How Was Wuthering Heights Received by the Public?

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

The story of the publication of Emily Bronte's ''Wuthering Heights'' and its initial public reception is a story almost as complicated as the novel itself, full of false identities, sibling jealousy, and redemption after death.

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.

The Reviews

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.

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