…and the angels were so angry that they flung me out,
into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights…
–Wuthering Heights, Vol I, Chapter IX
,,,we have got constantly to bear in mind what we set
as ecstasy’s immediate limit: horror.
– Georges Bataille
Describing a violent encounter at Wuthering Heights, Isabella Linton says to Nelly Dean “I was in the condition of mind to be shocked at nothing; in fact I was as reckless as some malefactors show themselves to be at the foot of the gallows.” This statement, perhaps, more than any other in Emily Bronte’s only novel conveys the crucial character of the work; perhaps, also, it is the key to an essential understanding of the author’s frame of mind. In her introduction to the book (1900) Mrs Humphry Ward, one of the most perceptive commentators on the subject, referred to the character of Heathcliff as the product of ‘a deliberate and passionate defiance of the reader’s sense of humanity and possibility’. In fact, since its initial publication in 1847, Wuthering Heights has attracted admiration, bafflement and outrage in equal measure, and today, transcending cultural boundaries, encompassing all media (including theatre, dance, music and film) it has achieved the special status of a mythic text – rather like Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, or Dracula.
From whence stems this peculiar, magnetic attraction?
It is often the case that the book is misunderstood on many levels. Rather lamely, Charlotte Bronte tried to explain or defend he sister’s work as the product of a naïve, isolated, country girl, marooned in the wilderness of the Yorkshire Moors, the mere vessel of Fate or impersonal inspiration. Yet criticism of the book’s faults (usually moral) serves to point us toward further positive insights into this testament of ‘perverted passion and passionate perversity’. Certainly Charlotte was correct when she drew attention to the storm-heated and electrical atmosphere pervading the story, over which ‘broods the horror of a great darkness’ (Genesis 15:12). We know the novel caused some anger among delicate souls, ‘indignant’, said Mrs Ward, ‘to find that any young woman, and especially any clergyman’s daughter, should write such unbecoming scenes and persons as those which form the subject of Wuthering Heights, and determined if it could to punish her.’ Typical English reaction!
When she asserted that Wuthering Heights was the ‘epitome of a whole genre’ and of a ‘whole phase is European feeling’, Mary Augusta Ward placed welcome emphasis on the cultural context of Emily’s writing; a paroxysmal revenge melodrama, a classic of the ‘literature of transgression’; a toxic compendium of foul language, legal chicanery, amorality, dereliction, domestic violence, hysteria, hauntings, dreams, hallucinations, cruelty to animals, child abuse, moral degradation, forced marriage, sadism, male inadequacy, ‘monomania’, alcoholism, class snobbery and implicit sibling incest, not to mention low-church fanaticism, witchcraft, necrophilia and disease, all set in a remote, inhospitable landscape of ‘bleak winds, and bitter northern skies, and impassable roads.’ Catherine Earnshaw’s love-obsession for the alien ‘gypsy’ foundling anti-hero Heathcliff (a ‘fierce, wolfish, pitiless man’, the archetypal Byronic demon lover; an Imp of Satan, an ‘incarnate goblin’, a psychopath, a ‘moral poison’ or Monster From The Id; part vampire, part werewolf with, according to the rather impressionable Isabella, ‘sharp cannibal teeth’) is an inhuman, ambivalent compulsion eventually transformed into a self-destructive death-wish. Both protagonists starve themselves to death. This latter theme being, possibly, an amplification of one of Emily’s own traits; it is said that, when angry or unhappy, she might withdraw into silence and go on hunger strike as an act of defiance.
When Mrs Humphry Ward refers to the author’s ‘deliberate and passionate defiance of the reader’s sense of humanity and possibility’ she was attempting to itemise aspects of the novel seen as failings and faults like ‘monstrosity’ or ‘mere violence and excess’, yet, without this frame of mind, this ‘passionate defiance’ the novel would lose it’s essential, that is, its excessive, character: recall that scene where Cathy and Heathcliff observe the Linton children in the midst of a tantrum: ‘Isabella – I believe she is eleven, a year younger than Cathy – lay screaming at the further end of the room, shrieking as if witches were running red hot needles into her.’
