The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XII. The Brontës

§ 5. Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë left only one book and some verses. As to her novel, critical judgment is still in suspense. It is not desirable to read; to take Wuthering Heights from the shelf is to prepare for oneself no pleasure. The song of love and of morning that makes Jane Eyre an imperishable possession is not sung here. On the contrary, in this strange tale of outland natures on outland moors all is thunder-clad—darkness, and the light more awful that breaks the storm, passions that, in their tempestuous strength at once terrify us for human nature and enlarge our conception of its dignity. It bears the same relation to Jane Eyre that Webster bears to Shakespeare, if one could imagine Webster greater than Shakespeare. This, indeed, is its defect, and in seeking to estimate the proportional value of this defect judgment is at a loss. It is a tale of diablerie, not of life. What happened in Jane Eyre might have happened, part of it did actually happen, but all of it, leaving out of account a little melodrama, here and there, which is not essential, might have happened. These are beings agitated by our desires, and we are reading about ourselves. In Wuthering Heights, it is not so; we see Heathcliff from the outside, and observe this triumph of imagination. When we have admitted that this is not a tale of our own life, the door is closed upon detraction. In every other respect and of its kind, the work done here is absolute. In these chapters, echoing with apprehension, chapters that

  • Bring the unreal world too strangely near
  • and in which the disaster that one would often think has culminated goes on culminating to the close, everything is found in place, and, though it is a wild consistency, as Dobell was the first to say, consonant. Perfectly “in keeping” with the nature of Heathcliff, as perfectly as the abduction of Isabella or the forced marriage of the shivering Linton, are the hanging of the Springer—a demoniac revelation—and the attack upon the younger Catherine, those stunning and unceasing slaps on the young girl’s face that madden the reader as if he had been present. Undeviatingly, almost without thinking, from Lockwood’s nightmare at the beginning to the last scene in Joseph’s kitchen, when Heathcliff’s glazing eyes are tense with love’s vision, the imagination pursues its course because the authoress never for a moment dreams of questioning the imagination.

    In reading such a work, we are oppressed by an intensity of personal feeling. There is no friendly author between us and what is seen. The fury of the events is by no means harmonised or softened by human comment explanatory or apologetic. The hideous drama merely comes before us, and is there; and yet we do not absolutely hate Heathcliff. The scene in the death-chamber with Catherine entitles him to speak of his affection as an “immortal love,” a feeling which “shackles accidents and bolts up change,” and testifies to the infinity of humanity. In those few pages, where the stormy villain and his dying beloved override time and snatch a moment from eternity, we learn, as in Othello, something of passion’s transfiguring power. And this passion is not physical. No doubt, a writer older and with more experience than Emily Brontë must, of necessity, have known that the attraction exercised by such a man, or by any man the least like Heathcliff, could only be of that kind. She did not know, and in her ignorance she gave to the transcendent a new setting, a setting far stranger than that in Jane Eyre, but, also, more arresting. It is the main mark of the Brontë’s books and the inner reason why they are cherished that, out of the innocence of the heart, the mouth speaketh.