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No Coward Soul

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Emily Brontë is the greatest woman novelist of all time. That is my personal opinion, though it is one which happens to be shared by many others, including highly respected scholars. That in itself is a compelling reason for reading the one and only novel she ever completed. How far her second novel had progressed will never be known, for her sister Charlotte, who often took it upon herself to act for her sisters in the way she thought fit, probably destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death.

Emily was born 200 years ago, in 1818. Wuthering Heights was published under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell nearly thirty years after her birth, in December 1847. It immediately excited some admiration for its originality, passion and power, but it also unleashed a barrage of abuse for its apparent brutality, its obsession with violence and vice, its immorality, savagery and disregard for civilized society. ‘Coarse and loathsome’ was the verdict of one critic. Another highly regarded man of letters, ironically admired by Charlotte, took it a step further: ‘Coarse even for men, coarse in language and coarse in conception.’ Though he could not have known it at the time, the irony was that Ellis Bell, who had written a novel too coarse even for men to read, was in fact the 29-year-old spinster daughter of a Yorkshire parson. Her life was circumscribed by religion, reading, the moors and the domestic routines of a remote parsonage in which she’d never have heard a coarse word, unless latterly from her drunken, drug-addicted and doomed brother Branwell, whose misery and dereliction may have contributed something to one or more of the male characters in the novel.

And so on it went throughout the year. Emily Brontë as Ellis Bell was dubbed ‘a spendthrift of malice and profanity’, and her great creation, Heathcliff, as the ‘epitome of brutality’. By the end of the year Emily was dead, dying at 30 of consumption (her coffin the narrowest the s

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Emily Brontë is the greatest woman novelist of all time. That is my personal opinion, though it is one which happens to be shared by many others, including highly respected scholars. That in itself is a compelling reason for reading the one and only novel she ever completed. How far her second novel had progressed will never be known, for her sister Charlotte, who often took it upon herself to act for her sisters in the way she thought fit, probably destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death.