This ‘deliberate and passionate defiance’, this reckless condition of mind ‘to be shocked at nothing’, is no aesthetic flaw; it is, rather, the very source of Emily Bronte’s unique vision. Wuthering Heights is a full-frontal assault on the cultural norms of literature and our idealised, complacent view of reality. Perhaps Miss Emily Jane Bronte had a cunning plan: to outrage the reader by exposing the psychopathology of the human condition, by deploying ‘a complete science of human brutality’ to quote Edwin Percy Whipple of the North American Review (October, 1848). Perhaps she was satirising our socialised sense of propriety and unquestioned assumption of normality.
Much has been made of the childhood relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, wild children of the moors or young savages, inhabitants of a sovereign domain of untrammelled liberty or the ‘free play of innocence’; although in the book rather less is made of this than we are lead to believe by enthusiastic critics. For Georges Bataille this is the core concept of Wuthering Heights seen as a campaign of revenge waged by Heathcliff to regain this childhood kingdom and his lost love, even though Catherine’s love for Heathcliff is strangely un-erotic and almost a form of unconscious psychic projection. Certainly a key turning point in the story is when he overhears Catherine telling Nelly that marriage to him would degrade her social standing. He runs from the house in rage and disillusion. An incident probably inspired by a similar moment of rejection in the early life of Byron (Moore’s Life Of Byron was published in 1830).
For Bataille, Emily Bronte was the object of a ‘privileged curse’ through her ‘profound experience of the abyss of Evil’. He defined the story as ‘the revolt of Evil against Good’. In Bataille’s terminology ‘Evil’ is ‘essentially cognate with death’ and ‘Good’ is everything that supports the system of ‘reason’ as ‘calculations of interest’ for the benefit of a collective ‘will to survive’; a variation on the long-standing Socratic philosophical-moral formula which postulates Reason as virtuous and preaches ‘virtue’ as the only route to human happiness. In her novel and through the character of Heathcliff, Emily explored an alternative viewpoint in which virtue plays no part and happiness is found through revenge and power over the weak. Bataille says the ‘wild life’ of the children ‘outside the world’ enables the ‘basic conditions of poetry, of a spontaneous poetry…’ For some readers this leads to explaining Emily’s work as a form of ‘pagan’ or pantheistic nature worship – although justified by her Romantic influences, in the end this is just another anodyne normalisation strategy which quickly morphs into the mythic ‘mystic of the moors’ scenario. Bataille, on the other hand, saw Emily as an example of a poete maudit in the same category as Sade, Baudelaire and her near-contemporary Edgar Alan Poe.
She was cursed with ‘an anguished knowledge of passion… the sort of knowledge which links love not only with clarity, but also with violence and death.’ It is certainly the case that in her only novel, and in her poetry, we find an overwhelming fixation on the subject of death. This is not surprising given the circumstances of the Bronte family, haunted by illness, bereavement and tragedy, and vulnerable also, via conventional channels of enculturation, to a strictly Protestant, non-conformist influence which accentuated an idea of death as a transcendental phenomenon, together with a very real prospect of Eternal Damnation. At a young, impressionable age Emily would have been exposed to all these influences, especially at Carus Wilson’s school. Wilson was known as an ‘excessive’ Calvinist Evangelist an adherent of the doctrine of predestination who frequently preached on the topics of ‘humility’ and the ‘deaths of pious children’. The girls were subject to a harsh, ascetic regime that included the learning by heart of long Biblical texts and many other shocking privations imposed in a damp, unhealthy environment. Given the added nightmare of the deaths of her two sisters it is very plausible that these circumstances had a traumatic and lasting impact on a vulnerable, homesick six year old. It is likely, too that she found some corroboration in this fatalistic worldview from the life and poetry of William Cowper who, prone to phases of insanity, haunted by the early death of his mother, believed he was doomed to Eternal Damnation and thought that God demanded he sacrifice his life by suicide.
Together with Poe, Emily Bronte counts as a Navigator of Death (Thanatonaut); all her work is haunted by ‘the sea of death’s eternity’ (‘The Night of Storms has Passed’) and permeated by an apocalyptic/eschatological theme of death both as a lasting refuge from the horrors of life and as a transition to a hyper-real mode of perceptual transfiguration.
