The publication history of and critical
response to Wuthering Heights
are intertwined with those of
Charlotte's Jane Eyre
and Anne's Agnes Grey
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
was published first. It became a best seller. In an effort to cash in
on the success of Jane Eyre
, he implied that Wuthering
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
Wanting their works to be judged for their literary
merit and not on their authors' sex, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily
names which which sounded masculine, Acton, Currer, and Ellis
Preserving their male identities was so important to the Brontë
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.
admission enraged Emily.
Public debate about whether the Bells were one, two, or
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
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).
CHARLOTTE BRONTË'S 1850 EDITION
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.
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
compared to Shakespeare's.
However, Charlotte overemphasized the negativity of the
of Wutheirng Heights when she charged that the original
not appreciated Wuthering Heights. In reality, its power and
author's ability had originally been acknowledged, along with censure
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
of the moors" through whom nature spoke; this explained the novel's
"moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath." Next Charlotte
Emily into an accurate transcriber of the Yorkshire life and
inhabitants. Then Charlotte transformed Emily, in turn, (1) into a
with Heathliff representing the sinner; (2) into the passive receptor
the creative gift; and, finally, (3) into the visionary artist. It did
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
mold a granite block into "the vision of his meditations." She rarely
with the local people, and she knew them intimately, "knew
ways, their language, their family histories." Charlotte claimed
was impervious to the influence of others and could grow only through
and experience by following the dictates of her own nature. In one form
or another, all these characterizations continue to appear in critical
of Emily Brontë and her novel.
Brontë: Table of Contents
October 13, 2011