The Victorian Period
Queen Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Kent (1767-1820) came to the throne of England at the age of eighteen (1837) and succeeded in restoring the image of the monarchy with her wisdom, gaining the respect of her subjects with her private life: an adored husband, Prince Albert, and nine children.
Her pattern of life was ruled by sobriety and hard work, in a word, by ” respectability”. As a consequence the Victorian Period was based more on exteriority than on spiritual values, on conformism and, often, on hypocrisy.
As to political and social life, England lived a period full of changes and extensions in every field.
Queen Victoria died in 1902. Her son Edward came to the English throne trying to follow his mother’s steps.
The Parliament had to face the problems of the workers with a series of Acts ( The Factory Act, The Ten Hours’ Act; The Mines Act; The Public Health Act) to improve the working conditions, limit the hours of work and the exploitation of the children and women.
In 1884 the Third Reform Bill enlarged the suffrage to all male workers.
Ireland found his leader In C. Parnell that demanded the Home Rule in 1880, but it was not approved till after the First World War
In 1887 Queen Victoria became Empress of India and the Empire enlarged its dominions to Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and parts of Africa.
In 1899-1902 the Boer War burst out in Orange and Transval
In 1854-56 the dispute on the borders between Russia and Turkey originated the Crimean War, during which Florence Nightingale founded the Red Cross.
Under the reign of Queen Victoria, literature developed thanks to the improved ways of communication and a new printing system; it became a means to confute ideas and reveal thoughts.
This period can be divided into three stages:
Fiction: the writers identified themselves with their own age; they wrote long books published in serial instalments and structured every episode as a plot. They tried to attract the masses with suspense and the appeal to the sensational. Their motto was to make them (the readers) wait, cry and laugh.
Poetry: The poets at first followed the Romantic way of writing, but soon they reflected a sense of uneasiness. They developed the Dramatic Monologue in which a persona reveals his thoughts and feeling unconsciously to a silent listener.
Main authors: Lord A. Tennyson and R. Browning.
Mid Victorians (or Anti Victorian Reaction)
Fiction: a sense of dissatisfaction and rebellion, caused by new scientific and philosophic theories (Darwin’s Origin of the Species) pervades this period.
The realism of the works mirrors the clash between man and environment, illusion and reality, leading to Naturalism: man is no longer responsible for his actions since they are determined by forces beyond his control. The writer’s task is to record events objectively, without comments.
Main Authors: George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans ) and Thomas Hardy.
Poetry: The writers followed J. Ruskin’s theories (1819-1900) against the massification and the materialism of the society; The Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood proclaimed a return to simplicity and nature as an escape from this world, idealising and beautifying the reality.
Main authors: D. G. Rossetti and his sister Cristina.
Fiction: The writers searched for an escape “travelling” in their self and putting in evidence the contrasts between classes and races and the contradictions of colonialism.
Aestheticism brought to the extreme every attempt to escape from the real world supplying a way to avoid frustrations and uncertainties, reacting against Utilitarianism and moral restrictions, and breaking the social conventions by means of free imagination.
Main authors: R. L. Stevenson.(wrote about the duality of man); R. Kipling (dealt with the problem of colonialism) and O. Wilde (was the mouthpiece of Aestheticism)
Poetry: Aestheticism was fervent among the poets followers of the Rossettis, but the most original voice was the one of an isolated poet, G. M. Hopkins, who combined lyric passion with his true religious faith and used a musical and sensuous language, identifying matter and form.
Drama: The stage had suffered a long period of sterility due to the lack of new ideas and to the audience’s requests. The public, in fact, demanded amusing comedies, great effects and famous stars. The rebirth of the 1890s occurred thanks to the influence of French and Russian playwrights that focussed their attention on the psychological study of the characters, in particular, of women. From Norway, instead, came the new form of drama written by H. Ibsen that analysed the social world and used the retrospective method.
Main authors: O. Wilde and G. B. Shaw.
Life and works:
1818: Emily Brontë was born in Yorkshire. She was the fifth daughter of a country parson.
1820: the family goes to live in he parsonage of Haworth . Her mother dies after a year leaving six children and an aunt looks after them.
