; her forehead corrugated, and her red under-lip pushed out, like a child’s ready to cry.”

Although the girl in the painting lacks the golden ringlets, and I’m admittedly reading between the lines, it’s that pushed out red underlip that has me wondering if the person peeking impertinently out at the reader is Emily Brontë. While it’s possible that the character may be modeled on her younger sister Anne or a friend, or a composite of both, let’s be daring and assume that it’s Emily saying, in effect, “Enter this book at your peril. Make your own tea. Sit down, shut up, and read. Hear those dogs barking outside, hear the snow blowing against the windows? One false move and out you go.” And when that “unmannerly wretch” Mr. Heathcliff arrives shaking snowflakes from his coat, it’s apparent that he and the girl and the author are all elements of the same compositional mood. “Are you going to make th’ tea?” Heathcliff demands, shifting his “ferocious gaze” from Lockwood to his daughter-in-law, who remains unwilling to offer it on her own, asking if their guest is “to have any.” The answer (“Get it ready, will you?”) is uttered “so savagely” that Lockwood is startled, for “the tone in which the words were said revealed a genuine bad nature.” In fact the setting is steeped in the bad nature of Heathcliff with his “diabolical sneer” and the “look of hatred” he gives the offspring and namesake of Catherine Earnshaw, the 20 years dead love of his life.

The author makes her presence felt again by performing what could be a sendup of Heathcliff. As Lockwood sees it, “the little witch put a mock malignity into her beautiful eyes” after terrifying the ancient servant Joseph, who had dared to tell her she’d go “raight to t’devil, like yer mother afore ye.” Gladly acknowledging her fond familiarity with “the devil’s name,” she goes on to threaten the poor man with infernal abduction. “I’ll show you how far I’ve progressed in the Black Art” she says, taking down “a long, dark book from a shelf.” While he cries “wicked, wicked!” she promises to “seriously” hurt him, “you’ll see! Go, I’m looking at you!”

Again, it’s reader beware! — the author’s looking at you. No wonder Charlotte Brontë’s biographical notice about her sister suggests that “an interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world.”

Charlotte’s Billboard

Sister Charlotte’s introduction to the edition of Wuthering Heights published after Emily’s death has to be one of the most graphically preemptive warnings ever attached to a literary work. She seems intent on scaring the reader away from this “rude and strange production,” which may seem to “calm” and “moderate” people “in a great measure unintelligible — and where intelligible — repulsive.” Meanwhile, like any wise publicist, the elder Brontë has to be at least semiconsciously attuned to the advantages of amplifying the negatives — “the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled aversions,” and “the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable, of spirits so lost and fallen” that for some readers the “mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night.” Charlotte also apologizes for all the cursing even while defending the need to spell out the words in full rather than abbreviating them. She has hardly a kind word for anyone, though there are “glimpses of grace and gaiety” in the younger Catherine, and “even the first heroine of the name” has “a certain strange beauty in her fierceness, or of honesty in the midst of perverted passion and passionate perversity.” You can almost see the words spelled out in giant letters on movie billboards: Unbridled Aversions! Spirits Lost and Fallen! Fearful Scenes! Perverted Passions!

And she has yet to mention Heathcliff, who is “doomed to carry Hell with him wherever he wanders,” “a man’s shape animated by demon life — a Ghoul.” Sounding like a lawyer trying the case against Mary Shelley’s Creature (who was, like Emily, born in 1818), Charlotte asks whether “it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff … I scarcely think it is.” Her description of Emily’s submission to the dark muse is clearly autobiographical: “Be the work grim or glorious, dread or divine, you have little choice left but quiescent adoption. As for you — the nominal artist — your share in it has been to work passively under dictates you neither delivered or could question.” The author of Jane Eyre knows whereof she speaks.

Her Wild Workshop

In the last paragraph of the preface, which claims that Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop” and is signed Currer Bell with Emily still identified only as Ellis Bell, Charlotte creates a word-picture of the monumental Heathcliff whose shadow reaches into the 21st century. It’s a statue “on a solitary moor,” the head “savage, swart, sinister; a form moulded with at least one element of grandeur — power.” And “there it stands colossal, dark, and frowning, half-statue, half rock: in the former sense, terrible and goblinlike; in the latter, almost beautiful, for its coloring is of mellow grey, and moorland moss clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows faithfully close to the giant’s foot.”

“No Coward Soul”

After invoking “Heaven’s glories” and the faith that arms her from fear in her poem, “No coward soul is mine,” Emily Brontë declares that “the thousand creeds that move men’s hearts” are “unutterably vain” while “the almighty ever-present Deity” is “Life, that in me has rest,/As I Undying Life, have power in Thee.” In another poem, “The Prisoner,” she offers lines that likely alarmed her elder sister, such as “Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,/And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire.” Later in the same poem: “Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;/My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:/Its wings are almost free — its home, its harbour found,/Measuring the gulf, it stoops and dares the final bound.”

Although Charlotte was as uneasy with the passion in Emily’s verse as she was with “the perverted passion in Emily’s verse as she was with “the smart homes & smart appliances is? Do you think describing the manner of her death: “Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”