In commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth on July 30, 1818 (d. 1848), Oxford University Press has reissued its Companion to the Brontës, by Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith and seven other contributors.1 Dozens of pages of maps, pictures, a section on Dialect and Obsolete Words, a Classified Contents List, and a three-column Chronology (The Lives of the Brontës, Literary and Artistic Events, Historical Events) accompany the nearly six hundred pages of compact, authoritative, and engaging (if frequently esoteric) entries with enormous variations in length.

These include “editing history of mature novels,” “verse dramas by Branwell Brontë” (there are three), “mythology, classical,” “Bible, the,” “reading public,” “imagery in the Brontës’ works” (richly revealing), much impressive material on the Brontës’ reading habits and their commentaries (they could mark up a book with the best of us), biographical entries that include journal entries and letters, and entries on the major works that include Composition, Manuscript and Early Editions, Sources and context, Plot, and Reception (as well as short bibliographies).

A casual browser will linger and, more often than not, be gripped. The entries on Emily moved me to re-read Wuthering Heights (1847), the greatest Brontë work, Emily’s only novel, and the book without which, frankly, there might not be a Companion. For it is no ordinary book but a growth from some desolate precinct of a haunted imagination. “The reality of unreality has never been so aptly illustrated,” wrote a reviewer in the Atlas, as quoted in the Companion.

Now I returned to this book, if not to settle a score, then at least to scratch an intellectual itch. I had first read the masterpiece as a college freshman. My instructor emphasized, fervently, that it is among the greatest love stories ever written—maybe the greatest. I did not know enough to dispute her ranking, but having just come off a miserable six-month depression in the company of Clyde Griffiths (An American Tragedy), I did know enough to wonder about the “love” claim. Passion—desire, obsession, possessiveness—indisputably, but love? If that were the case, why in the world had Cathy abandoned Heathcliff to marry Edgar? “I’ll tell you why,” I thought to say (but did not), “because she was shallow. For her, passion was nothing more than a garment to be worn, or not, as suited her age, mood, and circumstance. She had been seduced, not by Edgar Linton but by his life at Thrushcross Grange—order and its beauty as opposed to the chaos of Wuthering Heights.”

So what, then, if not love? No great book should be held to one thing—and we know that literary artists, not least the greatest of them, often do not themselves know the true nature of what they have wrought, which I think is true of Emily and her book. But every great book is in a key. Is this onein the key of polarity? Or that of a self-made hell (the Companion tells us that D. G. Rossetti opined that its “action is laid in hell”)? Or of the disruption wrought by an outsider: nature versus nurture? Or class envy (not only between the families but within their households)? Or is it sexual commentary? (Is Cathy all girls? But even as a freshman I knew that could not be.) There is a tragic Greek undertone of the Cursed House, for Mr. Earnshaw is a good man who gravely errs, and there is a strong biblical texture (not least from the servant Joseph: very Old Testament). Or is it in the key of nothing more than atmosphere (but what an atmosphere!), both internal and external: moodiness, tantrums, and “wuthering”—according to the tenant Mr. Lockwood “a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather”?

Cathy, first as a child, then as an early adolescent, is not quite cosseted, but she is certainly privileged and does not know either herself or the possible consequences of her wildness. Heathcliff is withdrawn, suspicious, terrified, and terrifying; a “black” (“I wish I had light hair and a fair skin”) and orphaned; a semi-savage “gipsy” of unknown parentage and upbringing generously rescued but tossed without ceremony into a family itself already “wuthering.” He becomes the darling of Mr. Earnshaw, not only dispossessing Hindley, the old man’s natural son, but, as bad, alienating the companionship of Cathy, Hindley’s sister. The boy and girl cavort wantonly together upon the moors and will ascend even further, secret and alone, to their rocky crag, a still point, beholding a world that they are from but not of. In that light Cathy tells Nelly Dean,

“my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

The plot thickens aboundingly, almost shamelessly. I count eight turns, too many to describe here. Suffice it to say that the story proper begins with the arrival of the boy Heathcliff, moves on to his passionate devotion to Cathy and their wild romps, turns to her betrayal of him, climaxes with his triumphant vengeful return from abroad, almost ends with his death, and really ends with the marriage of progeny from the two houses, both of which the young couple will inherit from Heathcliff, whose contrivances have reduced everyone to either penury or dissolution.

Turning the screw even further is Brontë’s telling of a telling of the tale—one long flashback by a reliable narrator who, listening to the story as told by a witness to it, is now telling it to us. So the reader who finishes the book and stands back to ask “What just happened to me?” has options—perhaps too many.

But anyone who takes this story for a semi-gothic tale of high Romantic Love instead of a case study, not merely of love and its distortions, but especially of that other particular passion, revenge—its provocations, nature, consequences, and (a far stretch) its antidote—misses Brontë’s point. To be sure, Brontë herself is in love with her Bad Boy—all the narrative distancing is a giveaway—and she will make him very bad. That is why, for our anti-hero, revenge is the driving genius. It is that four-hundred-and-ninety-first sin (seventy times seventy, plus that one that may not be forgiven) that occupies the tellers of the tale, in dreams and in fact. This novel is in the key of revenge.

If you doubt that, answer this: even without any Cathy in the picture, would not Heathcliff still have victimized Hindley as he did? Here is a hint, from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (published months after Brontë’s book). The protagonist-avenger’s victim is walled up, brick by brick, in a wine cellar. Because he is awake but bound to the inner wall, he sees what is happening as it happens and knows what comes next—forever, until a gruesome death from starvation, thirst, and madness. We learn what the avenger already knows: “he must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes the redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” First Hindley checks some boxes, victimizing Heathcliff, then the maestro, playing a very long game (some twenty-five years), checks all of them.

But the hole in his own soul, the one St. Augustine claims we all have, goes unfilled, by either God or Cathy.

But the hole in his own soul, the one St. Augustine claims we all have, goes unfilled, by either God or Cathy. In the event, the sweet-natured, neglected Hareton, Hindley’s son, and Cathy’s daughter with Edgar, the second Cathy, find an abiding, unlicentious love. These successors to Hindley, Edgar, and Cathy, but not to Heathcliff, somehow transcend the Yin and the Yang of it all: revenge transcended. Heathcliff, whose death is inconspicuous, is buried between—of all people—Cathy and Edgar. With that it occurred to me that my teacher might have been right. After all, I was sixteen: what did I know? But she was not right. The marriage is little more than a coda, as is this, from chapter xxxiii: “It is a poor conclusion, is it not? . . . When everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished. . . . I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction. . . .” Very little, and far too late. Revenge eventually undone merely emphasizes the key.

The Companion (with no entries on revenge or Poe, and only a snippet on Penistone Crags, the only actual place named in the novel) tells the reader that the Brontë home-life was utterly unlike the world rendered by Emily (there had been five siblings, and the reader is happy to learn much about Anne); that, including much research, she had been composing the book since her mid-twenties and had written precursors; that the prior success of Charlotte’s more accomplished Jane Eyre got Wuthering Heights more notice than otherwise might have been the case; and that Charlotte’s memorial to her dead sisters in the 1850 edition helped maintain the shelf life of the book. Also, maybe Emily was trying to show big brother Branwell, who had written an aborted verse drama called “The Revenge: A Tragedy,” how it is done, and I say: did she ever.

And there endeth the itch.

The best Companions do that: make for conversation, even with the dead.

  1.  The Oxford Companion to the Brontës: Anniversary Edition, by Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith; Oxford University Press, 640 pages, $39.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 34
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now