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The publication history of and critical response to Wuthering Heights are intertwined with those of Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Anne's Agnes Grey. Wutheirng Heights and Agnes Grey were accepted for publication before Charlotte had finished writing Jane Eyre. However, their publisher delayed bringing their novels out, with the result that Jane Eyre was published first. It became a best seller. In an effort to cash in on the success of Jane Eyre, he implied that Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were written by "the author of Jane Eyre"–to the distress of all three sisters. The pseudonyms they had adopted unintentionally contributed to his deception.

Wanting their works to be judged for their literary merit and not on their authors' sex, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily published their novels under names which which sounded masculine, Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell. Preserving their male identities was so important to the Brontë sisters that Charlotte maintained that identity even in writing to her publishers; for instance she described the Bells' beliefs as "gentlemanlike..." and consistently referred to her sisters as "he." In addition, Emily had an intense sense of privacy which made hiding her identity especially important to her. In order to prove to Charlotte's publishers that Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell were not one person, Charlotte and Anne met with them in London; during the interview, Charlotte inadvertently revealed that they were three sisters.  Her admission enraged Emily.

Public debate about whether the Bells were one, two, or three persons and whether they were male or female continued until 1850, when Charlotte's "Biographical Notice" to a new edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey publically identified Anne and Emily as Acton and Ellis Bell, respectively. Before and after Charlotte's biographical essay, reviewers of Wuthering Heights consistently compared it to Jane Eyre, generally to its detriment. One reviewer believed that Jane Eyre helped "to ensure a favorable reception" for her sisters' novels (Atlas, January 1848).


In 1850, Charlotte edited her sisters' poems and novels; in a "Preface" and "Biographical Notice," she provided biographical details about her sisters and herself, characterized the novels and her sisters, and defended both. A second round of reviews appeared in response to this reissuing of Emily's and Anne's novels and to Charlotte's introduction. In general, reviewers were moved by pity at the early deaths of Emily and Anne, as well as at the general hardship of the Brontë sisters' lives, and were amazed at the discrepancy between their uneventful lives and the violence and passion portrayed in their novels. They also had a greater sense of Emily's achievement, which was increasingly compared to Shakespeare's.

However, Charlotte overemphasized the negativity of the original reviews of Wutheirng Heights when she charged that the original reviewers had not appreciated Wuthering Heights. In reality, its power and its author's ability had originally been acknowledged, along with censure for its violence, brutality, and "coarseness." (Click here for illustrative excerpts from the reviews). Charlotte's biased view that reviews had been overhwlemingly negative became "fact" in literary history and biography and continues to be repeated.

Perhaps more significant than her misperception were the characterizations which Charlotte promulgated about her sister and which are still being repeated. First, Charlotte presented her sister as "a child and nursling of the moors" through whom nature spoke; this explained the novel's being "moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath." Next Charlotte metamorphosed Emily into an accurate transcriber of the Yorkshire life and inhabitants. Then Charlotte transformed Emily, in turn, (1) into a Christian allegorist, with Heathliff representing the sinner; (2) into the passive receptor of the creative gift; and, finally, (3) into the visionary artist. It did not matter to Charlotte that some of her characterizations of Emily were contradictory: Thus, Emily was driven by a creative gift which "at times strangely wills and works for itself," so that she was unaware of what she had created, and she was a controlled sculptor who saw how she could mold a granite block into "the vision of his meditations." She rarely spoke with the local people, and she knew them intimately, "knew their ways, their language, their family histories."  Charlotte claimed that Emily was impervious to the influence of others and could grow only through time and experience by following the dictates of her own nature. In one form or another, all these characterizations continue to appear in critical discussions of Emily Brontë and her novel.

Brontë: Table of Contents

Day 1

Overview of Emily Brontë
Publication of Wuthering Heights & Contemporary Critics
Later Critical response to Wuthering Heights
Film Versions of Wuthering Heights

Day 2 Themes in Wuthering Heights
The Narrator
Day 3 Wuthering Heights as Socio-Economic Novel
Psychological Interpretations of Wuthering Heights
Religion, Metaphysics, Mysticism and Wuthering Heights
The Gothic and Wuthering Heights
Romanticism and Wuthering Heights
Day 4

"I am Heathcliff"
Emily Bronte's Poetry


October 13, 2011