1824: She is sent to a school for clergymen’s daughters with her sisters, but two of them die and she comes back home with Charlotte.At home again they live isolated from the other people and start spending their time inventing fantastic stories in imaginary worldsEmily and Anne invent a kingdom called Gondal, Charlotte and her brother Branwell one called Angria. The inhabitants of these lands are characters of epic cycles.
1842: Emily goes to spend eight months with her sister Charlotte in Brussels to get a proficiency in French and become a teacher.
1846: Charlotte publishes a volume of poems written by herself together with her sisters. The book appears under the title of Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, pseudonyms, respectively, of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
1847: Emily Brontë publishes her only novel, Wuthering Heights, started in 1945. In the same year appears Anne’s work, Agnes Grey.
1848: Emily dies at the age of thirty. Her brother Patrick Branwell had already died few months before for alcoholism and tuberculosis.
Wuthering Heights (1847)
The book opens when Mr. Lockwood, tenant of Thrushcross Grange, arrives at Wuthering Heights and asks Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, to tell him the story of Heathcliff, Catherine and Hareton, the three inhabitants of the house. A generation has already passed away and most of the characters have already died. Mr. Earnshaw lives in a lonely house in the moors, Wuthering Heights. He has a daughter, Catherine and a son, Hindley. One day he brings back from Liverpool an orphan, Heathcliff. After his father’s death, Hindley, jealous, treats the foundling brutally while, between Cathy and Heathcliff grows a deep understanding. One day, while running across the moors, Heathcliff and Cathy arrive at the Lintons’ house, Trushcross Grange, a beautiful estate in the valley. Edgar Linton falls in love with Catherine and asks her to marry him. She accepts even if she loves Heathcliff because attracted by Edgar’s elegant manners and way of living. Meanwhile Hindley has had a son by his wife Frances who has soon died. Heathcliff escapes and comes back only after three years, mysteriously rich. He has returned to get his revenge. He takes the control of Wuthering Heights treating cruelly Hindley, now drunk and spiritually ill after his wife’s death and persecuting Edgar’s sister, Elisabeth, with whom he marries and a son, Linton. Besides, his passionate love destroys Cathy’s life that dies leaving Edgar with their daughter, Catherine.
Heathcliff, in this way, gets a control on Wuthering Heights and on Trushcross Grange, inherited by his weak son Linton after Edgar’s death. He forces Catherine to marry Linton who is ill and soon dies.
Now Heathcliff has both Catherine’s daughter and Hindley’s son, Hareton, in his power. At this point his lust of revenge has died and he hears the voice of his Catherine calling him from the moors where she is buried and dies. The two remaining victims, Hareton and Catherine, discover to love each other and re-establish peace and joy in the Earnshaw and in the Lintons’s houses.
Surely Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights describes the environment she lived in: the windy moors, the hills, the endless and inhabited fields. The environment is the one she knows very well, the people are those who live around her. Yorkshire and Haworth in particular were insanitary and gloomy places, like many others in that period in England, but it was more isolated and the industrial revolution had probably added more darkness and bleakness to that area. Its inhabitants were as superstitious as Nelly. The Brontë’s servants, Tabby, used to tell them fantastic stories that appealed the children imagination. The descriptions of the deaths of so many characters can appear an exaggeration because of the normal aversion for physical decay that we feel nowadays. But it must be considered that this novel was written in the Victorian period. Sudden death from typhoid, cholera or other diseases was part of the life for the Victorians and the people were cured at home without medicines to alleviate their pain. Victorian domestic life abounded in drama and suffering.
As to the literary sources, it is not easy to find them. There are several similarities between E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Entail and the particular plot of the novel. Passions and emotional impulses derive from the romantic tradition. Byron’s heroes surely influenced Heathcliff’s character, dark and brooding.
Elements belonging to the Gothic tradition can be found in parts of the novel: the taste for horror, mystery and supernatural forces.
But these are only echoes, literary references that the writer has absorbed in her reading; they are not properly influence derivations from other books. Emily Brontë, unique in her style and in her way of writing, influenced literature after her.
