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Emily Brontë, narrative, and nature

Are you following along in the Oxford World’s Classics Reading Group? What new insights have you gained on the windswept moors? To take a closer look at how Emily Brontë uses nature to convey narrative, we present the following extract from Helen Small’s introduction to Wuthering Heights. We hope this provides some further insight as you continue reading.

Catherine’s removal from the plot (other than as a haunting presence in the background, much less potent hereafter than the waif-like child ghost whose wrist Lockwood rubs back and forth across the broken window glass till the blood runs freely (p. 21)) has seemed to some readers to weaken the second half of the novel. One modern critic has suggested, indeed, that the whole of the second-generation narrative was an afterthought. In The Birth of Wuthering Heights (1998), Edward Chitham advances a theory, based on the little evidence remaining for the novel’s timetable of composition, that the addition of most of the material beyond this point was prompted by a publisher’s rejection of the three-novel set which the Brontë sisters sent out in 1846 (Charlotte’s The Master — later reworked as The Professor, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey). When The Master was rejected outright, Charlotte withdrew from the enterprise and committed herself instead to the writing of Jane Eyre. In consequence, Chitham suggests, Emily undertook to revise and expand Wuthering Heights from a single-volume narrative, ending presumably in Catherine’s death, to one that would fill two volumes. By doing so, she would have been turning a concentrated story of love, betrayal, and haunting into a far more psychologically complex narrative of revenge — ruthlessly pursued, ultimately abandoned.

Chitham’s speculations rest on unevenly persuasive claims about the possible timetable for writing Wuthering Heights, but the core supposition with respect to its initial length seems plausible. If that core element in his thesis is right, the idea that Emily Brontë was willing to alter the narrative fundamentally to produce an optimistic conclusion would not in itself be out of character. In her poetry, and much of her other prose writing, she regularly gravitates towards narrative or lyrical structures in which initial bleakness is transformed to optimism by a sudden change in the appearances of nature. Commonly that change performs a quiet allegory of Christian hope. ‘O come’, the night breeze whispers to the speaker of a poem dated September 1840:

“I’ll win thee ’gainst thy will —

“Have we not been from childhood friends?
“Have I not loved thee long?
“As long as thou hast loved the night
“Whose silence wakes my song?

“And when thy heart is resting
“Beneath the churcheyard stone
“I shall have time for mourning
“And thou for being alone”–

The ending imitates a memento mori, but the voice of the wind, which entirely displaces that of the opening speaker, is strongly resistant to the pessimism associated in this poem with ‘human feelings’. A ‘devoir’ piece written during Emily Brontë’s time as a student in Brussels, and titled ‘The Butterfly’, similarly begins with the speaker recalling a mood of blighting antagonism to nature: ‘Nature is an inexplicable problem; it exists on a principle of destruction’. The discovery of a caterpillar within a flower seems to confirm this miserabilist philosophy: ‘“Sad image of the world and its inhabitants!”’ Then a butterfly, rising among the leaves, and vanishing ‘into the height of the azure vault’ suddenly banishes despair: ‘God is the god of justice and mercy; then, surely, every grief that he inflicts on his creatures, be they human or animal, … is only a seed of that divine harvest’ to come.

Headline image credit: Farm in Yorkshire Dales. Photo by minniemouseaunt. CC BY 2.0 via minniemouseaunt Flickr.

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