David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.
A Persistent Rumor
Many biographies of author Emily Bronte and studies of her only published novel, Wuthering Heights, repeat a similar story. When the book was first published in 1847, it was savaged by critics, who found it shocking and immoral. But after Emily's untimely death, the book was gradually revived by critics and is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.
It is a convenient story of a genius unappreciated in her own time, and seems appropriate for a book as dark and unconventional as Wuthering Heights. But the real story is more complicated, and, like the book itself, is a twisted and sometimes tragic tale.
The Brontes and The Bells
To understand the story of the publication of Wuthering Heights, you must understand the unique dynamics of the Bronte family. The talented sisters Emily, Charlotte, and Anne had all written books and submitted them for publication in the mid-1840s: Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's Jane Eyre, and Anne's Agnes Grey.
In order to be taken seriously as writers, the three sisters all adopted male pseudonyms and kept their identity secret even from publishers. So the three Bronte sisters became the Bell brothers: Ellis (Emily), Currer (Charlotte), and Acton (Anne). Jane Eyre was published first, and became a smash hit.
To capitalize on the success of Jane Eyre, the publisher rushed out Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, and implied that the Bell brothers were in fact the same person. This led to Wuthering Heights comparing poorly to Jane Eyre in the eyes of many reviewers. The fact that both were Gothic romances set in creepy old houses with a charismatic bad boy love interest didn't help.
Reviews collected by Bronte scholar Lilia Melani show that reviewers were lukewarm about the book. Most recognized that the author, whoever it was, was a massive talent, but thought that the talent was not fully formed.
A typical review called the novel 'a strange, inartistic story.' Another said, 'There seems to us great power in this book, but a purposeless power.' And some reviewers were shocked by its content, but not necessarily disapproving of it: 'We know of nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity.'
Perhaps the general impression of initial reviewers can be summed up by this assessment: 'that of Ellis Bell is only a promise, but it is a colossal one.' But unfortunately for those reviewers who wanted to see what 'Ellis Bell' would do next, Emily would die the year after the book was published, at the age of 30.
Charlotte Rewrites History
So if the initial reviews were mixed and ambivalent, with even those reviewers who didn't like the book recognizing Emily's colossal talent, why is there a perception that the book was savaged by critics? For that, we can blame Charlotte.
By 1850, both Emily and Anne had died prematurely. Charlotte prepared a new edition of her sisters' works and attached a 'Biographical Notice' that unmasked all three sisters' true identities.
Charlotte discussed the sisters' hard lives, including Emily's disappointment at the reaction to Wuthering Heights. But here, Charlotte got a little carried away, exaggerating the negativity of the early reviews.
Reviews of this new edition were markedly more positive than the earlier ones, with reviewers perhaps moved by Emily and Anne's untimely deaths and amazed that three girls from tiny Haworth, who had spent most of their lives in relative isolation, had produced such profound works.
From here, Wuthering Heights was on its way to being recognized as a classic, and Charlotte's version of history, including the negative reviews, became the accepted one. It got repeated in biographies of Emily and scholarly studies of the novel and the Bronte sisters. In the 20th century, many scholars have called this into question by citing the actual reviews, but the story still persists.
Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights has long been thought to be the recipient of savage reviews when it was first published in 1847. And many reviewers did compare it unfavorably to her sister Charlotte's similarly-themed Jane Eyre. However, the reviews were more ambivalent than negative, with even those reviewers who didn't care for the book recognizing Emily's massive talent.
However, three years later, Charlotte published a new edition following Emily's death which unmasked Emily and her sisters, who had been using masculine pseudonyms. In her introduction to the new edition, Charlotte severely overstated the negative reaction to Wuthering Heights, leading to a persistent impression that the book was roundly panned on its first publication.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack