Modern thoughts on 19th century literature written by women: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
This is the first post of a series about books written by women in the past to give me an excuse to read more female authors, which have been lacking from my bookshelf recently. Join me on this journey of discovering some badass ladies who wrote some pretty stellar literature.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Ok so Wuthering Heights is actually a book and not just a reference to a hilarious episode of Friends.
It was the only book published by Emily Brontë, one of the three Brontë sisters. (The most famous sister, Charlotte, wrote Jane Eyre , and Anne wrote Agnes Grey.) The sisters decided not to use their names, but instead presented themselves as male authors under the last name Bell. Most of the material in their literature was considered sinful at the time. Anyone reading this now will be disappointed to find that the most explicit thing in Wuthering Heights is when Heathcliff and Catherine "embrace" while she is married to Edgar.
In some ways, Wuthering Heights reminded me of the Count of Monte Cristo. It is, in essence, a book about revenge and a scorned lover who cannot be with the women he so desires. Heathcliff and Catherine's combined stubbornness and unwillingness to admit the truth to each other leads to a lifelong struggle and an untimely death. Catherine is manipulative, even violent, yet her softer side can be seen in her love of nature. She was often roaming the grounds for hours with Heathcliff. I found myself disliking Catherine most of the time, seeing her as selfish and cowardly—but also relatable.
Although it was published in the mid-19th century, the nuanced and dynamic portrayal of Catherine seemed modern to me. Despite being constrained by social norms, Catherine stays in control of her own destiny, even if it is by locking herself in a room and refusing to eat. Some could argue that her path was chosen for her, to marry young and be an obedient estate owner. However, she is still able to carve her own path by making small decisions: denying Heathcliff, picking Edgar, secretly meeting with Heathcliff years later...
Catherine shows that not all damsels are in distress; not all women need to be saved.
The story of Heathcliff's past is retold by the maid while a visitor, Mr. Lockwood, stays on the estate property. The characters are a complicated web of family and friends. Below I have the simplest breakdown I could find, which was pretty helpful to me because of the similar names in the book.
Here are my thoughts after reading Wuthering Heights
1. What is Joseph saying? Here's a fun game: Try talking like him at a party and see how long it takes to get kicked out. This is not a very flattering dialect. And it's nearly impossible to understand his thick Yorkshire accent. I found a site that actually "translates" his very confusing English into something we can all understand.
"There's nobbut t' missis; and shoo'll not oppen 't an ye mak' yer flaysome dins till neeght."
Translation: "There's nobody but the mistress, and she'll not open it for you if you make your frightening din [noise] till night."
For chapter by chapter analysis, click here.
2. Everyone is falling in love with their cousins. It was common for Europeans to marry their cousins. especially for the elite. "But that changed in the late 19th-century as people, especially women, became more socially mobile and the risks became more evident," says an article by British publication the Independent. (Kudos to Riverdale for bringing incest back into the mainstream... I guess Emily Brontë's Catherine was the OG Polly Cooper.)
The only downside to making cousins marry each other is that I had to read the same sentence 20 times just to figure out which character Brontë was referring to because they all share a last name! (And I mean, there's actually more than one downside...the first one being incest.)
3. Why is everyone dying? Well, 19th century England was no picnic. There were tons of diseases like cholera and typhus back in the day. Illness is ever-present throughout the book. In a 2013 essay, Charles Lemon wrote that he was struck by the brevity of the characters' lives. And if you think about it, every character meets an untimely death because of an illness or medical complication: Mr. and Mrs. Linton, Catherine, Isabella, Linton, and if we consider alcoholism a sickness, then Hindley as well. Vaccines weren't widely used until the late 19th century, which explains why small pox and consumption (tuberculosis) were so deadly. It also explains why illness was a big part of the book.
4. Nelly is the worst. Literally the worst! She's like that coworker who pretends to be on your side then later tells your boss you were complaining about work. Or like that two-faced Regina George.
5. There was a time when you could actually reinvent yourself. Case in point: Heathcliff. This is some Great Gatsby stuff. If I went away for three years everyone would know exactly what I was doing. You can't disappear anymore and come back rich and handsome.
I'd be like K BYE SEE YOU NEVER. And then my mom would be like "I saw your Instagram story! I know where you are."
6. Imagine if you had to wait for letters in order to communicate with someone. They call it snail mail for a reason. But seriously, I would be just as impatient and bored as Cathy if my only means of entertainment was waiting for letters from my cousin or birdwatching.