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Wuthering Heights

Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell

Original title page to the 1850 joint publication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, with Charlotte Brontë's revelation of herself and her sisters as authors.

Shortly after the first edition of Jane Eyre was published in October 1847, Emily and Anne, under the names Ellis and Acton Bell, published their own novels – Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey – in December 1847. In her “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” to the 1850 edition of the novels, Charlotte not only revealed her sisters’ true identities, but also defended their works, especially Emily’s Wuthering Heights, which many reviewers called strange but powerful, in addition to more severe criticism.

While Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey explored current social issues, such as the governess's role in the household and female identity in a male-dominated society, Wuthering Heights probed issues more particular to Emily's own forays into imaginary worlds as a child and her social isolation as an adult. Critics often discuss the unclear boundary between the imaginary and the real in Emily's works, especially Wuthering Heights with its more elemental and, sometimes, supernatural concerns, unlike the didactic stories of her sisters.

Aside from the novel's narrative qualities, Emily also alludes to other Victorian realities of the late-1840s, including references to England's colonialism both near by and far away. At the time Wuthering Heights appeared in 1847, the Irish Famine, which had begun in 1845, had intensified and the periodical press began portraying the Irish with an inherent lawlessness and barbaric nature due to more frequent rebellions. The image of the Irishman as an uncouth peasant persisted into the latter half of the nineteenth century in the press, as the perpetual Irishman seemed incapable of conforming to superior British social standards.

Top Withens, near Haworth

A view of Top Withens farmhouse near the home of the Brontës. Many believe that Emily Brontë based the setting of Wuthering Heights on this location.

The setting of Wuthering Heights on the wild moorlands of the English countryside provides an appropriate backdrop for the "strange" events that transpire throughout the novel. The mysterious setting also provides an ideal scene for storytelling. As a reader of tales, Emily Brontë's storytelling ability can be seen through Nelly Dean, a servant who narrates the story to different characters and thus manipulates others through her own perspective. Like her character Nelly, Emily Brontë uses the narrative as a powerful tool to establish her identity as an unmarried woman and marginalized figure in Victorian society.

Laurence Olivier - 1939

Laurence Olivier as a dark and brooding Heathcliff in the 1939 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in this role.

In Wuthering Heights, Nelly remarks young Heathcliff's looks as dirty, ragged, and black-haired, which many critics see as a comment on England's vision of the Irish poor during the Famine. Many also see Heathcliff, with his "dark" hair and complexion, as representative of an exotic figure, like a native from Britain's colonies in the West Indies. Thus, aside from her interest in the imaginary and the strange, Emily Brontë explored more deeply rooted social anxieties about British identity and the presence of "outsiders" in Victorian society.