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Set amid the wild and stormy Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights, an unpolished and devastating epic of childhood playmates who grow into soul mates, is widely regarded as the most original tale of thwarted desire and heartbreak in the English language.
Daphne Merkin is the author of a novel, Enchantment, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant award for best new work of American-Jewish fiction, and an essay collection, Dreaming of Hitler. She has written essays and reviews for publications that include American Scholar, the New York Times, where she is a regular contributor to the Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Elle, and Vogue.
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From Daphne Merkin’sIntroduction to Wuthering Heights
More than 150 years and many cultural upheavals later, Emily Brontë’s novel remains almost blindingly original, undimmed in its power to convey the destructive potential of thwarted passion as expressed through the unappeasable fury of a rejected lover. To paraphrase Shakespeare, age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety. Every aspect of the novel—whether it be the writer’s expert grasp of the laws pertaining to land and personal property, her meticulous rendering of local dialect, or her use of multiple narrators—has been put under microscopic study. And yet, despite the shelf after shelf of books that have been written in the attempt to understand the frail yet flinty-willed young woman—"the sphinx of literature," as she was called by Angus M. Mackay in The Brontës: Fact and Fiction (1897)—who wrote it, as well as the tragedy-struck, remarkably talented family from which she came, Wuthering Heights still presents a dark and fierce view of the world that is seemingly without precedent.
The book’s autobiographical components aroused interest from the start, especially given the original mystery surrounding its authorship. Lucasta Miller, in The Brontë Myth, gives an often spellbinding account of the ways in which the Brontës’ "lonely moorland lives" (p. xi) lent themselves to the process of mythification even before the last sister had died. (None of them lived to see forty: Anne died within five months of Emily, at the age of twenty-nine, and Charlotte, the only one of the sisters to marry, was in the early months of pregnancy at the time of her death, at the age of thirty-nine.) But unlike Charlotte, who lived long enough to help shape the myth that would grow up around the Brontës, beginning with Elizabeth Gaskell’s landmark Life of Charlotte Brontë, which appeared in 1857 and for which she was the primary source, Emily wasn’t around to answer for herself. "All of Emily’s biographers have had to cope with the absences surrounding her," Miller notes (p. 193). The baroque conjectures concerning her character were first introduced by Gaskell’s Life, which included scenes that had Emily pummeling her disobedient bulldog into submission with her bare hands and dramatically cauterizing a bite from a strange dog with a red-hot kitchen iron. Gaskell’s two-dimensional portrait of Emily as kind of savage force of nature, "a remnant of the Titans,—great-grand-daughter of the giants who used to inhabit earth," held sway for decades, drawing admirers like the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose own provocative impulses (which included a well-documented sadomasochistic bent) were stirred by the novel’s almost pagan quality, its disregard for bourgeois niceties.
The efforts to penetrate Emily’s veils grew even more overheated in the wake of Freud, just as the textual analyses would become more and more exotic in the trail of the new French theories of narrative propounded by Derrida and Foucault. One 1936 biographer, who featured herself as having paid "especial and respectful" attention to primary sources, misread the title of one of Emily’s manuscript poems as "Louis Parensell" instead of "Love’s Farewell" in her zeal to bring new light on a hypothesized lost lover, and then went on to unearth another dark secret, proposing that Emily had been "a member of that beset band of women who can find their pleasure only in women" (Moore, The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontë. There were discussions as to how genuinely close Emily had been to her sisters Charlotte and Anne, or whether she in fact resented the older one and patronized the younger. Was she a domestic slouch, oblivious to all except her febrile imaginings and the wind howling over the moors? Or was she in fact something of a fifties housewife type, sweeping the floors, ironing the linens, and baking bread while her chronically depressed father took his meals in his room and her brother, Branwell, drank himself to death in the Black Bull tavern? Was her consuming interest in food and what was being prepared for meals by Tabby, the housekeeper, as evidenced by the few diary entries that have come down to us, a sign of a robust immersion in daily life or a clue to something more disturbing? (In A Chainless Soul, Frank makes a plausible case for diagnosing Emily as suffering an anorexic’s death by starvation.)
Some of the more unrestrained speculations tended to focus on the elusive genesis of Wuthering Heights. Emily’s ill-fated brother, Branwell, who had been earmarked within the family for artistic glory (money was scraped together to send him to London to pursue his artistic interests) but died ignominiously at the age of thirty-one, a hostage to gin and opium, was at the center of the theories that swirled around the decades-long disputed authorship of Emily’s novel. The controversy began with an article, published in 1867 and written by an acquaintance of Branwell’s, himself an amateur poet, which claimed that the author had once read a manuscript of Branwell’s that contained a scene and characters similar to those of Wuthering Heights (Miller, p. 229). This controversy—or "great Brontë conspiracy theory," as Miller describes it (p. 228)—was fueled largely by disbelief that a reserved young daughter of a rural clergyman could have written so volcanic a book, but also on the basis of Branwell’s having shown early literary promise as a coauthor of the Brontë children’s joint writing efforts, an all-consuming escapist pastime that Charlotte would later refer to as their "web of sunny air" (Frank, p. 57). It was quickly taken up by other of Branwell’s friends, and although it was eventually demolished in Irene Cooper Willis’s The Authorship of Wuthering Heights (1936), the idea has continued to intrigue scholars and biographers up until the present day.
But by far the most intense (and screwy) psychological scrutiny was reserved for the close relationship between Branwell and Emily. After Charlotte had given up on him as a bad egg, Emily continued to stand by her older brother, calming him down and getting him to bed during his drunken outbursts. This aspect of the Brontë family life led to speculations about a possible incestuous aspect to Branwell and Emily’s relationship, especially in regard to its being the model for the relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. (One theory suggested that Heathcliff was in fact the bastard son of Mr. Earnshaw and thus Catherine’s half brother.) Of course, this theory clashed with yet another view that saw Branwell as doomed by his closet homosexuality, which may or may not have emerged during the period he spent as a live-in tutor to a young boy, Edward Robinson; his employment ended in disgrace after Branwell was dismissed with the threat of scandalous exposure if he tried to get in touch with any of the family. Branwell later retailed this scandal as an adulterous affair he was having with his pupil’s mother.