Modern thoughts on 19th century literature written by women: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The illustration was done by Toronto-based illustrator and designer Sophie Berg. She is awesome and you can check out her work here.
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. Spoilers ahead!
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights 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 Wuthering Heights now will be disappointed to find that the most explicit thing is when Heathcliff and Catherine embrace.
In some ways, Wuthering Heights reminded me of the Count of Monte Cristo. I love a good revenge story, although the former is much slower and more centred around scorned lovers than treasure. Heathcliff and Catherine's combined stubbornness and unwillingness to admit the truth to each other leads to a lifelong struggle and, it would seem, their deaths. Catherine is manipulative, even violent, yet her softer side can be seen in her love of nature. I found myself disliking Catherine most of the time, seeing her as selfish and cowardly, but she was also relatable in her struggle for freedom and mistakes in love. Although the book was published in the mid-19th century, I thought Bronte was successful in creating a nuanced and dynamic portrayal of Catherine. Her conflicts and duties as a daughter and woman still resonate with issues women face today. However, despite being constrained by social norms, Catherine stays in control of her own destiny in some ways. She locks herself in her bedroom and refuses to eat. Some could argue that her path was chosen for her, to marry young and be an obedient estate owner, but she is able to carve her own path by making small decisions.
My thoughts after reading Wuthering Heights
1. What was Joseph saying? This dialect is near impossible to understand. I found a site that "translates" his English peppered with a Yorkshire accent 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 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, almost 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. She's like that coworker who pretends to be on your side then later tells your boss you were complaining about work. Or Regina George.
5. Imagine if you had to wait for letters in order to communicate with someone. They call it snail mail for a reason. But 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.