At her times, the critics found the book morbid and violent. Charlotte Brontë felt forced to write a defence of her sister’s novel because it has been misunderstood. Some critics of her time, anyway, already appreciated the way characters were described and the genius of the author in using words. But in the whole the novel must have been appeared barbaric for the Victorian readers. Her reputation was only established at the end of the century. Actually, Wuthering Heights is not an easy book to interpret and its author was an individualist who did not follow the way of plain conventions. It cannot be considered a Victorian novel as a study of common men and women and it is not a novel of revenge or of love. . Here are some examples of how the critics have tried to explain the complexity of Brontë’s work:
- It is an allegory about the conception of the universe built from different forces, storm and calm. The central purpose is to re-establish the cosmic order that has been destroyed with an improper mixture of the two forces (the marriages).
- It is the psychological study of a man whose soul is divided between love and hate, whose actions are the product of the distortion of his natural personality. He does not follow Christian values: his soul is primitive and pagan. The evil that he does derives not from love of evil, but from the thwarting of the natural process of love. Even Cathy’s personality is not as strong as Heathcliff’s.
- It is an unconventionally narrated story divided into five acts like the Elizabethan drama, a sort of autobiography told by two narrators, Nelly Dean and Mr. Lockwood in a unity of place and tone.
- It is a tragedy whose power lies in the inevitability of this tragedy: a pair so stormy as Cathy and Heathcliff cannot settle to a normal domestic life, also because of the foster kinship.
- It is a drama that pivots around a vague incestuous aura: Dr Earnshaw has found Heathcliff, during a journey to Liverpool. The circumstance of this meeting does not appear clear and leaves some perplexities that can be explain with a hypothesis: Heathcliff is an illegitimate son of the doctor himself. There are other examples of incestuous unions in the book; the marriage between Hareton and Catherine at the end is the most evident. This view can support the power of the love between Heathcliff and Cathy: they could never marry on earth, as they are victims of a fate beyond their control. The sentence “I am Heathcliff” suggests they are one flesh as well as one spirit.
- It is a drama in which the writer fuses real things with their imaginative interpretations, with the feeling that only a poem based on the language of sense impressions can give.
- It is a journey into the soul of Man, a work of edification and growth that teaches human passions and the vanity of human wishes. Human feelings are compared with natural forces wild animals and the landscape is applied to the description of the Characters. Heathcliff is likened to elements of the Earth, Cathy to the fire. Domestic animals are instead used to mock human weaknesses.
- It is a novel based on the principles of storm and calm, two forces that are not in open conflict but are two separate aspects of a harmonic spirit. They are not destructive in themselves, but their balance must always be restored if momentarily interrupted. According to this interpretation, the purpose of the novel is to reconcile conflicting attractions: storm and calm, instinct and rationality, heart and head At the end, The Earnshaw’s energy is modified by the Linton’s calm.
Wuthering Heights is Romantic because it describes passions and is centred on feelings, on a strong personality, but the way it is narrated is totally new. It can be defined Gothic as Heathcliff seems a villain, a black hero of a horror story whose cruelty shocks the reader, but actually he is a pure and simple man who reacts to treachery and dies for love.
It is structurally significant in the novel because it is described in order to emphasise the difference between the two main sets of characters and to define the central conflict of the story.
The physical setting of Wuthering Heights is the rural and isolated Yorkshire, where Emily Brontë lived. Ellen Dean has the task to introduce the reader into the natural world and seasonal details, as she is a countrywoman whose life is ruled by the routine of farm life. She gives a vivid realism to the descriptions of the novel. The actions take place in five mile radius, between Wuthering Heights, a house in conflict, rough and barren with uncivilised and passion people till Heathcliff’s death, friendly and cheerful afterwards, and Thrushcross Grange, sunny and pleasant, the home of civility and normality. The difference between the two estates is between a normal existence and a wild one. The time moves in thirteen years of the 18th century, but the story itself begins with a flashback: Mr. Lockwood, the narrator, arrives in 1801 when all the events have already taken place. He falls ill and Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, tells him the story of the Lintons and the Earnshaws. He goes away, write his book and the following autumn he goes back and Nelly tells him what has happened.