It has been suggested that Poe saw his poetry as a ‘voyage of exploration, an attempt to conjure up, dramatize and discover the world that exists beyond death.’ (Richard Gray). In Emily’s poem ‘A Day Dream’ she writes ‘rejoice for those that live/ Because they live to die.’ However, this not a simple case of morbid fascination, as we may discern other influences, such as Shelley’s visionary Neo-Platonic Romantic poetic theory (the lifting of the veil), as well as her own Protestant inheritance, through which this fascination for death is refracted. In her untitled poem known by the line ‘I am the only thing whose doom’ (1839), Emily discards all earthly consolations, even hope itself, and finds mankind ‘hollow servile insincere’. Yet, she finds in herself the same corruption: ‘But worse to trust my own mind/ And find the same corruption there’.
These sentiments may echo the moral framework of ultra-Protestant thinking where the status corruptionis is the fundamental, basic state of humanity in a fallen world; a world where man stands in a negative relation to God, or even against God. A position implied in the Catherine-Heathcliff relationship, and even, perhaps, in the way that Cathy Linton (the Younger Cathy, Catherine’s daughter) is fascinated by the Fairy Cave and would appear to practice the dark arts of Black Magic (she is occasionally referred to as a witch or an ‘accursed’ or ‘damnable’ witch. She even threatens the inhabitants of the Heights with the traditional maleficent practice of sticking pins into human figures). For fundamentalist Evangelicals like Carus Wilson it is probable that his fixation on the concept of salvation was cognate with a similar fascination for sin together with a horror of superstitious ‘abominations’ as defined in Deuteronomy 18. As Max Weber has shown, the overarching project of salvation religion has been the de-magification or disenchantment of the world (entzauberung der welt), so the references to folklore and witchcraft may well be symptomatic of the wider, defiant tone of Wuthering Heights part of an unspoken quest to regain the enchantments of a pre-moral universe of Animism and inhuman forces. The greater the power of salvation, the more weight must be attributed to Sin and the ‘abominations’ of idolatry and witchcraft. This great weight of Sin ensures the believer finds the Fall of Man to be absolute and finds human existence to be a condition of pure and total Evil from which there is no escape. The radical rift between God and Man, between humanity’s pre- and post-lapsarian existence is so great, the externality and incomprehensibility of God is so absolute, that affliction and anxiety, depravity and horror comprise the totality of the sinner’s life, for, as the Good Book says, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23).
It is easy to read Wuthering Heights in the light of this post-lapsarian state, and it is the case that almost all of Emily Bronte’s poetry conforms to a similar, if ambivalent, pattern. Yet it is also likely that Emily, wrestling with these eschatological-ontological themes as she ‘worked through’ the side-effects of her childhood traumas – particularly the Cowan Bridge disaster – was not entirely subservient to the strictures of moral damnation, even though she used the tropes and vocabulary of her religious upbringing to explicate her agonistic worldview. How could it be otherwise?
There will always be anti-secular apologists for faith who will claim or reclaim Emily for their theological agendas. This will range from the quasi-New Age characterisation of an isolated ‘mystic’, a ‘heretic’, or a ‘visionary’ nature poet, to those who see her as a forerunner of the postmodern, post-secular ‘return’ of religion, mediated by the casuistry of theological notions such as the ‘apophatic , unnameable and ineffable’. Her poetry corroborates Bataille’s summarisation of her character: ‘Though few people could have been more severe, more courageous or more proper, she fathomed the very depths of evil.’
