Why be likeable when you can be Emily Brontë?

July 29, 2018

When I started this website, it was always my intention to write at least one post about Emily’s Wuthering Heights, whether it be a longer essay about a particular theme, or maybe a shorter piece about the impact I feel it’s had on me since I read it in my late teens. This is not that post.

I make a point of reading Wuthering Heights once a year, usually around January or February when the weather is typically as angry as it is in the book, but unlike the Lintons and the Earnshaws, I have the privilege of enjoying their story from a safe distance, a place far removed from the unforgiving landscape and the violence under which they are doomed to suffer.  If I’d ever managed to forget this little tradition, I’d no doubt be reminded by the articles that tend to surface at least every few months announcing a new adaptation, a new biography, the opening of some art installation with (sometimes rather tenuous) links to the novel, or perhaps some fashionable new pathologization of Emily’s social behaviour etc. etc. Recently, however, I came across this article in The Guardian, a sort of revisionist piece seemingly propelled by a bizarre, unwarranted nastiness towards Emily and, apparently, a desire to temper whatever enthusiasm may have been surrounding the events being held to mark her 200th birthday. Judging by its headline, you’d be forgiven for assuming the article might actually be about ‘the strange cult of Emily Brontë’, but it really just seems to be a lengthy articulation of the writer’s distaste for both author and novel.

Within the first two paragraphs I’d already detected notes of that rather obnoxious trope of ‘I’m not like other girls’, right down to the sneering observation that ‘nearly all the activities mentioned in connection with the forthcoming anniversary […] involve women as makers, demonstrators, celebrators and educators’ and that ‘nearly all Emily Brontë’s biographers and scholars over the past century have been women.’ I’m not entirely sure what purpose this statement is supposed to serve, other than to set herself apart from the inexplicable mass of misguided women who count themselves as fans of Emily’s work.

I suppose I should probably say that, of course, it’s fine not to like this book. It’s fine not to like any book. But this article is evidently more preoccupied with what the writer considers Emily’s failings as a person, rather than any failings in her novel (her poetry is not mentioned).  Beyond a dubious summary of the novel’s plot and a rather spectacular misreading of the scene in which Heathcliff hangs Isabella’s springer spaniel with a handkerchief (which, spectacularly, she has managed to characterise as ‘sexy foreplay’?!), there’s not a great deal to glean from the piece about why the writer deems Wuthering Heights little more than a ‘screechy melodrama’ and ‘a hot mess’.  Instead, we are treated to testimony from Emily’s former pupils, who ‘disliked her from the first’, which is a hilariously desperate supporting argument because I  can think of at least three teachers I’d like to go back and tell how much they made me hate a certain subject or made me feel small and stupid as a child. None of this, though, would have had any bearing on the quality of their art, were they to ever produce any.

It is a strange thing when a woman becomes so culturally significant. She is often derided for having a large female following (see, for example, the way the odious Woody Allen condescendingly describes Sylvia Plath’s appeal to ‘the college-girl mentality’ in Annie Hall), and she is undoubtedly held to a much higher standard. I find it difficult to imagine this sort of criticism being levelled at male authors whose transgressions are objectively far more severe than Emily’s shocking decision to arrange music lessons around her own schedule. Where is the excessive column space devoted to Dickens’ abhorrent treatment of his wife? Or what about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who plundered his wife Zelda’s journals and letters for his own literary material, but was furious to find that she’d attempted to do the same? What about serial philanderer Ernest Hemingway, or the appalling Norman Mailer, who literally stabbed his wife?  I am not arguing that these critiques don’t exist; they are there if you look for them. But not only are they in shorter supply, they are also invariably accompanied by the disclaimer of ‘the importance of separating the art from the artist’, a privilege Emily, ‘the patron saint of difficult women’, has not been afforded in this piece.

Ultimately, the point of the article is to illustrate Emily’s ‘raging unlikeability’.  ‘Were we to meet [Emily],’ she decides, ‘we would not like her’. This is quite the assertion, since nobody could ever truly know this, but more importantly, who cares? Given that the article concludes with a somewhat reluctant admission that, yes, Emily did achieve something incredible in Wuthering Heights, and as such, deserves to be admired for it, it seems as though the writer isn’t entirely committed to her own argument either.  Occupying a space in our cultural/literary heritage has never required anybody to be amiable or approachable, and so perhaps it’s not all that useful to start disparaging literary figures for having the gall to devote their time to private study or for, God forbid, preferring the company of animals to that of people.




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