The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Charlotte Brontë: Her Sister’s Interpreter:

Reading Oppositely or Literary Criticism as Special Pleading


Brian Crick



Each and every time I prepare to teach Wuthering Heights I am struck anew by the privileged status Charlotte's "Biographical Notice" and "Editor's Preface" continue to enjoy. Heather Glenn is certainly right when she corrects Frank Kermode's claim to have come to the novel without either the benefit or the disadvantage of knowing what other critics have had to say by noting his familiarity with and dependence on Charlotte's views.[1] I wonder whether anyone who has studied the novel at university has escaped Charlotte's commentary? Her two brief essays have virtually infiltrated the work to become an intimate part of the text itself. For me these two brief essays are a long-standing source of irritation which even the accepted conventions for publishing academic articles do not warrant disguising. In private conversation or in the class room I would readily admit to thinking them deserving about the same measure of respect as the average blurb on a dust jacket. Forcing my way through them habitually triggers a memory of an anecdote Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey recorded in an article published by Scribner's Magazine in 1871. I quote from it as reproduced by Winifred Gérin in her admiring biography:


On the moors Ellen detected a 'spell of mischief' in Emily: ‘she enjoyed leading Charlotte where she would not dare to go of her own free will. Charlotte had a mortal dread of unknown animals, and it was Emily's pleasure to lead her into close vicinity and then tell her how and of what she had done, laughing at her terror with great amusement . . . .'[2]


Wuthering Heights, in my estimation, is that unknown creature, and Charlotte only dimly realizes the dangers she encounters in venturing out onto Emily's moor. I am more and more convinced that we would be less bewildered by the novel if we regarded Charlotte's response as fiction making and the novel as a literary criticism of it and much else that characterizes the fantasizing dynamic of all of Charlotte's novels.


I state my adverse reaction bluntly to dramatize how out of step I am with the critical consensus responsible for the spectacular rise in Charlotte's reputation over the past three decades. Portions of Shirley and Villette, the novels published after Emily's death, are now extolled as further testimony eloquently enforcing Charlotte's imaginative insights into her sister's nature and art first displayed publicly in the "Biographical Notice" and "Editor's Preface." I propose to begin with an account of my critical dissatisfaction with Charlotte's original performance before proceeding to make as strong a case as possible against what academic criticism has in recent times made out of it, even though the issues cannot be kept wholly apart from one another.


The persuasive power of Charlotte's brief comments to sway the emotions of her original audience was, I think it is generally realized, largely attributable to the frantic desire of the novel reading public to learn anything at all about the identity and the life of the author or authors of the five novels that had then been published under the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell. Miriam Allott, in her introduction to The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, notes the reviewers' interest in the "biographical facts" was so intense as to take precedence over reconsideration of the novel itself.[3] The prurient curiosity of the book-buying public may well strike even those of us inured to the excesses of public relations stunts as clashing painfully with Charlotte's sense of fulfilling a "sacred duty"[4] in narrating the tragic course of her sisters' illnesses and deaths. In a horrifyingly uncanny way, the Victorian public cast itself in the role of Lockwood anticipating the enjoyment of "something interesting"[5] as he awaits the next instalment in the "tale" of Catherine and Heathcliff, who exist for him in some confused borderland between fiction—" I remember her hero had run off, and never been heard of for three years; and the heroine was married" (80)—and living human beings. Such was Emily's prophetic penetration into the psychology of fiction reading in her culture.


Charlotte's "duty," as she saw it, was to repudiate the fictional constructions of the authors the readers had manufactured out of their imaginative engagement with the novels. In this task she was, as Janet Gezari argues, anticipating "the overall defending strategy"[6] Mrs. Gaskell was to employ in redeeming Charlotte's reputation some seven years later. You might even say that Mrs. Gaskell treats Charlotte's remarks in these texts in the quasi-religious spirit they are proffered. When she refers to the "Biographical Notice" or actually quotes passages from it Mrs. Gaskell is at pains to frame the matter with letters in which Charlotte expresses the anguish she felt at Emily's approaching death[7] and the "exquisitely painful and depressing" (Gaskell 185) experience she endured in preparing the preface and the text of Wuthering Heights. The overall effect is to highlight the nobility and devotion of a loving sister who performs her "sacred duty" with exemplary courage despite the horrendous emotional costs. Although Mrs. Gaskell's imaginative sympathy is often deprecated, I think someone like myself, who is decidedly unsympathetic and even hostile, would do well to recognize how well these hedges against unfavourable judgements worked.