In the poem ‘How Clear She Shines’ Bronte dismisses Life as a ‘labour void and brief’, she says that Hope is nothing but a ‘phantom of the soul’, while existence itself is but the despotism of death. However in ‘Honour’s Martyr’ she states a personal credo of passionate defiance: ‘Let me be false in other’s eyes/ If faithful in my own.’ Consequently this means that, as Emily penetrates further into her creative life, she rejects the ‘world without’ with its guilt, hate and doubt, and ‘cold suspicion’. Instead, she exalts the ‘world within’ the world of her imagination, (sometimes envisaged as an angelic personification), ‘Where thou and I and Liberty/ Have undisputed sovereignty’. She breaks away from the shackles of inherited, tyrannical belief, even though she faced condemnation in a fantasy trial (‘Plead For Me’) where her prosecutor is Reason ‘with a scornful brow’, who mocks her overthrow, and comes to judgement ‘arrayed in all her forms of gloom’. In a scenario that corroborates Bataille’s exposition, the poet implores the ‘radiant angel’ of her Imagination to speak against Reason on her behalf, uttering a plea for one who has ‘cast the world away’, who has ‘persevered to shun/ The common paths that others run/And on a strange road journeyed on…’
This ‘strange road’ is surely an immersion in the creative process, as she longs to ‘cast my anchor of desire/ Deep into unknown eternity’ (‘Anticipation’). Even though she may be tormented by strange visions that ‘rise and change/ And kill me with desire…’ (‘The Prisoner [A Fragment]’) Emily Bronte, wilfully or not, made some of ‘those excursions to the bottom of the mental grotto’ to which Andre Breton refers in Lightning Rod his introduction to Black Humour. As Bataille said, it is wrong to see the poetry as revelations from the world of the ‘great mystics’, even though ‘the imprecise world which the poems reveal to us is immense and bewildering’. Emily’s world ‘is less calm, more savage’ and, crucially, its violence is not ‘slowly reabsorbed in the gradual experience of an enlightenment’; far from it. Emily, who rejected as vain ‘the thousand creeds’ by which humanity consoled itself (‘No Coward Soul’), who was uninterested in mystical ‘enlightenment, saw Wuthering Heights as an assertion of outrage, a reversal of theological-moral norms and an expression of her ‘passionate defiance’, an attitude of mind possibly derived from the traumatic events at Cowan Bridge and the deaths of both her sisters and her mother. The last thing she was interested in was ‘enlightenment’, an unnecessary aspiration for a damned poet who has lifted the veil of mundane existence only to reveal a destitute landscape where, to quote her sister Charlotte, ‘every beam of sunshine is poured down through black bars of threatening cloud.’ As Lucasta Miller says, the tendency of the book is a constant ‘striving beyond itself’, but what the book does not do is ‘offer a conventional moral standpoint’. Instead Bronte offers a ‘visceral’ depiction of psychic extremes and anti-social criminality without the consolation of a moral compass. In this world of ‘threatening cloud’, the radical externality of God ensures that all morality is meaningless, all existence chaotic and pointless.
These are forays into dangerous territory, and, for Emily, this forbidden domain was the psychic landscape of Stanbury Moor and her final destination was Ponden Kirk (‘Penistone Craggs’) a massive outcrop with a ‘ceremonial passage’ (‘Fairy Cave’); a site, rich in local folklore, hinting at chthonic forces and a primeval world of dreadful forces beneath or beyond mundane reality as depicted in the story. It is tempting to see this prominence of gritstone rock as the topographical epicentre of Emily’s psychic universe and, as ‘Penistone Craggs’, it functions as an understated focal point in the fictional domain of Wuthering Heights. Even though in the overall scheme of the novel Penistone Craggs is a minor detail, it is well to recall that, according to Freud, the mechanism of displacement ensures the most essential elements of a dream are represented ‘merely by slight allusions’. The young Cathy Linton is particularly attracted to the abrupt descent of the outcrop, ‘especially when the setting sun shone on it and the topmost Heights; and the whole extent of the landscape besides lay in shadow …“And what are those golden rocks like, when you stand under them?” she once asked.’ Later, she announces that, one day, when she is older, “I should delight to look around me from the brow of that tallest point.”
Perhaps it was here, on some solitary excursion to ‘the brow of that tallest point’, that Emily experienced an anti-epiphany, a sudden counter-Calvinist turn of mind, an acceptance of her status, not among the righteous ‘chosen’ of the elect, but among the reprobates – among the damned. Here, at this high place, her very own heart of darkness where below her the landscape ‘lay in shadow’, she decided to unleash upon her readers the savage power of her imagination. Rather than seek expiation for her sins she decided to comit an unsparing act of revenge against a complacent society. It has been observed that the novel reads as a ‘scrap of history torn from the communion of the saints of old and flung in the face of the modern world, out of its context, to startle its dainty self-restraint’ (Harrison quoted in Marsden). Like Jonathan Swift who, in writings such as A Tale Of A Tub and A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation Of The Spirit, excoriated the religious ‘enthusiasts’ of his day, she was consumed by a constant feeling of outrage fuelled by her own traumas, incited by her own demons. In the poem ‘From A Dungeon Wall In The Southern College’ (1844), a stern, judgemental voice derides various worldly vanities including Mirth, and, significantly, Love. This is a repressive voice of strict moral rectitude for which Love is ‘a demon meteor willing/ Heedless feet to crime.’
