Initial responses

Coarse and disagreeable

Initial responses to Wuthering Heights were certainly not all positive. The Spectator (in December 1847) complained that ‘the incidents are too coarse and disagreeable to be attractive’ and this was a common complaint, The Athenaeum (December 1847) also calling it a ‘disagreeable story’. Another word used by The Spectator, and by The Examiner (January 1848), was ‘improbable’. In hindsight, we might say that such comments show how untypical the settings and events of Wuthering Heights were, compared to most Victorian novels, meaning that readers were not quite sure how to take the book. 

Moral judgement

Critics were also concerned with what The Spectator called ‘a moral taint’ because the ‘villainy’ is overstated and not clearly punished. Nelly tells Heathcliff to leave punishment of Hindley to God, but Heathcliff wants to take his own revenge. In the mid-nineteenth century, most readers would have agreed with Nelly, at least in theory.

Some reviews were prepared give the novel more of a chance. The Britannia magazine (January 1848) called Wuthering Heights ‘strangely original’ and saw the purpose of Emily Brontë’s approach:

‘The uncultured freedom of native character presents more rugged aspects than we meet in educated society. Its manners are not only more rough, but its passions are more violent… The story shows the brutalising influence of unchecked passion.’

This reviewer was not alone in concluding that he did not know quite what to make of this strange book.

Charlotte Brontë’s response

Charlotte Brontë edited the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights following Emily’s death. She clearly felt the need to give some explanation of the novel in the light of some of the critical responses. She therefore acknowledges that people who do not know the Yorkshire moors and their inhabitants will find these things ‘alien and unfamiliar’, but she makes no apology for her sister using the often rough language of such people. She defends Emily’s description of an area she ‘lived in’, concluding:

Her descriptions, then, of natural scenery, are what they should be, and all they should be.

On the characters, however, she is more apologetic. She notes that Emily seldom met with, let alone spoke with, the local people, so that her creations came from what she heard about them and from her own imagination. (It is well worth finding this Preface and reading it in full. Most editions of the novel include it.)

Later nineteenth century and early twentieth century criticism

Following Charlotte Brontë’s preface, critics concentrated more on where Emily’s ideas had come from, drawing links between the novel and her life. There was recognition of the power of the plot and the writing, but still concern about the morality of the story and the coarseness of the language. The terms Gothic and Romantic were beginning to be used in literary analysis.

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