I want to appeal to the testimony of two of Charlotte's contemporaries who are a good deal less likely to be discounted for their partisanship, G.H. Lewes and W.C. Roscoe. Lewes's relations with Charlotte, as revealed in his reviews of each of her novels, in his correspondence with her and in their occasional meetings in London, are invariably treated by Brontë scholars with some measure of scorn. In her recent biography, The Brontës, Juliet Barker, who is anything but a blind advocate of Charlotte's conduct, protests against the "bombastic lecturings" she endured in corresponding with him, and pronounces his use of personal details in his review of Shirley "little short of disgraceful."[8] In the letters and the reviews Lewes casts himself as the master and Charlotte as his chosen pupil. Their exchanges often assume a pattern of submission and rebellion that defines the relation of the lovers in all Charlotte's novels. At the outset Charlotte seems grateful for his review of Jane Eyre and half promises to take his directives for future writing to heart but the considerable gratification she derives from his attention soon pales. Life doesn't imitate art in this instance. As early as the fall of 1851 Charlotte claims, in a letter written to her publisher, to have "felt what he was through the very first letter he sent me - and had no wish ever to hear from—or write to him again."[9] Lewes's reviews of the novels are readily available in Allott's collection and I am going to assume that it isn't necessary to document the smug, patronizing tone of male superiority he displays throughout. The essay prompted by the reprint of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, and, of course, Charlotte's commentary, is all the more remarkable when considered in this overall context. Lewes takes over several of Charlotte's remarks: on her sister's lack of broad cultural experience, the power of the novels but also the excessive darkness of the vision, the views of creative process and the conflict of conscience involved in their literary production and, for the most part, he does so as if these judgements were his own (Allott 291-3). It is almost as if the master is taking dictation from the erstwhile pupil. The contrast with the rest of their exchanges is quite astounding.


In Roscoe's case we should recall his being virtually the only dissenting voice raised when the general public greeted Mrs. Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë with enthusiastic approval. He objected categorically to what seemed to him the defence of an author's works on the basis of an appeal to their private character. He opens his critique with the unequivocal assertion: "A living author is known to the world by his works only, or, if not so, it is with his works alone the public are concerned" (Allott 346). At the close of his argument he takes Mrs. Gaskell to task for accepting the existence of the faults of coarseness the hostile reviewers such as Elizabeth Rigby attributed to Charlotte's novels and to her person and dismisses her defence of such defects as tainted by the very "injustice or pharisaism" (Allott 356) Mrs. Gaskell was protesting against. For my purposes the most interesting feature of this impressive expression of critical independence is his frequent reliance on quotations from Charlotte's "Biographical Notice" and "Editor's Preface" (Allott 348, 351-2). He adopts Charlotte's defence of her sisters' fiction by appeals to their personal situation and temperament without the slightest demurral. The objections in principle and in practice magically dissolve.


One can't help but be impressed by the spell Charlotte manages to cast over this pair of unlikely followers. They certainly provide support for J. Hillis Miller, Frank Kermode, Sandra Gilbert, Heather Glenn and Janet Gezari who in their different ways all insist that subsequent criticism of Wuthering Heights should be seen as a working over the ground staked out by Charlotte. Her remarks have come to seem a paradigm of the post-modernist view of acculturation whereby the process of reification transforms a piece of discourse into something grounded in nature.


Charlotte Brontë’s fictions have never seemed the thing itself for me. My long-standing resistance to granting her the credit for identifying the "cruces of interpretation" (Glenn 353), is based upon a number of suspicions concerning her own troubled relation to the reviewers and the reading public. One of the warning signs can be inferred from the only aspect of her commentary Lewes took issue with, her contention that the reviewers had "failed to do . . . justice" to either of her sister's novels, and that the "very real powers" of Wuthering Heights "were scarcely recognised" (BN 5). Lewes categorically dismisses Charlotte's judgement and points to extracts "of articles in the Britannia and Atlas" as evidence for considering the critics as being if anything "excessively indulgent" (Allott 291). Excerpts from the reviews specified by Lewes were actually used by the unscrupulous Newby to advertise The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in June 1848 (Gérin 357). Moreover passages from these same favourable reviews were, in fact, included "to encourage sales" (Allott 30) in the very text, the second edition of Wuthering Heights, in which Charlotte had maintained this charge. Faced with such a glaring anomaly Miriam Allott, the only critic to have noticed the problem, has recourse to the kind of explanation Charlotte's contemporaries and modern day academics alike are unable to resist: “Charlotte saw her sisters through a haze of grief which magnified every adverse criticism into a wrong added in the general cruelty of destiny” (Allott 30). What sort of person would be prepared to blame Charlotte for her lapse in judgement in such circumstances?


