Thursday 19 October 2023

Wonderful, Weird, Wuthering

Wuthering Heights has perplexed readers ever since it was first published in 1847. Justine Pizzo, lecturer at Southampton University, explored what it is about Emily Brontë’s novel that continues to puzzle readers today, in a talk to the Brussels Brontë Group on Saturday 14 October 2023. 

Dr Pizzo came at the novel from several points of view in her presentation titled “Wonderful, Weird, Wuthering: Why Emily Brontë’s Novel Still Surprises Us Today.” She didn’t talk much about the wuthering part of her title, even though weather and climate have been a focus of some of her research, including papers on the atmospheric influences in both Jane Eyre and Villette. But it was clear she found Emily's novel both wonderful and weird. 

She asked whether Wuthering Heights is a great romance, or maybe a “Great Romance.” But that depends on your definition of romance, which has shifted over the centuries. Around the 1500s, the term “romance” was applied mainly to stories about adventures of a knight or hero. But in the 19th century, the term came to include love stories as we know them today.

Justine Pizzo
So while a romance story used to lean mostly toward chivalry, today’s novel-readers are looking for love. Which is a problem when it comes to Wuthering Heights, since the romantic love in the novel is mostly between the lines. 

“The definition of romance from the 16th century seems to fit best” for Wuthering Heights, Pizzo said, though she “would argue that Heathcliff is not a chivalric hero.” In the novel, there is “a sense of obsession rather than romance,” she said. 

Pizzo said the idea of Wuthering Heights as a romance stems mainly from the movie adaptations of the novel, starting with the 1939 version directed by William Wyler and starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. While various film versions have portrayed the story as romantic, the text doesn’t conform to what modern-day readers and movie-goers think of as a “romance.” 

Many critics have seen the novel as flawed – a love story that got swallowed up by an overly complex plot structure. Part of that complexity comes from the fact that the love story is mediated through Nelly Dean and Lockwood. Pizzo cited 21st-century teenagers struggling to engage with the text given the modern definition of romance. She quoted some modern 13-year-olds trying to define the novel as a romance in the face of all the violence. 

Balthus illustration
She also talked about how early 19-century theories of education informed Emily’s novel, citing in particular the influence of John Locke and his work Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which stresses virtues and the use of reason to overcome desire. Locke’s essay “On Indulgence” cautions against the “humoring and cockering” of children. 

“Thus parents, by humouring and cockering them when little, corrupt the principles of nature in their children, and wonder afterwards to taste the bitter waters, when they themselves have poison’d the fountain.” 

Pizzo also discussed Sarah Fielding, sister of the novelist Henry Fielding, who wrote one of the first novels for young readers – The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749). A bit titled “An Account of a Fray” details a group of young ladies fighting over an apple. Pizzo called them “almost feral young women.” It’s a scene that might fit into Wuthering Heights

The Rev. William Carus Wilson, the inspiration behind the character of Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, was another contemporary voice in children’s education. Wilson was the author of moral stories for children, some collected in the volume “Child’s First Tales.” They were aimed to be instructive for children’s behavior, but they had a macabre focus on death. 

Balthus illustration

These so-called “conduct books” were supposed to show children (and parents) the best way for youngsters to grow up. It's difficult to see what positive influence they had on Emily in writing her novel, with all its violence and Cathy and Heathcliff running off to the moors unsupervised every chance they got. 

Perhaps one could look at it as a “reverse conduct novel,” Pizzo suggested. 

A similar line of thought could help with the “romance” aspects of the book, it would seem. To the suggestion that Wuthering Heights could be seen as a satire of a love story, Pizzo broadened the analogy to say that all the Brontës were satirical writers.

Our speakers at the blue Brontë plaque at Bozar.
Justine Pizzo, Claire O'Callaghan and Michael Stewart.

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