The world of emotions is very important in this story and creates a high force. Usually the natural elements are connected with the attitudes of the characters as in the case of Heathcliff that is compared to natural forces.
Already in the title Wuthering means a story that describes the emotional tumult of the novel: passions are strong, there is spirit of excess. All the characters show the same propulsions for extremes feelings. These are expressed verbally or in deed, in a form that is not restricted by the social conventions. All the scenes are pervaded by wild passions and the reader feels a continuous state of tension.
The moral world is unusual: the novel breaks the familiar standards. There are no good people or bad people, characters are neither specifically good nor evil, they are neither heroes nor villains. The moral standard lies in the passions that the characters feel and that lead them to overcome any obstacle.
Emily Brontë goes beyond the Christian values, she goes to the fundamental impulses of man; if an act is natural, it is generally good. The greatest evil is not hatred, but is the betrayal of love, the supreme natural impulse.
The real world is on a second level in the novel: people and places belong to the York county, but the main Characters are figures that go beyond the usual world, beyond life itself. This world is the presentation of our expressions of feelings, of aspects of human nature and the reader learns about the inner world in himself.
There are two sets of characters in the novel: the Lintons, fair, cultivated and mild and the Earnshaws, dark, passionate and wild. In the first generation the triangle Cathy, Heathcliff and Linton is reflected in Linton, Hareton and Catherine with the same peculiarities: the women have a dominant personality, one of the two men is weak, surrenders and is replaced by the stronger one. The first three chapters introduce the story attracting the reader’s interest and compelling him to read on. They make the audience think about many questions concerning origins and destiny of the characters:
Heathcliff: He is an example of perverted cruelty, far from the Victorian heroes of the novels. His appearance is rather mysterious: dirty, dark-skinned, he was wandering through the streets of Liverpool when Mr. Earnshaw saw him. He is seven years old. When at Wuthering House, he begins to cause conflicts in the family. This uncertain origins can make plausible his future savage behaviour: Heathcliff ‘s primitive way of living can be accepted if we think of him as a poor boy from a squalid slum without home and family. There is, instead, no apparent cause for his affection to Catherine: they feel a natural attraction, without a specific cause. Their love produces in Hindley, the elder brother, hate for Heathcliff. Hindley starts considering the newcomer as an enemy who has got his sister and, worse of all, his father’s affection. And Heathcliff becomes rough and cruel, degraded by his foster brother’s attitude to him. But he suffers all this silently because he has Cathy’s love. His love for Cathy is a passion so strong and fierce that can be considered inhuman, and when she dies the story turns into a plan of hate and revenge. He cannot understand what he considers Cathy’s treachery when she marries Edgar Linton and goes away. After three years, Heathcliff comes back dressed like a gentleman, educated and rich, but he cannot be on par with Edgar Linton or Mr. Lockwood because the society of his time has too strict social bounds. He knows that his relationship with Cathy is only momentarily interrupted, death does not cut their ties, but before he must subjugate and punish the people of this world. He watches Hindley’s self-destruction with a pleasant eye and marries Isabella Linton, Edgar’s sister. His love for Isabella is completely insincere and based on deceit. Heathcliff is the story: he does not act, he makes the other act and suffer. He is a creature torn between love and hate, the only two elemental passions he has experienced and developed. Hardened by his surroundings, embittered by the evil treatments. disillusioned in his love. For this reasons he becomes a demon –like creature, as Nelly defines him. He embodies the theme itself of Wuthering Heights his actions are due to a distortion of his personality, to the thwarting of the natural process of love. He stands unredeemed for the whole novel; the only human feelings towards the other people that he shows is his esteem for Nelly and his affection for Hareton. He is described with adjectives typical of animals and Nelly considers him inhuman, a devilish creature. He assumes the stature of a Gothic hero when he overcomes the natural abhorrence of human being for physical decay and opens Cathy’s coffin after about twenty years, but his love is superior. Catherine is the only one who describes his nature beyond the Byronic hero Isabella sees and beyond the magnetic personality that Lockwood perceives. He is an elementary man whose powerful personality, his capacity for passions and his savagery combine to create a mysterious fascination. Catherine says that his character is depicted in his name itself: he belongs to nature with its thorns, and winds and cliffs and storms. But he is a simply pagan man, an elemental and primitive soul who will be at peace only in his outer world, when his ashes will be forever mingled with Cathy’s ones.