To be fair to Allott she does come very close to spelling out a truth about Charlotte's position that far more sophisticated critical theoreticians have since either missed or wilfully refused to admit. While reluctant to blame Charlotte, Allott points clearly to the essential correspondence between the reviewers' verdict on Wuthering Heights and the essence of Charlotte's own attitude: "The immature but very real powers revealed in Wuthering Heights were scarcely recognised" (BN 5). The latter half of this sentence is nonsense and the first half is the formula adopted by the very critics Charlotte condemns for their failure, including, I think it should be emphasized, Sydney Dobell, whom Charlotte praises inordinately as the "one exception to the general rule of criticism" (BN 6). In short, Charlotte is guilty of defending her sister's novel from the judgement she herself agrees with unequivocally and which her remarks shamefully perpetuate. The real nature of Wuthering Heights, she and Dobell (with his "keen vision and fine sympathies of genius," (BN 6) agree entirely in regarding as the product "of an original mind however unripe, however inefficiently cultured and partially expanded that mind may be" (BN 6).


Miriam Allott is most reluctant to attach any blame to Charlotte in this matter. As I noted earlier, she excuses the devoted sister blinded by grief but she offers a second reason for refusing to draw any painful conclusions from what I regard as a highly equivocal performance. "We cannot blame Charlotte for saying that ‘the import and nature of the book were misunderstood', since these are still debated" (Allott 30). I doubt whether any of us who think Wuthering Heights one of the greatest novels of the Victorian period really believe that Charlotte or any of her contemporaries did justice to Emily Brontë but what sort of defence is that? The novel most certainly possesses the power to unsettle and frustrate our best efforts to articulate the exact nature of Emily Brontë’s elusive achievement. What essays written in the past two or three decades can we point to as having done the job the Victorians fumbled so ineptly? Our condemnation of them may well mask our unease but this is no justification for averting our eyes from Charlotte's duplicitous performance.


To do justice to her sister's work she would have had to reject the critical consensus of the age which routinely assumed Jane Eyre was a more "mature" production than Wuthering Heights. Charlotte possessed neither the capacity for self-criticism nor the disinterestedness of mind her advocates credit her with to question her own superiority over her sister. Wuthering Heights had received mixed reviews but Jane Eyre was a sensational success. How could we expect her to do anything but acquiesce? She was in the position of Bunyan's By-ends, who had "the luck to jump in [her] judgement with the present way of the times."[10] In contrast, Emily with all her celebrated ferocity of independence stood apart and even threatened those very assumptions through which Charlotte futilely attempts to make Wuthering Heights fit the place her culture had assigned it. Her "sacred duty" is fatally misconceived.


When I used the word duplicitous above I didn't, of course, mean to accuse Charlotte of deliberately trying to besmirch her sisters' literary reputation while pretending to "wipe the dust off their gravestones" (BN 8). Like Catherine Earnshaw in "her perplexities and untold troubles," Charlotte, I would contend, adopted "a double character without exactly intending to deceive anyone" (WH 62). Convincing herself that she was rescuing Emily from the mistreatment at the hands the reviewers gave her the rhetorical stance which is a defining feature of all her writing. She must defend, justify and vindicate as Janet Gezari convincingly demonstrates.[11] (It will be evident from what I have already said and what I am about to argue that I don't accept Gezari's findings which are based on establishing and maintaining a sharp distinction between defending and being defensive, and just and fair vindication as opposed to vindictiveness in Charlotte Brontë's habitual conduct.)


Of the three Brontë sisters, it seems to me quite obvious that it is Charlotte who is most distressed by the reviews, not Emily or Anne. The touching picture Charlotte leaves us of her reading the dying Emily, and the supposedly despondent Anne, an unfavourable review is too readily accepted as evidence of how deeply distressed they were by the uncomprehending and offensive response to Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Allott may well be right in saying that Charlotte "probably remembered with especial bitterness some of the last reviews of their own work seen by the sisters" (Allott 30), but we must learn to distinguish Charlotte's reactions from those of her sisters. Unfortunately almost everything we know of them is filtered through Charlotte's consciousness.


Miriam Allott places Charlotte's letter recording this particular incident as a head note immediately above the obtuse review by E.P. Whipple which prompted her to read it to her sisters not as something likely to cause real discomfort but as something that might amuse them. There is nothing in Charlotte's view of their response to suggest that either sister "allowed herself for one moment to sink under want of encouragement" (BN 7). Here is the relevant section from the letter:


Ellis, the ‘man of uncommon talents, but dogged, brutal, and morose,' sat leaning back in his easy-chair drawing his impeded breath as he best could, and looking, alas! piteously pale and wasted . . . he smiled half-amused, and half in scorn as he listened. Acton . . . smiled too, dropping . . . a single word of calm amazement to hear his character so darkly portrayed. (Allott 247)


Charlotte does say in the "Biographical Notice" that matters of critical misunderstanding all three "laughed at . . . at first" "I deeply lament . . . now." The reference here is quite specific; it is restricted to the mistaken identification of Wuthering Heights as an early novel of hers. Whipple's review does involve a misidentification of authorship but the two pieces of evidence don't dovetail as conveniently as Charlotte's sympathizers would have us believe. Whipple assumes that Acton Bell is the author of Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and, he adds somewhat more tentatively, "certain offensive but powerful portions of Jane Eyre" (Allott 247).


