The repellent Wuthering Heights of Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte, sister to fellow novelists Charlotte and Anne, was born two hundred years ago this year on 31st July 1818. Emily would write only one story, Wuthering Heights, but that was not to prevent it from becoming one of English Literature’s most famous, acclaimed, enduring and, initially at least, controversial novels.

A shy girl, Charlotte said of her sister Emily that “she rarely crossed the threshold of our home.” However, this quiet child created a novel that The Guardian newspaper recently referred to as “a cornerstone of literary culture.”

With the story’s emotional heartbeat emboldened by the brooding moorland scenery of its setting, it was often labelled as being not so much dramatic as unpleasant by its contemporary audience. Wuthering Heights is a complex family saga and love story focusing on the main characters of Heathcliff and Cathy, and published in 1847, for its time the story was incredibly violent. Not only were there physical acts of aggression aplenty between the characters, but the language spoken within its pages was darker and more lurid than the Victorian readership was used to. Many people were scandalised, especially as the novel had been written by a young woman. Book critic Steve Davies explained to The Guardian that, “the staple mode of address within the novel is the quarrel… Action and interest tends to be generated by bad temper…”

In 1851 the Eclectic Review said that Wuthering Heights was “One of the most repellent books ever written.” We can only imagine how quiet, sensitive Emily can have taken the negative reviews she received, in particular one from the Paterson’s Magazine in 1848, which compared her work unfavourably to that of her sister, Charlotte: “We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.” Times change, however, and Wuthering Heights (according to marketing research carried out by Nielson in May 2018) sold 806,294 copies between 2001 and 2018, whereas Jane Eyre sold just over 750,000 copies. Even Pride or Prejudice by Jane Austen sold fewer copies than Wuthering Heights did.

Dying from tuberculosis at only 30 years of age, we can only guess at whether Emily would have written another novel had she lived, or if the criticism of the gritty realism she created between Wuthering Heights’s pages may have put her off writing. Even if she had written a second novel, it is hard to imagine that it would have made such an impact as her first did.

So what is it about Wuthering Heights that caused it to make such a long lasting mark on society? It does not deal with social issues in the way other successful Victorian novels did, after all. Well, that emotional difference is precisely why, to a great extent. Instead, it looks at the inner workings of the characters’ minds. Emotions, whether kind or violent, are on display for the reader to judge, sympathise with, or enjoy. This made Wuthering Heights unique in its passion and is undoubtedly why it shocked so many people when it was published. That same reason is probably at the root of why it is now one of the most popular books of all time. Another factor behind the popularity of Emily Bronte’s novel can be applied to all those other books that have impacted our lives, from Orwell’s 1984, to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Such stories give a sense, as we read them, that the author knows us personally and is writing that book for us alone. There is always “something” about them that touches each individual and causes us to relate to what’s being said, whether it frightens, delights or moves us in some other fashion.

Wuthering Heights stirred emotion with an honesty Victorian society simply wasn’t ready for. The modern world, however, is still enjoying every one of Miss Bronte’s heartfelt outbursts, whether spoken by Heathcliff, Cathy or their counterparts. In the same way, we live in hope alongside Harry Potter as he fights Voldermort and we applaud Mole in The Wind in the Willows for shouting “Hang Spring Cleaning.”

The books that stay with us are the ones that contain something of ourselves, reflecting our own hopes, fears, emotions and dreams.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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