The first readers of Wuthering Heights were struck as we are still today by the perverse aspects of the novel. “A disagreeable story” about “painful and exceptional subjects,” said The Athenaeum, “…dwelling upon those physical acts of cruelty—the contemplation of which true taste rejects.” Much as that assessment misses—the strength, the solidity, the moral wisdom of the novel—it still sums up a side of Wuthering Heights that cannot be argued away. Emily Brontë’s acceptance of the cruel as a normal, almost an invigorating component of human life sets her novel apart, from its opening pages to its close. Her first narrator, Lockwood, the foppish London visitor to Wuthering Heights who establishes our distance from the central Brontë world, falls asleep at the Heights at the start of the novel and dreams that Catherine—the dead Cathy, Heathcliff’s love—is a child ghost outside the casement window, begging to be let in. “Terror made me cruel,” says Lockwood; “and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes….”
“Terror made me cruel….” Is Emily Brontë a “Terrorist,” as the first Gothic novelists were called? Is Wuthering Heights, which Robert Kiely places at the end of a study largely devoted to Gothic novels as “the masterpiece of English romantic fiction,” part of the Gothic tradition? Kiely bypasses the question by his use of the term romantic, but, like virtually every other critic of Brontë’s work, he is struck by its successful and almost seamless stitching of mystical eloquence, metaphysical profundity, shrewd realism, and moral dignity to the faded paraphernalia of the Gothic mode. For there are the graveyard lusts and wandering ghosts, the mysterious foundling and tyrannical father; the family doom, repeated generation after generation; the revenge motif; and the aroma of incest that persists from the introduction of the bastard Heathcliff to the family at the Heights, and to the bed he shares with the girl-child Catherine, his playmate, his sister, his torment, his victim, his beloved, but never his wife.
The Gothic vice of sadism is an extreme and pervasive feature of Wuthering Heights, though handled by Emily Brontë with a sobriety that Jacques Blondel aptly describes as “cette dignité dans la violence.” Nevertheless, sadism of a particularly horrid kind, child-torture and child-murder, fills the novel with what Wade Thompson has called “a multitude of insistent variations on the ghastly theme of infanticide.”
In 1847 The Athenaeum summed up all this material as “the eccentricities of “woman’s fantasy.’ ” We are more familiar with Victorian clichés about women being by nature (and women writers, therefore, being by right) gentle, pious, conservative, domestic, loving, and serene. That sort of comment was received wisdom among the Victorians and is still, rather thoughtlessly, repeated in our own day. But to confront the long engagement of women writers with the Gothic tradition is …