In her desire to defend her sisters' characters and their books Charlotte is certainly tempted to portray them as the suffering victims of public misconstructions but she can't help being aware how offended they would have been with her for making "these things subject for reproach or complaint" (BN 6). Because of the enormous success Charlotte achieved with the publication of Jane Eyre it is all too easy to assume that it is the far less successful Emily and Anne who are prone to feeling despondent at the way they were handled by the reviewers. When I insisted that it is obviously Charlotte who was most sensitive to hostile criticism, I had in mind the revealing contrast between the introductory remarks Anne composed for the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Charlotte's extreme reaction to Elizabeth Rigby's attack on Jane Eyre which her publishers wisely refused to accept as a preface to Shirley.


If Charlotte had been wrong in creating the impression that the reviews of Wuthering Heights had been uniformly negative, she would have been closer to the truth had she reached this conclusion with respect to the reception of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There is a tiresome harping throughout on the author's morbid love for the coarse, not to say the brutal; so that his level of subjects are not very attractive, and the more forcible are displeasing or repulsive, from their gross, physical, or profligate sub-stratum. (Allott 250)


I do not think I am being unfair in considering Charlotte's determination to prevent publication of further editions of this novel after the second to have grown straight out of her alarm at these charges which she half agrees with. The unsigned review in The Spectator from which I culled this passage actually anticipates the position Charlotte takes in the "Biographical Notice" when the writer notes in passing that the author's "considerable abilities" were "ill applied" (Allott 250). Charlotte's judgement constitutes an expansion of this undeveloped hint: “The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid” (BN 6). I find it impossible to swallow this as an expression of loving concern for her dead sister's memory. These adverse reviews all stress the family resemblances between the Bells and it seems reasonable to suspect Charlotte feared that the reiterated charges of "coarseness" and "morbidity" were going to stick to her.


Anne's refutation of the charges made against her character and her novel are, I think, dignified, assured, and astute—in every sense impressive. Her own "feelings" and "judgement" assure her that the asperity of censure she was "little prepared to expect" was "more bitter than just" (Allott 252). Charlotte would have done well to respect rather than adapt the finely gauged answer Anne had made to the particular censure from The Spectator I quoted above:


I find myself censured for depicting con amore, with ‘a morbid love of the coarse, if not of the brutal', those painful scenes which, I will venture to say, have not been more painful for the most fastidious of my critics to read than they were for me to describe. (Allott 252-3)


It is far more painful to consider what Anne would have felt on seeing the use Charlotte made of this remark.


Anne's preface appeared with the publication of the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on July 22, 1848, just weeks before the onset of Emily's fatal illness. The notoriously spiteful attack Elizabeth Rigby made on the coarseness, brutality and vulgarity of the characters and the author of Jane Eyre arrived at the Haworth parsonage within days of Emily's death. The unfortunate timing of the attack provides Charlotte's apologists with an ideal explanation for the violent anger she spilled out onto the pages of the note she proposed to add to the text of Shirley some nine months later. The near-hysterical violence of her suppressed emotions are to be understood and, of course, excused as a natural by-product of her intense grief. She had just lost her sister Anne who had suffered the same treatment at the hands of abusive reviewers. Moreover, her vehement retort was, in part, motivated by a wholly honourable resentment at the gossip she had innocently caused by dedicating the second edition of Jane Eyre to Thackeray. She accused Rigby of spreading salacious rumours concerning this matter and may even, as Barker suggests, have left herself open to a libel charge (Barker 606).


