The Emily Bronte mystery

 

It is the story which has become synonymous with romance and wild, doomed passion. More than 150 years after its publication, poet Emily Bronte's only novel Wuthering Heights (1847) remains one of the most famous and popular literary novels ever written. Drawing on the better elements of the Gothic and Romantic traditions, it is also one of the most consistently well-regarded achievements of world literature, a sophisticated masterwork of narrative technique, muscular lyricism and astute psychological observation.

The contradictions and ironies it contains are manyfold. Bronte's claustrophobic tale of enduring love is equally a saga of crazed extremes, vicious cruelty and ultimately, a salvation of sorts. At its heart are two tormented souls; the wilful, hysterical Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a dark, romantic hero of origins unknown whose existence is sustained by his unrelenting desire for revenge on his loved one's family and pretty much everyone else.

Rage is as natural to them as breath itself, and all who come within their orbit suffer the effects of their tempestuous exasperation. Edgar, Catherine's husband, is frightened of her rages. What appears to be an asexual passion is in fact highly sexually charged. Images of windows, doors and keys abound. Is this a case of childhood friends incapable of progressing to adult love, or are Bronte's definitive romantic lovers merely highly-strung, sexually-repressed misfits? And if so, why? They appear to level their anger and frustrations at everyone; at each other, and eventually at themselves.

Does Catherine die from thwarted love, or is it childbirth complications? We do know that Heathcliff wills himself to die because, as he tells Nelly Dean, "the entire world is a dreadful memoranda that she did exist and that I have lost her". Surely obsessional love has never been portrayed as so dangerous, so shocking, so degrading and yet so compelling - and all in an early Victorian novel, completed three years be- fore the birth of Thomas Hardy.

Emily Jane Bronte, the fifth child of an Irish clergyman who became the curate of Haworth, Yorkshire, was born on July 30th 1818. Aside from some brief periods spent away at school and later abroad, in Belgium, she spent her entire short life in Yorkshire and was passionately devoted to the rugged moors she regarded as her home and life-source. The remote parsonage helped make the Bronte children, who were surrounded by books and influenced by a quiet Cambridge graduate father who was committed to education, unusually intellectually self-sufficient.

All of them, particularly Emily, lived in their imaginations. They invented their own fictional worlds; Charlotte and Branwell concentrated on Angria, while Emily and Anne created the Gondal cycle. Their intensely imagined lives were always at the mercy of ill health. Death held little novelty for them. The children's mother died in 1821, when Emily was three, leaving the children to be raised largely by their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, a staunch Methodist. The two eldest girls died at the ages of 11 and 10 respectively. Emily herself was dead by the age of 30.

Emily Bronte never married, nor does she appear to have had any romantic attachments. `Remembrance', a beautiful, formal lament which begins "Cold in the earth - and the deep snow piled above thee,/ Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!/ Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,/ Severed at last by Time's all-severing wave", for all its romance, is believed to have been inspired by the death of her eldest sister. As well as suffering frequent bouts of illness, Bronte was solitary to the point of being abrasively anti-social and at her happiest with her dogs and nature. People did not interest her. Her poetry is intensely personal and burns, as does her strange, remarkable novel, with complex depths of passion.

At a time when many women poets were writing narrative verse directed at specific events, Bronte's remained introspective, availing of physical images from the natural world: "Death! that struck when I was most confiding/ In my certain faith of joy to be - / Strike again. Time's withered branch dividing/ From the fresh root of Eternity!" (From `Death', 1846.) Possibly her strongest pieces are the Gondal poems, whose internal tensions are obviously drawn from her emotions, yet grafted on to her invented characters.

Sin and damnation are much in evidence throughout Wuthering Heights and the presence of Joseph, the sadistic old Biblebasher who acts as a demented chorus, suggests that Bronte was well aware of the fundamentalist aspects of the Methodist tradition her father had been born into - beliefs her Aunt Elizabeth continued to abide by. This original, timeless novel of extremes, with its conflicting tensions of obsessive love and hate, draws much of its impact from the inspired juxtapositioning of the surreal - such as the dead child at the window demanding to be let in, and the reports of ghosts walking hand in hand - with careful attention to domestic detail.