Edgar Linton: The first encounter with Edgar is fatal for Heathcliff and Cathy. From that moment on the central conflict between the socially advanced Linton and Heathcliff ‘s primitive nature starts. The comparison between the two shows Edgar inferiority both physically and as to the personality and it is evident in front of Cathy’s eyes. He is rich, educated, aristocratic, belonging to the local gentry, but his personality is not as strong as Heathcliff’s one. He is unaggressive, not coward and shows his pride when disowns his daughter because she has married a foundling like Heathcliff. When the action transfers to the Grange, Edgar assumes a new dimension. He has a moral strength that grows with his torments when Heathcliff comes back. He is not vindictive because he is not selfish, but he too longs to be with Cathy after death. He dies with dignity as he lived and his last thought is for Cathy.
Hindley: Passionate and violent like his sister and able to love and to hate with the same strength, he brutalises Heathcliff at the beginning of the story because he is jealous of the affects his father and sister feel for him. He appears like Heathcliff in early life, but after having suffered his tragedy of love (he too loses his beloved wife) he gives up and shows his weakness. Frances’s death breaks his will and it is fatal for him. His love for Frances reveals his childish attitude towards affection and feelings. In the fight, Heathcliff asks for revenge and wins.
Hareton: Hindley’s son, is the product of a real love and so he is intelligent, strong, and handsome. Heathcliff has not permitted him to develop his natural gifts because Hareton too is part of his revengeful plans. But he has not destroyed his good nature that permits him to be safe: he feels a filial affection for Heathcliff and loves Catherine. On her turn, she teaches him good-manners and makes him assume the aspect of a gentleman. Their love is based on common feeling and has the ingredients of physical love that are never mentioned in connection with Heathcliff and Catherine until Cathy is dying.
Catherine: Catherine is the character that more than others suffer a change, a positive one, in the novel. She passes from benevolence to sullenness and back to benevolence again when she meets Hareton and Heathcliff dies. She is the daughter of a couple respectful to each other, even if Cathy does not really love Edgar. Catherine is proud and innocent till she meets Heathcliff. She accepts Linton, Heathcliff’s son with his weakness and his disease, but turns to be harsh and vindictive because of the treatment Heathcliff inflicts on her. Like Hareton that at the beginning she refuses, Catherine has a good nature that prevails on her and she will succeed in civilising Hindley’s son. Her love for Linton was one very low in the scale of affections, it was based on pity; her love for Hareton, instead, is a normal one, based on pure and true feelings.
Mr. Lockwood: The tenant of Trushcross Grange is a Victorian gentleman and the second narrator of this story. He is a stranger in Yorkshire so its function is to describe a place that should appear particular to foreign eyes. In this way his point of view is realistic. His educated and sympathetic way of telling the events he has witnessed contrasts with the superstitious and mainly practical way of speaking of Nelly. And, in his judgements, he represents the attitudes of normal society. He is supposed to have written the whole story. Mr. Lockwood says he wants to live in Trushcross Grange because he is in search for solitude, but actually his behaviour betrays a warm, sensitive and good-humoured personality, sometimes only embarrassed and shy. He does not undergo any change in the novel because his appearance covers only one year. He writes his impressions with the point of view of a well-educated and sophisticated man. His dream introduces the theme of the supernatural or of the outer world that dominates the emotions and the feelings of the protagonists.
Mr. Earnshaw: Mr. Earnshaw has brought home Heathcliff convincing his wife to accept him. After two years he quietly dies in his chair, leaving Hindley master of Wuthering House. His function is to introduce Heathcliff and to fatally change the life of the members of his family. On his figure some critics have expressed their doubts, as it seems little plausible that a man could take a child home without any further explanation.
