When author Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights between 1845 and 1846, little could she have known the controversy that would erupt after its publication.
The novel was published in 1847 by Thomas Newby, who recognised the brilliance of her flawed love story.
Critics were divided by the stark relationship between orphan boy Heathcliff and beautiful but wild Catherine Earnshaw. While many recognised the novel’s imagination and power, in an era of strict Victorian ideals, they were shocked by its depiction of hypocrisy, morality, envy, resentment and the social class system.
Wuthering Heights was Emily’s first and only novel, written when she was 27 years old. The fifth child of Patrick and Maria Brontë, she was one of the famous siblings who went on to write some of the most legendary novels in history.
Emily and her siblings were home-educated, but despite their lack of formal education, they read a wide range of books by the famous authors and poets of the era, including Byron and Shelley.
Emily, Charlotte, Anne and their brother Branwell formed a writers’ club as children and invented an imaginary world called Angria, populated by their toys and their real-life heroes, such as the Duke of Wellington and his sons.
When she was 13, Emily withdrew from the group, but sadly, most of her individual works, written in her teens, weren’t preserved. When she finally had Wuthering Heights published, it looked as if she had a great career as an author ahead. Tragically, she died at the age of 30, after a severe cold turned into an inflammation of the lungs and eventually tuberculosis. Wuthering Heights remained her one and only masterpiece.
Catherine and Heathcliff
The two central characters had a flawed and dysfunctional relationship, which ultimately ended in tragedy. When Catherine met Heathcliff, both were young children, in the late 18th century. Catherine’s father, Mr Earnshaw, owned a remote farmhouse, Wuthering Heights, on the bleak Yorkshire moors.
Travelling on business to Liverpool, he encountered a young orphan boy living on the streets. Earnshaw took pity on him, adopted him and gave him a home on the farm. The boy wouldn’t reveal his real name, so he became known as Heathcliff.
Arriving home, Earnshaw introduced Heathcliff to Catherine and the two immediately became friends. However, Earnshaw’s biological son, Hindley, feared Heathcliff had replaced him in their father’s affections. Hindley was continually cruel to the boy, as a result of his intense jealousy.
Catherine and Heathcliff spent hours every day playing on the moors and became inseparable. Hindley went away to university, but after his father’s death, he became the owner of Wuthering Heights. He permitted Heathcliff to continue living there, but only as a servant, making his life a misery.
Heathcliff and Catherine walked to Thrushcross Grange, the home of their nearest neighbours – the wealthy Edgar Linton and his sister, Isabella – to see how the landed gentry lived. They were seen and ran away, but were caught. Catherine was injured by the Lintons’ dog and was invited into the house to recuperate. Heathcliff went home alone.
Catherine’s head was turned by the rich Lintons’ lifestyle and she was influenced by their genteel manners and elegant appearance. On returning to Wuthering Heights, she had become more ladylike in her demeanour, but she had also become a snob and laughed at Heathcliff’s unkempt appearance.
The situation at Wuthering Heights deteriorated after Hindley’s wife died and he descended into drunkenness. Edgar Linton continued his friendship with Catherine and she grew increasingly distant from Heathcliff. Edgar and Catherine began courting and he eventually proposed marriage.
A massive misunderstanding occurred when Catherine told her companion, Nelly, that she was in turmoil. Although she wanted to become Edgar’s wife, because she liked the social standing, she said nothing would ever compare to her love for Heathcliff.
Unfortunately, Heathcliff was eavesdropping, but overheard only the part where Catherine said she could never marry him, because of his low social status. He didn’t hear her declare her love for him and admit to using Edgar to help raise Heathcliff’s social standing.
These themes went against the morality of the era and were among the reasons why Wuthering Heights shocked the genteel public when it was first published.
Healthcliff ran away, disappearing with no trace, after overhearing the conversation. Devastated by what had happened, Catherine made herself ill and Edgar began looking after her and pandering to her whims, because he was scared she would fall sick again. After three years, they finally married.
With no sign of Heathcliff, Catherine became lady of the manor but her domestic bliss was shattered by Heathcliff’s return. He had made his fortune and was now a wealthy gentleman.
Edgar’s sister, Isabella, fell for him and although he secretly despised her, he encouraged her advances, only to wreak revenge on Catherine.
Heathcliff and Catherine argued and Edgar banned him from the house as a result. Catherine found out she was pregnant with Edgar’s child and locked herself in her room, making herself ill again over Heathcliff.
Meanwhile, Heathcliff began gambling with his arch-enemy, Hindley. Eventually, Heathcliff became the owner of Wuthering Heights, as Hindley was so badly in debt that he had to sign it over to his foster brother.
Heathcliff eloped with Isabella to spite Catherine further, but it was an unhappy marriage and they returned to Wuthering Heights after only two months. Isabella’s life was intolerable when she realised Heathcliff had never loved her.
When Heathcliff discovered that Catherine was dying, he visited her in secret to tell her how much he had always loved her. She gave birth to her baby daughter, Cathy, but was so weak that she died the following day. Isabella left Heathcliff after Catherine’s funeral.
Heathcliff became master of Wuthering Heights, but lived a miserable existence, as he believed Catherine haunted the farm. He began to act in an odd manner and had many visions of Catherine. In poor health, he was found dead in her old room and was buried next to the love of his life.
Although it caused a scandal in its day, when one critic described it as presenting a “shocking picture of the worst forms of humanity”, Wuthering Heights was later recognised as a classic.
Films and TV
There have been multiple film and TV adaptations, with perhaps the most famous and best-loved being the 1939 film, starring Merle Oberon as beautiful Catherine and Laurence Olivier as the brooding Heathcliff. It won the 1939 New York Film Critics’ Circle Best Film Award.
Other famous adaptations included a 1967 BBC series starring Ian McShane as Heathcliff and Angela Scoular as Catherine; a 1970 film starring Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall; an ITV series in 2009, starring Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley; and multiple theatre adaptations.
In 1977, singing superstar Kate Bush’s career was launched when she wrote the song Wuthering Heights based on the book. It was number one in the UK singles chart for four weeks. It is Bush’s most successful single to date.
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