Deeply chagrined at her publisher's refusal to print her "Word to the Quarterly", Charlotte summarily dismissed their alternative proposal for silencing her antagonist with a biographical preface. Like the abused heroines in her novels she takes the high moral line, "I can shed no tears before the public, nor utter any groan in the public ear" (Barker 607) while her tormentor is castigated for acting like "an active sales-woman" working in an "advertising medium" (Barker 606). Critics of Jane Eyre and Villette routinely represent the relationship of the emotionally distressed Jane to Bertha, and Lucy to the mysterious nun, as that of an alter ego. This widely accepted psychological explanation of how the morally proper heroines' repressed hatred, rage and resentment are displaced onto a frightening double may well be at work here in Charlotte's explosive reaction to the threat Rigby posed. Gilbert and Gubar among the best known proponents of this kind of reading admit that Rigby probably was more conscious than Charlotte of these psychological implications:


Paradoxically, however, Brontë herself may have been less conscious of the extraordinary complex visionary and revisionary impulses that went into Jane Eyre than Mrs. Rigby was, at least in part because, like many other women, she found her own anger and its intellectual consequences almost too painful to confront.[12]


Gilbert and Gubar might have seen fit to acknowledge Rigby's having anticipated them in considering Charlotte's writing as "unconscious" (Allott 110) instinctive outpourings. That Charlotte was trying desperately to evade understanding the extremity of her outrage is evident in the transparently ineffectual efforts she made to persuade herself and her publishers that Rigby's offensive remarks applied to Currer Bell and not to her (Barker 606) and, thus, justified a mocking answer in the fictional voice of "an old bachelor" (Barker 607).


To ignore the all too obvious signs of Charlotte's fears for the public reception of the soon-to-be-released Shirley being tainted by Rigby's distressing charges is to show a critical blindness matched only by Charlotte's own. Though Gilbert and Gubar are never troubled by "the extent of her own duplicity"(315) (you might even say they make a virtue out of it), I find it very disturbing indeed. I read the accusation of publicity mongering against Rigby as a displaced wish or projected fear springing from her own repressed temptation to accede to her publisher's proposal of a biographical defence. What Charlotte could not dare do without risking the appearance of exploiting her family tragedy for her own self-interest became possible a year later. To publish the details of your sisters' deaths as a way of defending yourself and your art was unthinkable but to do so for the sake of their memories could be seen as a "sacred duty." Charlotte seized the opportunity.


I have already indicated my own sense of Charlotte's duplicity being largely a matter of deceiving herself more than the public. Privately she writes to Sydney Dobell of her feeling more gratified by a single word of praise for Emily than for all the eulogies she had ever received (Gérin 454). I do not mean to demean the sincerity of her telling Dobell, Emily's defender in The Palladium, that he had rendered "noble justice" "to one dear to me as myself—perhaps dearer" (Gérin 454). I do, however, think there are other less noble impulses operating in her "Editor's Preface" and some of these are, at least, half-conscious.


The opening sentence for instance: “I have just read over Wuthering Heights, and, for the first time, have obtained a clear glimpse of what are termed (and, perhaps, really are) its faults” (EP 9) has the air of a deliberately contrived strategy. She is, to speak in the jargon of today's theoretical discourse in which literary criticism is made to sound like an activity akin to managing mutual funds, consciously "positioning" herself. Philip Drew, the first of Charlotte's apologists I encountered, represents the opening gambit as a rather clever piece of irony whereby Charlotte pretends to apologize for features of the novel "she is in fact defending . . . as authentic and inevitable."[13] Drew's article first appeared in 1964 well before Charlotte had achieved her current status as a feminist martyr but the idea of an ironic perspective he proposed has since become a staple of the critical praise the "Editor's Preface" continues to attract. Sandra Gilbert whose work is most responsible for Charlotte's "cult" status remarks on "the diplomatic irony of parts of her preface"(305) as further evidence of how well Charlotte understood her sister's intentions. More recently Nancy Armstrong offers a version of Charlotte's defence in which she is a good deal less diplomatic about putting "the typical novel reader" in his place by proving that it is the "polite readers" with their presumed refinement who are at fault, not the uncultured author of Wuthering Heights.[14]


This tradition of defending the defender verges on the special pleading I refer to in the title of this paper. If you buy into this ironic perspective you have to assume that the opening move is just a bluff. "What are termed . . . its faults" are summarily dispatched by Charlotte's sketching a composite portrait of the refined readers whose "calm" and "moderate" feelings render them unfit to appreciate the passionate intensity of Wuthering Heights. The city dwellers' complaints against the uncivilized inhabitants of Emily's world are checkmated by Charlotte's evocation of a "natural" reality. The world of Wuthering Heights is "wild, and knotty as a root of heath" (EP 10) and her critics would be well advised to honour what is "original" and "truthful" in her presentation instead of looking for a duplicate of the "the world" they inhabit. The phrase "what . . . perhaps, really are its faults" drops wholly from view.