So be it, thought Emily, as reckless as a malefactor at the foot of the gallows, here is the subject of my novel; I will trace the path of this ‘demon meteor’. The story will tell a tale of ‘heedless’ crimes induced by the ‘monomania’ of forbidden, obsessive, sado-masochistic Love, through a harsh narrative laced with acerbic humour. It is no disservice to Emily to say that this literary project, including many, if not all, of her poems, was of an unashamedly therapeutic character. It was not some kind of visionary experience or spiritual revelation or ‘subjective encounter with the divine’ (Marsden) but rather an act of will, more akin to a work of exorcism. The culmination would be a mode of self-induced mind-expansion helping to overcome a fragmented psychological state and integrate multiple, self-contradictory interpretations of a warped existence. It is not surprising that we find the resulting psychic material expressed in culturally-conditioned theological, ‘symbolic’ or ‘spiritual’ terms; for its ultimate form the aesthetic outcome will usually depend upon this kind of enculturation.
The total nihilism of the novel and some poems is one strand of evidence, as is also that vein of saturnine humour verging on blasphemy. One thinks of Isabella Linton laughing at the ridiculous figure of the sanctimonious, pharisaic family servant, old Joseph, kneeling in a pool of Hindley Earnshaw’s blood and uttering incomprehensible supplications to the Almighty. In one childhood incident, the young Catherine outrages the same righteous zealot when she throws a ‘dingy’, devotional book entitled The Helmet of Salvation into a dog kennel, ‘vowing I hated a good book’. Lockwood’s nightmare of the ‘Pious Discourse’ of the ludicrous preacher Jabes Branderham entitled ‘Seventy Times Seven and the First of the Seventy First’ in the Chapel of Gimmerden Sough is clearly a satirical attack on low-church religious mania (Branderham may have been based on the prominent Methodist preacher and revivalist, Jabez Bunting, or the well-known Methodist clergyman William Grimshaw of Haworth, or both). The sermon descends into chaos and violence. Elsewhere in the novel there are moments of macabre, almost absurd, knockabout, as when Hindley threatens to murder Nelly Dean by ramming a carving knife down her throat: ‘“But I don’t like the carving knife, Mr Hindley,” I answered, “It has been used for cutting red herrings – I’d rather be shot if you please”’.
Surely Catherine Earnshaw speaks for our author when she appears to reject the possibility of redemption. Appearing to commit The Unpardonable Sin, ‘the sin that no Christian need pardon’, she even rejects Heaven itself: “There is nothing” cried she, “…heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights…”.
Unsurprisingly these defiant and desperate sentiments are echoed by Heathcliff (a symbolic figure bearing some resemblance to Milton’s Satan), when he claims: ‘I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and unwanted by me!’ Perhaps the most shocking character in a gallery of grotesques, Heathcliff embodies the dark power of Emily’s ‘rebellious imagination’ (Miller) her ‘revolutionary’ imagination and dreams (Bataille), and, as Charlotte Bronte wrote in her Preface to the 1850 Edition: ‘Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition…’
Perdition? Does Emily Bronte care about Perdition?
One feels that she summoned her own ‘radiant angel’, her Imagination, as a counter-force to lifelong threats of Perdition and Damnation from sundry authorities, Methodists, Calvinists and conventional others. The default of God envelopes Wuthering Heights in that ‘great darkness’ of the world’s night, but Emily Jane Bronte persevered to shun ‘the common paths that others run’, she ‘cast the world away’. Remaining recalcitrant to the very last, refusing all medical treatment in her final days and hours, she bequeathed to us one of the most disturbing works of English literature.
When Andre Breton said in The Manifesto of Surrealism ‘Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality’ he was placing the imaginative faculty at the centre of the surrealist adventure. For Emily Bronte, whose works exemplified the ‘unsparing quality’ of an uncompromising assault on Victorian complacency, the imagination was hyper-real, not an avenue of escape. It disclosed a ‘world within’, a dangerous, forbidden, uncharted realm, ‘Where thou and I, and Liberty/Have undisputed sovereignty’.
Born in Hampton Court, Middlesex in 1949, A C Evans lived in South London until 1963 when he moved to Essex and co-founded the semi-legendary Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group in 1966 before moving back to London in 1973. His drawings, collages, reviews, articles, translations, poetry and stories have appeared in numerous small press magazines in the UK and abroad, and he is a regular contributor to Stride, Monomyth & The Supplement, Midnight Street, Inclement and Neon Highway.
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