Often rebuked, yet always back returning

Woman Before the Rising Sun (Woman Before the Setting Sun) by Caspar David Friedrich, circa 19th century

Much like her sisters, Emily Brontë - whose 200th birth anniversary was last week - had both a truncated life and relatively scant published work. In spite of this, she garnered more critical attention than most other 19th-century writers. And among all the Brontë sisters, Emily remains the real mystery. Our perceptions of her are mostly gleaned from the handful of descriptions by Charlotte, who portrayed her sister as an untamed spirit of the moors, and Charlotte's biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. (And there is no way to tell how accurate Gaskell's ideas are.) Among the few things we know for sure are that she died of consumption when she was just 30 years old, and only had time to leave behind her poetry and, of course, Wuthering Heights.

Critics were appalled by the violence and passion of Wuthering Heights - and that was when they thought a man wrote it - but they got it really wrong. It has endured in popularity for close to two centuries, and bears testimony to Emily's brilliance as an author. I did not understand this when I first read the novel. I abhorred Heathcliff and Cathy. They are both patently loathsome - he is violent with animals, women and children, she is deeply manipulative. It was only when I read Wuthering Heights again as a tale of multi-generational abuse - and how that abuse spawns monsters - rather than a love story that I understood its greatness. Emily focuses as much on the phantasmagoric world around Heathcliff and Cathy as she does on their ill-fated passion. Heathcliff's nastiness, in particular, has a clear cause: Hindley, whom he loved as a brother, abused him. Heathcliff, in turn, created Linton, the most monstrous character in the next generation. It is up to Cathy's daughter, Catherine, and Hindley's son, Hareton, to break the cycle of abuse.

It is this portrait of a vicious cycle that makes Wuthering Heights so compelling and uncomfortable to read. Emily trains an unwavering gaze on the sort of violent behaviour that can take place in the intimacy of the 'home', and harbours no illusions about the emotional dynamics that allows such abuse to thrive. It is also to her credit that the reader sees what a nightmare it is. This is an incredible literary effect to achieve - an immersive, resonant world that the reader wants no part of.

Perhaps Emily was a genius for having achieved it. Perhaps it was the constraints of her life as an educated woman of little means in the 19th century that helped her do it. Whatever it is, one thing is clear; as Charlotte said, Emily had "a power and a secret fire", which helped her create, from the privacy of her home, fiery verses and a novel extraordinary for both her time and ours. ("I'll walk where my own nature would be leading:/ It vexes me to choose another guide:/ Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;/ Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.")


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