Elle (Nelly) Dean: She is the servant and the housekeeper both at Wuthering Heights and at Trushcross Grange, Nelly tells the story to Mr. Lockwood on the very first night when he arrives at Wuthering Heights during a storm. Nelly is probable the most average character in the novel with her common sense and practicality, she provides the reader domestic and seasonal details as she is a countrywoman. Her normal stock of virtues and defects and her conventional behaviour: a perfect narrator for such an uncommon story. She tells the story in her own simple words protecting the reader from the impact that the violent passions in the book could provoke. Her part is active in the book even if she does not become involved in the conflicts of the protagonists. Her ordinariness permits the novel to be realistic: Cathy should be irritable and Ellen in unsympathetic with her; she is never shocked by the passions that become rooted in the normality of domestic life. Some critics have accused Nelly for her detachment from Cathy’s feelings or her dislike for Heathcliff (when he leaves, she does not tell Cathy that he has overheard their conversation) and considers this character the real villain of the whole story. From her judgements and comments the reader can surely argue that she has never been in love. Beside, it is difficult to trust her interpretations of events because she is too superstitious. In conclusion, Ellen has a double function in the way he tells the story: she gives realism to the extraordinary emotions and situations, but, at the same time, she permits the reader to evaluate each element by himself because he cannot trust her judgements.
Joseph: He is a static personality in the book, he is part of the landscape and represents human qualities eternally frozen. Joseph goes on quoting the Scriptures without becoming involved in the events and showing narrow and fixed viewpoints in his comments. His function is to discredit common Christian morality, to demonstrate the impossibility of reducing human feelings and emotions under a strict moral code. He supplies one of the many ideas about life after death that is in the book. For him only few are saved and most will perish in hell.
Isabella: Isabella undergoes a brutal change in the novel. She is a romantic dreamer also passionate and naive at the beginning; she really loves Heathcliff considering him the hero of a romantic story, the Byronic hero of her readings. But too soon she realises that her love for Heathcliff is based on self-deceit and that Heathcliff is for her the villain of a Gothic novel. She acquires a realistic bitterness and becomes a vindictive woman whose main concern is to make Heathcliff suffer. She, in fact, does not reveal her son the existence of his father.
Linton Heathcliff: He is the son of an unnatural union without love; as a consequence, he grows up without affection. Physically he is weak, selfish and peevish. Even his love for Catherine reveals egoism and self-pity. His sickliness makes him cruel and harsh, pleased to hurt the others. He does not change during the story and his passive attitude impedes the reader to feel sympathy for him, even if his father constantly frightens him and he is gradually dying.
The supernatural element: Heathcliff and Cathy’s love is supernatural in itself. Mr Lockwood’s dream is the first step towards the supernatural world that the reader meets reading the novel. It creates the atmosphere and the tone on which the story is built and prepares the reader to the cruelty and the horror that characterises some parts of the book. Mr. Lockwood himself reacts to Cathy’s call in a cruel way: he seems to be able to cut the child wrist on the broken window glasses trying to free from the grasp. And the window starts to assume a deeper meaning: it becomes the door that unites death and living people, the threshold that divides the two world and that can be opened by love. For Emily Brontë the greatest love is the greatest good and in this book she is trying to create the most ideal relationship that can exist between two human beings. They share an identity of soul that cannot be dissolved, and their identification represents the absolutes limit that love can aspire to. When Cathy dies, Heathcliff does not think that she has been annihilated, For him she still exists in spirit and prays that her sprit haunts him. Their relationship projects itself into a future world. Cathy appears peaceful after her death: life in an outer world becomes a desirable goal because it is the only place where people can live far from the wrongs of other human beings, enjoying their eternal love and happiness. This does not properly imply a Christian vision of a life in contact with God. The protagonists of the book believe in a personal heaven where their desire is fulfilled.
The main elements in these novels are an exotic setting (Italy, the Middle East or other Latin countries), monasteries, ruined churches, subterranean passages, haunted castles; themes are murders and mysteries. Usually a satanic villain, handsome and cruel chases after an innocent and pure virgin with a special attraction for evil. The most important authors in England were Anne Radcliff with her Mysteries of Udolpho; Horace Walpole with The Castle of Otranto; William Beckford with Vathek and Mattew Gregory Lewis with The Monk. In 1818 this sort of novel acquired a new and deeper meaning thanks to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.