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Wuthering Heights Cultural Context

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.

Emily Bronte's novel 'Wuthering Heights' shocked readers when it was published in 1847. The novel rebelled against Victorian rules of decorum with its shocking plot and passionate characters, although it also fits into the tradition of 19th-century novels.

A Shocking Novel

When Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, it sold poorly and received a few mixed reviews. It seemed doomed to be forgotten and Bronte did not get a chance to redeem herself, as she died the next year, at the age of 30.

But after Emily's death, the novel was re-examined by later generations of readers and came to be recognized as one of the classics of 19th-century fiction. To fully appreciate the novel, and the controversy it caused when it was first published, it is helpful to understand the context of the Bronte family, 19th-century fiction, and Victorian culture that it was written and published in.

The Bronte Sisters

Emily was one of four Bronte children who survived to adulthood, along with her older sister Charlotte, younger sister Anne, and brother Branwell. Their father was a church rector in a small town and they were raised by their aunt after their mother's death. The children grew up in an old house in the small town of Haworth, which was isolated on a moor, much like the home Wuthering Heights would be in Emily's novel.

Left by themselves on the moor, the four Bronte children entertained themselves with elaborate games and storytelling. This led all three sisters to become published authors in adulthood. Charlotte would write Jane Eyre, published the same year as Wuthering Heights, and Anne would write the early feminist novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Brontes' social isolation in both childhood and adulthood led all three to develop a unique writing style that set them apart from other writers of their time, but quiet and introspective Emily was perhaps the most out of step with her times.

19th-Century Novels

After coming into its modern form in English in the 18th century, novels became the most popular form of literature in 19th-century England. While literature had typically been the reserve of wealthy aristocrats, many members of the middle class were learning to read and couldn't get enough of novels. A big part of the novel-reading audience was female.

Because of its association with both women and the lower classes, novels were dismissed as disposable entertainment by many more traditional writers and critics. By the mid-19th century, when the Brontes began publishing, novels were gaining some respectability, but still dismissed by many.

Realizing that novels written by women were treated less seriously, all three Brontes decided to publish under male names. They took the pseudonyms of Currer Bell (Charlotte), Ellis Bell (Emily), and Acton Bell (Anne). Notice that the pseudonym each sister chose shared her initials. Their identities remained secret until Charlotte revealed them following the early deaths of both Emily and Anne.

Many novels of the period, including both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, were influenced by the Gothic tradition, a genre dating back to the 18th century that featured isolated locations, ruined buildings, and supernatural occurrences, among other creepy elements.

Victorian Culture

The Brontes lived and wrote during the Victorian period in England. Technically, the name refers to the reign of Queen Victoria, which covered most of the 19th century, but it also refers to an attitude that dominated at the time. Victorian culture was defined by repression and a focus on appearances. Unpleasant or disagreeable topics were not to be discussed and social decorum was to be observed at all times.

It may seem odd, then, that Gothic novels, with their ghosts and untamed passions, were so popular, though it makes perfect sense if you think about it. These topics were exciting because they were taboo.

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