Remembering 'Wuthering Heights' on Emily Brontë’s 200th birth anniversary

Did Emily Brontë, born this month in 1818, write only out of inspiration? Or did she write of experience that made and marred her?

July 21, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated 06:22 pm IST

 Fatal loves: Emily’s watercolour of her beloved pet dog, Keeper.

Fatal loves: Emily’s watercolour of her beloved pet dog, Keeper.

Elizabeth Gaskell records in The Life of Charlotte Brontë a curious incident involving Emily Brontë from the summer of 1843. The middle of the three sisters, Emily was known for being excessively shy but strong-willed; at ease only with animals and in the wild fens around their family home, the Haworth Parsonage.

Emily had found a strange dog with “hanging head and lolling tongue” close to the Parsonage and tried to give it a drink of water, only to be bitten by it. The news of rabid dogs roaming the neighbourhood was in the air, and Emily feared that this dog could be rabid. So she went to the kitchen and cauterised the wound herself with a burning hot smoothing iron. She told no one of the incident till the danger was well past.

The episode tells us something about Emily Brontë, born this month 200 years ago, who is one of the most mysterious figures in literary history. She has written nothing about herself anywhere and her only novel, Wuthering Heights , resists the easy exercise of reading the author in her work. We have to shape Emily from the accounts people around her, especially her elder sister, Charlotte, and their family friend, Mrs. Gaskell, give of her.

Wuthering Heights created a furore when it was published — people were shocked by its amorality and violence. In defence of her sister, Charlotte sought to create an image of an untutored genius, a child of nature, who was driven by talent rather than carefully thought-out theories of writing, and this impression has held in most subsequent speculations about Emily.

Child of nature?

But there must have been a more down-to-earth aspect to the real Emily. One can see this side in the details of Yorkshire life she provides inWuthering Heights — the moor-cocks and lapwings of the heath, the hard frost that settles over the countryside in winter — which lend plausibility to the bizarre by rooting it in the real. We also know that while Emily’s notorious wilfulness created an impression of a domineering personality — Mrs. Gaskell calls her “stronger than a man” — she had a domesticated side too, which expressed itself in her penchant for cooking and sewing. The morning Emily died of consumption, when she was so weak that could barely dress herself and yet insisted on doing so, she had also wanted to carry on with her sewing.

Like all classics, Wuthering Heights throws up new meanings each time one reads it. Rereading it, I was struck by how illness, most of it mortal, runs through the book. People catch cold while wandering in the heath, damage their health by drinking excessively, or suffer fatal complications during childbirth. But physical maladies are often just a symptom of something that runs deeper inside, in the minds. Catherine Linton is perhaps one of the first portraits of mental illness, female mental illness, in fiction. Charlotte Brontë, of course, would give us the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Mr. Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre , but we barely get to know her.

Slow suffocation

In Catherine, on the other hand, we witness the debilitating illness playing itself out. She has fits of passionate rage which Nelly, with her hard common sense, dismisses as signs of her spoilt nature, but they gradually grow in intensity till Catherine has to stay confined in her room for months. The much-ridiculed doctor, Kenneth, diagnoses it as “brain fever” but the modern reader can detect in Catherine signs of psychosis. She mutters maniacally to herself, tears up her pillow with her teeth, imagines an uncaring villain in her husband, and confuses her present with her past, believing that she is still the waif of Wuthering Heights, her first home, when she has already become the “lady of Thrushcross Grange”.

It all culminates in the chilling scene where Catherine cannot recognise her own face in the mirror. Critics have written about how this is the result of the disjunction Catherine has created in herself by denying her real untamed nature in order to gain social acceptability through a ‘proper’ marriage — a fate she shares with many other 19th century heroines, like Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native or Emma Bovary. Whatever the reasons, the results are scary. Emily doesn’t gloss over the jagged edges of the illness — Catherine raves and rants and behaves abominably with anyone trying to help her, risking the loss of the reader’s sympathy. One can feel the slow suffocation of the illness, without any possibility of cure, which eventually snuffs out Catherine. Decades later, a woman writer would stuff her pockets with stones and walk into the river because she couldn’t endure another bout of the psychological disorder she has suffered since childhood.

How could Emily describe psychosis with such vividness? If she had herself suffered something like it, she must have known that it has to be endured rather than cured. Psychiatrists were still years away and Emily had a horror of doctors in any case — she stubbornly refused medical treatment when she was dying. Was fictionalising her troubles the cure Emily had devised for herself? Was the writing, most of which she had no intention of publishing, a way of cauterising herself against a malady which she wanted no one to detect or fuss over?

One of the most remarkable poems by Emily is one where she foresees her death — as Catherine does too in Wuthering Heights — and prays to be freed of the heart that “now I bear”. She ends thus: “Yes, as my swift days near their goal/ ‘Tis all that I implore — / In Life and death, a chainless soul,/ With courage to endure!

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