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Wuthering Heights Essay, Research Paper

Charlotte and Emily Bront? – Imaginations Apart

Falling in Love

Charlotte and Emily Bront? – Imaginations Apart

Derek Traversi, ‘The Bront? Sisters and Wuthering Heights’, in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature 6. From Dickens to Hardy, 1996. Derek Traversi is Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus of English at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania.

A notable difference in imaginative quality separates the novels of Charlotte (1816-55) and Emily (1818-55) Bront? from those of the other great English novelists of the nineteenth century. The difference seems to be one of emotional intensity, the product of a unique concentration upon fundamental human passion in a state approaching essential purity. Whether this concentration is compatible with the nature of the novel as generally conceived – and there has been a tendency to regard the Bront?s as something of a ’sport’, a remarkable oddity in literary history – is no doubt open to discussion. Many of the great novelists of the period – Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot – showed moral and social preoccupations more explicit than those revealed in Wuthering Heights. We may agree that the range of these writers is wider, their points of contact with the human scene more variously projected; but when this has been allowed, there remains to be taken into account an astonishing mixture of romantic commonplace and personal inspiration, primitive feeling and spiritual exaltation, which corresponds to potentialities otherwise largely concealed during this period.

This statement, true of Wuthering Heights, is only partly applicable to the novels of Charlotte Bront?, which reflect the workings of an acute and intensely committed mind. In her position as elder sister and, to a large extent, the substitute for a dead mother, Charlotte’s contacts with the outside world were more continuous and varied than those of her sisters. Her excursions into that world did not end as readily as those of Emily in deception and retreat; and this fact is reflected in work that corresponds more closely to the habitual features of the novel form. The earlier chapters of the immensely popular Jane Eyre (1847) rest largely upon the author’s experiences of the Clergy’s daughters’ school at Cowan Bridge, and her life as a governess is also reflected there; and the two periods which she spent in Brussels at the pensionnat of M. and Mme H?ger provided the material first for The Professor (1857), which remained unpublished in her lifetime, and, more forcibly, for Villette (1853). Finally, her father’s recollections of the Luddite riots of the early years of the century, supported by her own reading in the period and her observation of the textile industry in her own time, provided in Shirley (1849) the background to her presentation of the relationship between the heiress, Shirley Keeldar, and the Rector’s poor niece Caroline Helstone, in whom idealized pictures of herself and Emily are respectively conveyed.

Falling in Love

Pamela Norris is a writer, cultural historian and critic. Her study of the myth of Eve, The Story of Eve (1998), was recently published in paperback by Macmillan. She has edited critical editions of novels by Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen, and a collection of poems by the Bront?s. She reviews regularly for the Independent on Sunday, the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review. She is currently writing a history of romantic love, to be published by HarperCollins.

Tell me where is fancy bred,

Or in the heart, or in the head?

It is engendered in the eyes,

With gazing fed, and fancy dies

In the cradle where it lies.

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, this song provides the teasing background to a crucial scene in the drama. Bassanio, a young nobleman, has fallen in love with the virtuous and wealthy Portia, but her father has attached a condition to her marriage. Whoever wins his daughter must first choose between three caskets, one made of gold, one of silver, and the third of lead. Bassanio’s hesitation as he makes his decision is aptly counterpointed by a song that debates the status of ‘fancy’, and concludes that it is a fleeting visual response. Bassanio must look further than a tempting exterior if he is to find happiness. In the end, he correctly chooses the lead casket and is able to claim Portia as his bride.

The choice between heart and head, when selecting a partner, has been a persistent theme of Western literature. Underlying many love stories is the biological drive towards procreation. Put at its simplest, a man will tend to favour a nubile young woman likely to produce healthy children, while a woman looks for a suitable mate to care for her and her children until they are safely into young adulthood. This division of interests encourages the male to follow his fancy, while the female has to take account of emotional and economic factors. But love is not simply a choice between physical attraction and practical considerations, or even between a pretty face and a reliable character. There is also the question of companionable love as opposed to passion, two types of feeling which Lyndall, the heroine of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, distinguishes as ‘a love that begins in the head, and goes down to the heart, and grows slowly’ and ‘another love, that blots out wisdom … lasting for an hour; but it is worth having lived a whole…

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