In assenting to this well-entrenched reading one must forget that Charlotte readily agreed with Dobell and the other reviewers when in the "Biographical Notice" she refers to her sister's "original mind" as "unripe . . . inefficiently cultured and partially expanded". After the first three paragraphs of the "Editor's Preface," Charlotte performs a precarious balancing act as she tries to placate the sunnier disposition of the reading public without deprecating her sister's "sombre" "spirit" and the darkened atmosphere that prevails in Wuthering Heights. She even offers them a woefully sentimentalized portrait of Emily's development had she lived: “her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree loftier, straighter, wide-spreading, and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom” (EP 11). I dare say the Victorian public would have preferred Charlotte's fiction to the real Emily. Even if you are in the habit of accounting for Charlotte's every remark by crediting her with the noblest of motives, this version of a "mature" Emily ought to stick in your throat. In fact it bears a suspicious likeness to Sydney Dobell's manner of comparing the author's mature achievement in Jane Eyre to her immature but promising earlier work, Wuthering Heights:


whatever absolute superiority we may discover in Jane Eyre, we find in it only further evidence of the same producing qualities to which Wuthering Heights bears testimony. Those qualities, indurated by time, armed by experience, and harmonized by the natural growth of a maturing brain, have been here exhibited, in a more favourable field, and under stronger guidance. . . . (Allott 282)


Charlotte's extravagant admiration for Dobell, "the true seer" and the only critic with the "vision" to discern "the real nature of Wuthering Heights" (BN 6) surely owes something to this flattering picture of herself, however gratified she was by the patronizing praise of Emily. It is high time we realized how much of Charlotte's commentary merely regurgitates Dobell's essay. I will have more to say about this in a moment. Charlotte felt very strongly the appeal of the "wider—more comprehensive" (EP10) cultural life she is supposedly mocking in the first section of her argument. Those distressing reviews attacking the "coarseness" of the writing of all three Bells repeatedly credit Currer Bell with the "riper mind" (Allott 292) and "the most cultivated taste" (Allott 249) of the lot. Charlotte's "defence" is calculated not to forfeit that advantage. The major crux as Philip Drew realized was the characterization of Heathcliff. All of Charlotte's subsequent critical support agrees with Drew but the ingenuity and freedom of interpretation expended on disposing of Charlotte's apparent moral censure has far outstripped his modest defence.


Drew risks a detailed examination of Charlotte's comments whereas recent critics, with the possible exception of Janet Gezari, pounce upon a small fragment as a mere take off point for demonstrating how well Charlotte grasped the subversive tendencies of her sister's novel. Sandra Gilbert, while conceding that Charlotte wasn't even as conscious of "the complex of visionary and revisionary impulses that went into Jane Eyre" (Gilbert 205) as Mrs. Rigby, shows no hesitation in declaring Charlotte "understood Emily's revisionary tendencies better than anyone" (Gilbert 256). Charlotte's sonorous and fatuous judgement of Heathcliff's love for Catherine, "perverse passion and passionate perversity" is slipped into a sentence by Gilbert as if it was what "Victorian readers thought her sister had produced" (Gilbert 289) not Charlotte's own considered opinion. Even though Gilbert herself thinks Nelly Dean a tool of the patriarchy, the hagiographic impulse is too strong for her to offer even a mildly unfavourable remark on what she acknowledges as the manifest "conviction" of Charlotte's idealized picture of Nelly. Charlotte "certainly appears to believe in "the specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity" (EP 11) Gilbert allows but then the devoted sister was just "trying to soften the picture" (Gilbert 289). Instead of noting the limits of Charlotte's insight which the logic of her own reading of Wuthering Heights dictates, Gilbert makes a scapegoat of Mrs. Leavis for accepting Charlotte's judgement (Gilbert 289).


Philip Drew's marshalling of an extensive catalogue of references to Heathcliff's diabolic nature in support of the "moral import" of Charlotte's reading would I expect look hopelessly naive to today's critical sophisticates. Surprisingly enough, however, he is the first of Charlotte's apologists to make the final paragraph of the "Editor's Preface" the key piece of evidence for thinking Charlotte a remarkably astute reader of Wuthering Heights. Gilbert, (305-6) Glenn (353-4) and Gezari (125-6) all build upon Drew's emphasis on this specific passage though none of them acknowledges this fact nor do they seem aware of echoing one another.


I object on a variety grounds both to Charlotte's passage in itself and to the insights these clever interpreters read into it. One of the basic images deployed by Charlotte is, like so much of her commentary, warmed-over Dobell. He represents Emily's creation of the novel as a matter of "statuary" (Allott 278) and in comparing Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre he speaks of the "hand" "that cut out the rougher earlier statues" and of "ruder" "execution." Charlotte's "statuary" is little more than a fanciful elaboration of Dobell's figure. To regard Charlotte's rhetorical flourishes as embodying a superb synthesis which simultaneously celebrates Heathcliff's character and the novel as a whole leaves me gasping with incredulity.


