When asked what my favorite novel is, I invariably include Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in my top ten, and often even at the top of my list. This has surprised some, but I stand my ground. To me it is one of the greatest love stories ever told, and a story that even transcends death.
Yes, neither Heathcliff nor Cathy are particularly likeable characters, quite to the contrary in fact, and they make dreadful decisions which seal their fates- but I still find the power of their love and the regret for their actions, a powerful, provocative and poignant read.
I am sure that most are familiar with the heart wrenching plot, either through the novel itself or one of the many film and television adaptions of the work. I will let others debate and bicker over its literary worthiness and whether Heathcliff is one of the most romantic literary heroes or an egotistical selfish cad. Or whether Cathy was afraid of love or was merely terrified by its power, and opted for what she at first considered to be a safe and financially secure marriage.
The story of Emily Brontë and how Wuthering Heights came to be written and ultimately published, is an interesting and sorrowful account in itself, and one worthy of sharing. Emily was born on 30 July 1818 in the picturesque town of Thornton, Yorkshire. She had two sisters who are also part of literary history: Charlotte, born in 1816, and Anne in 1820. They had a brother, Branwell, born in 1817, who is remembered as a great poet, painter and writer in his own right.
There were two other sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died at an early age whilst attending boarding school, but more on that later. Their mother, Maria, died of cancer in 1821 at 38 years old, leaving the children’s care in the hands of their father, Patrick who was an Anglican clergyman and rector of the village of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. The moors back then, although unquestionably beautiful, offered a harsh existence. The winters were brutal, and this meant that traveling was a challenge. One can so easily imagine how this existence would cultivate young creative minds.
When they were of age, the Brontë sisters were sent to one of the most deplorable and notorious boarding schools in England- Cowan Bridge. It was run by Reverend Carus Wilson who was an extreme religious fanatic and ran the school with a heavy hand. Students were often subjected to abuse and neglect, an experience that had a profound effect on the sisters, especially Charlotte who later described aspects of boarding school life in Jane Eyre.
Sadly, it was at Cowan Bridge that Maria and Elizabeth Brontë met their untimely deaths when a typhoid epidemic swept through the school. Later, Patrick Brontë took the remaining sisters out of school to continue their education at home. Now secluded on the Yorkshire moors, the sisters were further inspired to write as a way to cope with the isolation.
In May 1846, the Brontë sisters self-published a volume of poetry under the pseudonyms of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Bell) which lead to the later publishing of novels, including, of course, my beloved Wuthering Heights. Written between October 1845 and June 1846, Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 under Emily’s pseudonym of Ellis Bell. It was published after Charlotte’s great success the previous year with Jane Eyre, and Anne’s Agnes Grey.
In September 1848, disaster struck the Brontë family once more when Branwell died of tuberculosis, leaving behind his own legacy of writing. Sadly, Emily also succumbed to the disease in December that same year, having only ever written one novel. She was followed in death by Anne in May of the following year.
Charlotte, the only surviving sibling, would go on to become one of the most distinguished and successful English writers of all time. After Emily’s death, she edited the manuscript of Wuthering Heights, and arranged for it to be published as a posthumous second edition in 1850.
Today Wuthering Heights is generally regarded as a classic of British literature, and most are familiar with the story; if not from the book itself, from the many film and television adaptions that have been produced, the most famous being the 1939 rendition starring a young David Niven and Laurence Olivier.
When it was first published, Wuthering Heights was extremely controversial for challenging the stark Victorian values of the day, and for its broad depiction of both physical and mental cruelty. It was also about suppressed passion, which was not discussed at that time, and certainly not by a lady. As the years passed, Wutherng Heights continued to grow in popularity until it was finally recognized as a great work of literature.
For me, the novel remains a favorite that I revisit every year and when I do, I often wonder what else Emily might have written if she had lived long enough.
What are your thoughts on Wuthering Heights? Does it rank among your favorite British classics?
Paul Gifford is an English born full time writer who has called California home for many years. He writes under the name P.S. Gifford. He has had several dozen stories published in print and on-line magazine, been included in anthologies and has several collections of his works available at all good on-line book sellers.