Emily was born 200 years ago, in 1818. Wuthering Heights was published under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell nearly thirty years after her birth, in December 1847. It immediately excited some admiration for its originality, passion and power, but it also unleashed a barrage of abuse for its apparent brutality, its obsession with violence and vice, its immorality, savagery and disregard for civilized society. ‘Coarse and loathsome’ was the verdict of one critic. Another highly regarded man of letters, ironically admired by Charlotte, took it a step further: ‘Coarse even for men, coarse in language and coarse in conception.’ Though he could not have known it at the time, the irony was that Ellis Bell, who had written a novel too coarse even for men to read, was in fact the 29-year-old spinster daughter of a Yorkshire parson. Her life was circumscribed by religion, reading, the moors and the domestic routines of a remote parsonage in which she’d never have heard a coarse word, unless latterly from her drunken, drug-addicted and doomed brother Branwell, whose misery and dereliction may have contributed something to one or more of the male characters in the novel. And so on it went throughout the year. Emily Brontë as Ellis Bell was dubbed ‘a spendthrift of malice and profanity’, and her great creation, Heathcliff, as the ‘epitome of brutality’. By the end of the year Emily was dead, dying at 30 of consumption (her coffin the narrowest the sexton said he had ever made), having expressed half amusement, half contempt for the sour abuse. She knew what she had written. She had flouted the conventions of polite writing and had to be punished. At the same time many of those who disliked what they felt to be cruel and degrading also felt for it a horrified fascination: they were spellbound by its Ancient Mariner-ish power which revolted them but held them in thrall. They could not choose but hear; they could not choose but read on. The reviewer in Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper put it in a nutshell, admitting that while it confounded all regular criticism, ‘yet it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it . . . We strongly recommend all our readers who love novelty to get this story, for we can promise them that they never have read anything like it before.’ Not all the newspaper’s readers followed the reviewer’s recommendation. At least one husband and father cancelled his subscription to the paper forthwith and urged all decent husbands, fathers and brothers to do the same, spluttering his outrage that a hitherto respectable weekly should be encouraging and assisting the letting loose upon respectable households of such an obscene and disreputable book, which might even, perish the thought, be picked up and read by unsuspecting wives and daughters – or even servants. For what my own personal recommendation is worth, I should say that by the time I picked up Wuthering Heights from the school library in my late teens, I had already read a great many of the classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists, including the women writers, of whom only Jane Austen bored me, as she did Charlotte Brontë, who famously lamented the suffocating atmosphere of her books, the absence of fresh air, wildness, vigour. So I had many points of comparison among novelists. But nothing, not even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, could have prepared me for the profound effect which Emily Brontë’s book had on me. I was about as far from a parson’s spinster daughter as any red-blooded male teenager could possibly get, and yet there were certain affinities. I was born and bred in a small rustic community. It was not as remote as Haworth but levels of mobility in the 1940s and 1950s were low, and the radius of my known world was three miles at most in any direction. I roamed the sea-shores as Emily did the moors. My sailor father was a Yorkshireman whose people occasionally visited our sea-girt village on Scotland’s east coast, and years later when I first encountered the sternly repressive Joseph of the novel, my Yorkshire relatives leapt from the page in all their homespun glory. The coarseness, regretted by the reviewers, was a breath of fresh air, the fresh air Charlotte missed in Pride and Prejudice. And the moors of the book mirrored the sea of my peregrinations: both big and elemental, both constant but moody, both dwarfing the human infusoria under the microscope of the writer’s watchful dissecting eye. I wasn’t a writer yet, except in embryo, but my first books would be about how ordinary lives appear extraordinary when dramatized against larger landscapes, and against the inner landscapes of ritual and religion, superstition and dreams, storytelling and tradition, love and death. And of course grand passions. Just about everybody who hasn’t actually read Wuthering Heights has some vague idea at least that it is a novel dominated by the grand passion that exists between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, an affair that is not only endlessly unconsummated and deferred, but is ultimately inimical, destroying both lovers – if ‘lovers’ can even be specified as the correct term to describe a relationship that is unique in literature, and which transcends the idea of love as it exists in the romantic novel. In a romantic novel they would have married, satisfying critical taste, but Catherine chooses instead the rather spiritless gentleman of the Grange, Edgar Linton, in spite of having admitted to Nelly the housekeeper that the choice is wrong. She does so in pages of impassioned prose, ending with the most famous declaration of devotion in literature, certainly in the history of the novel: ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff.’ You have to go to John Donne to find anything approaching such a statement of oneness, of the union of souls. But Heathcliff does not hear this conclusion of her testimony, only her earlier avowal, that it would degrade her to marry him, at which point he leaves the house and disappears. When he returns three years later she is married, and moderately content – until that return cracks open the tragedy, and all hell is let loose. Famously the story is opened years later in 1801 by Lockwood, Heathcliff’s wealthy new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, and one of the novel’s principal narrators. When he arrives at Wuthering Heights to introduce himself to his landlord, it is clear that all has yet to be revealed to him: he knows nothing of preceding events, or of much else beyond his own sheltered existence. He is blind, insensitive, inaccurate, complacent, shallow and a slave to convention, the last person you could imagine being disturbed by terrifying dreams. And this is where Emily Brontë’s genius comes in, evoking a truly awful scene out of the mind of this unremarkable man, when a snow shower turns into a blizzard and he has to stay the night on the heights, an unwelcome guest. Moreover the servant puts him up in a forbidden upper room, with vague hints about happenings. Names have been scratched into the ancient paintwork of the window-ledge next to his bed: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, Catherine Heathcliff. The mildewed library contains books in which Catherine’s diary entries have been scribbled. The gothic clichés pile up. As he falls asleep the room swarms with Catherines ‘as vivid as spectres’. He dreams and wakes up to the realization that amid the blizzard a fir tree branch, driven by the wind, is rattling its dry cones against the panes of the lattice, working its way into the fabric of his dream. Again he falls asleep and dreams a second time, only to be disturbed again by the tapping at the window. He sits up to put a stop to it, knocking his knuckles through the glass and reaching out to grab the offending branch – instead of which he finds himself clutching the fingers of a little ice-cold hand. It is the hand of Catherine Linton, sobbing to be let in. Terror turns the effete Lockwood cruel, and as he can’t shake her off he saws the child’s wrist across the broken pane until the blood runs down and soaks the bedclothes. Still he can’t escape but he promises to let the ghost-child in if she will let him go. She does, and he breaks his promise by withdrawing his arm and blocking up the broken pane with books. But he can’t shut out the lament, and her terrible wailing cry that she has been trying to get back into this room for twenty years. Now Lockwood’s shrieks of fear bring Heathcliff to the door of the forbidden room, no longer the grimly impassive landlord but a man visibly upset, shaken to the core by Lockwood’s description of his vision. Lockwood is ordered to leave the room but in the darkness gets lost in the lobbies and so witnesses Heathcliff’s next extraordinary action. He kneels on the bed, wrenches open the lattice and bursts into tears, sobbing for his Cathy, his heart’s darling, to hear him this time, to come in at last. Lockwood can’t comprehend this raving, or the raw anguish in the gush of grief which accompanies it. After all only the snow and wind whirled through the open window, and that is all that was ever there. Any rational person could see it – there was no ghost. It was all a dream. Or was it? It was that chilling scene, only three chapters into the novel, which made me see that Emily Brontë was opening a window on to a world in which dreams may overturn reality, the other world may break into our notions of normality, and heroic figures such as Heathcliff may crumble helplessly before a helpless child. Later Lockwood becomes interested in the gossip, the history of Heathcliff and the house on the heights, but right now he doesn’t want to know what happens next. If you do, dear reader – want to know what happens next – then I am not about to spoil the story for you. But you will read a complex and brave and subversive novel, which explodes many of our safe assumptions – about the difference between men and women, heaven and hell, good and evil, love and hate, forgiveness and revenge, marriage and freedom, and about human identity and its survival. People used to ask, and some still do: how did the unmarried daughter of a country parson, with no experience of male relationships, come to write the most powerful love story in the world? Frustration, sublimation, empathy? Where is Emily Brontë in this novel? You might as well ask how Shakespeare, who never killed a king or strangled his wife, knew what it felt like to be Macbeth or Othello. Genius is the answer we have to be content with, the same answer and the only answer to understanding a phenomenon such as Bach or Mozart. They did it over and over again, and some would argue that it’s in the repetition that the genius exists. But death has a way of foiling that simple test. And if you’ve already written one of the world’s greatest novels, then even death has failed to rob you of your reputation. It may even enshrine it.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © Christopher Rush 2017


About the contributor

Christopher Rush has been writing for thirty-five years. His books include the memoirs To Travel Hopefully and Hellfire and Herring, and Will, a novel about Shakespeare. His latest novel, Penelope’s Web, was published in 2015.

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