Gilbert and Gezari are both persuaded by the force of Charlotte's blending or identification of the natural world and Heathcliff's person. It is certainly the way Emily's imagination worked but it is precisely this achievement which Charlotte had denied her sister earlier in the essay. Just at the crucial moment in the argument when Charlotte turns away from correcting the reading public to acknowledging her sister's limitations, the following sentences are juxtaposed: “Her descriptions, then, of natural scenery, are what they should be, and all they should be. Where the delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different” (EP 10).


Frankly I don't know how this judgement could be explained away but then Charlotte's advocates are not really concerned with anything as mundane as the overall coherence of Charlotte's thoughts. In my judgement the celebrated closing paragraph is a pastiche of various elements in the novel but Charlotte doesn't have the slightest inkling of the dissonances that exist between the fragments her version glues together. I detect a decided revisionary impulse (rather different than that Gilbert credits her with) to rewrite the novel in this showy display. There is more than a bit of evidence for thinking she was engaged in demonstrating her agreement with Dobell's pronouncement on Heathcliff:


Heathcliff might have been as unique a creation. The conception in his case was as wonderfully strong and original, but he is spoilt in detail. The authoress has too often disgusted, where she should have terrified, and has allowed us a familiarity with her fiend which has ended in unequivocal contempt. If Wuthering Heights had been written as lately as Jane Eyre, the figure of Heathcliff, symmetrised and elevated, might have been one of the most natural and striking portraits in the gallery of fiction. (Allott 278-9)


As Nelly says to Lockwood: “But you'll not want to hear my moralizing, Mr. Lockwood: you'll judge as well as I can, all these things; at least you'll think you will, and that's the same” (WH 152).


Both Gilbert and Gezari use the final paragraph as a springboard to demonstrate further moving testimony to Charlotte's imaginative capacity to realize and celebrate her sister's achievement. For Gilbert the portrait of Shirley is the most impressive illustration. Gezari on the other hand considers the figure of Vashti vitally important to appreciating the complexity of Charlotte's response to Heathcliff.


Gilbert explicitly transposes what she refers to as Charlotte's "discretely qualified description of a literal heath/cliff" conclusion to the "Editor's Preface" to "Shirley's titanic Eve" (Gilbert 305). The titan Eve sections of Shirley, so vital to the overall thesis of The Madwoman in the Attic, strike me as little better than the solemn "poetizing" indulged in by Dobell in his construction of a mythic creator of Wuthering Heights: "brilliant figures moving in an atmosphere of mist" owe their beings to "a giant's hand", they are "the ‘large utterance' of a baby god", and for good measure, "the sprawling of the infant Hercules" (Allott 279). I imagine the manner and substance of these oracular pronouncements thrilled Charlotte but I think Nietzsche's phrase "wall paper style" would strike an impartial reader as closer to the truth. Charlotte was drawn to Dobell's vapourings like a doomed insect to fly-paper coated with icing sugar.


If there is a lesson to be learned from Charlotte's treatment of Shirley as Emily, it is her powerful compulsion to make those she was deeply attached to over into an image of her own desiring. It is hard to conceive of anything less celebratory of Emily's real nature than turning her into a heroine who found having her desk rifled and the submissive performing of a pupil's "devoirs" erotic experiences. An appeal to Nietzsche's pitiless repudiation of ‘romantic pessimism' will no doubt strike anyone familiar with Charlotte's life as too cruel by half but it is I fear apposite:


But it can also be the tyrannic will of one who suffers deeply, who struggles, is tormented, and would like to turn what is most personal, singular, and narrow, the real idiosyncrasy of his suffering, into a binding law and compulsion—one who, as it were, revenges himself on all things by forcing his own image, the image of his torture, on them, branding them with it.[15]


Gezari's thesis is developed with greater care and is, in general terms, well worth considering. The whole of the fifth chapter of her book is devoted to an exploration of how Charlotte's re-reading of Wuthering Heights may have influenced the composition of Villette. Her thesis involves an intriguing complication in that she regards Charlotte's last novel and the "Editor's Preface" as defences of her sister as well as a defence against Emily's most disturbing creation Heathcliff.


I will restrict my opposition to the inferences she draws from the ostensible resemblances between Charlotte's deeply troubled reaction against Heathcliff and the equally strong horror and fascination she felt at the performance of the consumptive actress Rachel who is thought to provide the source of the Vashti sequences in Villette. There are, of course, the common-sense objections: the difference in sex, and the fact that one is character from a novel, the other a living human being playing a part. But ingenuity of interpretation is unlikely to be deterred by such an appeal. It may only fuel the fire. I believe the similarity has more to do with Charlotte's personal torments than a retrospective justice to Heathcliff or Emily.