Meals are prepared, fires are lit, horses fed and sheep protected against the storms. People are treated less well. The genteel luxury of Thrushcross, of which the young Catherine and Heathcliff steal a glimpse when clinging to a window ledge - as the boy reports to Nelly, "ah! it was beautiful - a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging silver chains from the centre" - does not survive Edgar Linton. Lockwood is driven from the cold of Thrushcross to the warmth of Heathcliff's Wuthering Heights, where large fires are as much in evidence as seething tensions. Bronte carefully tempers the extremes with normality. Nelly Dean has chores to attend to, such as knitting and making Christmas cakes. Dark and light; storm and calm; heat and cold; weak and strong; love and hate; genteel and primitive; the moral versus the amoral are all major thematic devices in the novel, which is earthbound and unearthly and generational.

Ironically, it is an act of kindness which instigates the spiral of hate directing the story. Mr Earnshaw sets off on a journey, promising his children gifts. On his return he presents a young boy he has rescued. The father's humanity brings out the worst in his children; his son Hindley despises the newcomer as a rival, and proceeds to brutalise the foundling, while the high-spirited, spoilt Catherine claims Heathcliff as her own. His arrival heralds the tearing apart of the Earnshaw family, and in time also destroys the Linton clan.

Bronte begins her story near its conclusion and calls upon two vastly different narrators. Lockwood is the outsider. Interestingly, his decision to rent Thrushcross Grange appears to have been motivated by his failure to respond to a potential romance. Having become interested from afar in a woman, he flees on seeing his interest returned, a reaction which causes him to shrink "icily into myself, like a snail, at every glance retired colder and further; till finally the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses, and . . . persuaded her mamma to decamp". He seems a lazy, soft, indolent fellow and his noncommittal attitude to love contrasts with Heathcliff's tormented and tormenting approach. Nelly Dean, the main narrator, is an articulate, pragmatic countrywoman with a liking for books which helps explain her narrative skills. Most important of all, she knows these people, was once a playmate of Hindley and later tended Catherine and Heathcliff through childhood illnesses. Long familiar with their personalities, she feels free to chide them. The consummate observer, she is opinionated yet surprisingly objective and must be considered a reliable narrator. Much of what she describes, often laconically, is beyond belief - and yet having witnessed the situation developing over the years, she can control her judgment of both behaviour and events. But by the end of the novel, even Nelly is forced to challenge Heathcliff when he describes his antics at Catherine's grave. "Were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?" Heathcliff's response is governed by the bizarre logic by which he lives. "Disturbed her? No! she has disturbed me, night and day, through 18 years - incessantly - remorselessly. . . I have strong faith in ghosts; I have a conviction that they can, and do exist among us."

Bronte's handling of Heathcliff, one of literature's most seductive monsters, is superb. "Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so is he mad?" asks Isabella Linton, who marries him. She discards her wedding ring, yet seems prepared to go back to him: "He shall buy another, if he gets me back again". In her flight from Heathcliff, she notices little Hareton "hanging a litter of puppies from a chairback". Having only partly overheard Catherine's famous speech in which she announces "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now" he leaves before she adds, ". . . 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."

Three years later he returns having acquired some polish, his education a mystery while his sullen anger is obvious to all. His subsequent performance, including his treatment of his hapless wife and son, is barbaric. Yet somehow Bronte manages to keep our sympathy alive. It is no coincidence that Heathcliff, madman, crazed lover and bad father, delivers many of the novel's most poetic declarations; "My soul's bliss kills my body." The dialogue throughout is outstanding; Heathcliff moves convincingly between ugly threats and black asides, punctuated by the helpless rage and regret summoned when lamenting his dead love. Common sense is a feature of Nelly's reportage, while even at her most distressed Isabella remains true to her class - as does the stiff, nosy Lockwood. Joseph's incoherent mutterings in dialect add to the atmosphere.

In recalling her sister's death on December 19th 1848, Charlotte Bronte observed: "I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. . . Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone." The creator of Wuthering Heights remains a mystery - as does the book. Is it a romantic melodrama? Or a dense morality play? Is she attempting to show that romantic passion is a destructive delusion? Is there a moral to be found in the almost naive resolution achieved by Hareton and young Cathy, the children of the brother and sister damaged by Heathcliff's arrival? Or is the narrative merely reaching full circle and is the second Catherine, now Earnshaw again albeit by marriage, fulfilling the romance denied her mother? After all, this second-generation Catherine does succeed in taming her savage. Immortalised in our memories as a love story, it is even more forcefully a superlative study of emotional turmoil. Perhaps Bronte's ultimate achievement in Wuthering Heights is locating chaotic passions within the context of ordinary life.