My own inclination is to stress the significance of Villette as being the first and only novel Charlotte published in which her identity was known to the public. For her to use intimate personal details from her Brussels days as well recent public events from her anxiety-ridden visits to London left her in an especially vulnerable emotional condition. I would contend that in the figure of Vashti it is her own nightmare self she was drawn to and repelled by, not Heathcliff's haunting presence. Charlotte's emotional entanglement with her publisher also played a vital part in the way Lucy's reactions are contrasted with those of Smith's fictional counterpart, Dr. John. The handsome successful gentleman's failure to do justice to the anguish Vashti's artistic efforts cost her is likely to have been aimed at Smith, who Charlotte, during the writing of the novel, had come to feel cared for her as an author only, not a possible wife. That Graham is roundly condemned as an unfit suitor for Lucy because he sees only the woman and not the magnificent artistry of the performance, functions as a cover story reversing the dangerous fantasy truth that nearly escapes from Charlotte's repressive hold on her emotional wound.


Gezari makes effective use of several letters Charlotte wrote describing the powerful impact of seeing Rachel's performance in June, 1851. In a letter Gezari doesn't refer to, Charlotte informs Amelia Ringrose that: “She [Rachel] and Thackeray are the two living things that have a spell for me in this great London—and the one of them is sold to the Great Ladies—and the other—I fear—to Beelzebub” (Gérin 481). If I am allowed the same interpretative licence Gilbert and Gezari exploit, I would hazard a guess that the yoking of Rachel and Thackeray as the two great artists who hold her enthralled despite having sold themselves veils a deep fear of her own misconduct. Wasn't she, in the Vashti sequence and the commentary on the death of her sisters, guilty of exploiting her private torments for public delectation?


In any event, the reliance on Charlotte as an interpreter of her sister's personality or her fiction makes about as much sense as taking Nelly Dean's word on Catherine or Heathcliff. If in "reading oppositely" my arguments strike the reader as excessively severe there is, at least, the justification of resisting reigning critical opinion. If they are more than a useful corrective, then I hope they will serve as a starting point for re-exploring the radical differences between Emily's fiction and Charlotte's. We might begin by remembering the parodic inflection Emily gives to Nelly's motive for telling the emotionally debilitated Lockwood the story of the Earnshaws and the Lintons in hopes of inducing him to fall in love with Cathy. Villette, the most "mature" of Charlotte's creations, is in stark contrast a fictional reliving of the author's unfulfilled love for her Belgian school master by way of compensation for the failure to elicit a proposal of marriage from her publisher. I do not see how anyone can persist in thinking Charlotte was in any position to comment on the relative maturity of herself and her sister as women or novelists. As for Charlotte's introductory comments on Wuthering Heights, never has there been such a disparity between the intrinsic merits of a piece of literary criticism and the fuss made over it.







[1] See Heather Glenn’s “Critical Commentary” appended to the edition of Wuthering Heights published by Routledge (London, 1988), 351-2.

[2] Winifred Gerin, Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius (London: Oxford, 1969), 79.

[3] Miriam Allott, The Brontës: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1974), 32-33.

[4] Charlotte Brontë, “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” (BN) as reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights (New York: Norton, 1963), 8. All future references to this commentary as well as to the “Editor’s Preface” (EP) will be to this edition.

[5] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (New York: Norton, 1963), 80. All subsequent references to this text will be to this edition.

[6] Janet Gezari, Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 21.

[7] Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Vol II (London: Smith, Elder, and Co, 1857), 80-81.

[8] Juliet Barker, The Brontës (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1994), 612-13. See also Janet Gezari, Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct, 21-5 and 128-9.

[9] I am quoting a portion of the letter dated September 15, 1851 reproduced in Juliet Barker, The Brontës 949. Charlotte goes on to praise Smith as Lewes’ opposite: “You appear to me something very different – not hard – not insolent – not coarse – not to be distrusted – all the contrary”. Barker’s barbed editorial comment, “with her startling ability to rewrite the past” is not unwarranted.

[10] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (Middlesex: Penguin, 1965), 137.

[11] See Chapters One and Two, “Introductory: Defending and being Defensive” (1-29) and “The Master’s Hand: Vindictiveness and Vindication in The Professor” (30-58), in Janet Gezari’s book, Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk.

[12] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale, 1979), 206.

[13] Philip Drew, “Charlotte Brontë as a Critic of Wuthering Heights”, reprinted in Wuthering Heights: An Anthology of Criticism, ed. Alaistair Everitt (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1967), 119-20.

[14] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987), 190.

[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974), 330.






Crick, Brian. “Charlotte Brontë: Her Sister’s Interpreter: Reading Oppositely or Literary Criticism as Special Pleading.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <http://www.thenewcompass/dec2003/crick.html>