Friday, May 21, 2010

The Gothic novel and historical romance

I'm reading A Sicilian Romance again at the moment. It's a Gothic novel by Mrs Radcliff, first published in 1790, and it started me thinking about the ways in which Emily Bronte both uses and transforms typical Gothic elements in Wuthering Heights. (And if you're wondering where Wuthering Heights comes in, I came across this article in USA Today courtesy of procrastinating on Austenblog.)

The Gothic novels that Jane Austen read used to give themselves credibility by pretending to be true. They might start with the narrator discovering a ruined castle in some far flung corner of Europe (or at least far flung to their average reader), and then learning about the history of the castle, or perhaps they would include something in the title such as "The mysteries of Udolpho, a romance, founded on facts."

Emily Bronte stays true to this tradition in a sense by starting Wuthering Heights with a framing sequence where Mr Lockwood is forced to take a holiday for the good of his health, and whilst he's there he learns the history of the inhabitants of the neighbouring Wuthering Heights. But instead of setting her novel in Italy or somewhere similarly distant, she set it in Yorkshire, her home, a radical departure from tradition.

She couldn't have chosen a better location. With its wild landscape and its remoteness - not in miles, perhaps, but in ease of travel - from mass civilisation, Wuthering Heights is as isolated as a castle in Italy.
Her characters, too, both follow and explode the Gothic tradition. She has a version of the cruel father whose imperious behaviour leads to his wife's early death (Mrs Earnshaw being forced to take in Heathcliff), and she has the devoted servant (Vincent in A Sicilian Romance) in Joseph. His grumblings in Yorkshire dialect are as incomprehensible to most English readers as anything in Italian.

But in her use of the supernatural, the static nature of the novel - no wild flights in the night, or long walking tours - and in the characters of Cathy and Heathcliff, she flew against tradition and made the Gothic novel her own.

Typical Gothic heroines were sweet, beautiful, persecuted and prone to fainting. Not so Catherine Earnshaw, who is stubborn, wilful, passionate and pro-active. Whilst typical Gothic heroines are used to being forced into distasteful marriages with wealthy men, Cathy all but arranges her own convenient marriage to help Heathcliff.

Heathcliff, too, is nothing like a typical Gothic hero. He isn't full of manly grace, he doesn't play the lute or sing sweetly. This hero is more like a demon, incorporating some of the elements of the traditional Gothic villain. Indeed, there are suggestions that he is a demon, with no one knowing anything about his background before the age of about 4, and Mrs Earnshaw saying he comes from the devil. Then, too, there are echoes of a hobgoblin or changeling child in the fact that he 'replaces' the Earnshaws dead son, also called Heathcliff. Traces of Britsih folk lore permeate the book.

In traditional Gothics, the apparently supernatural elements turn out to have a rational explanation, rather like in Scooby Doo. But in Wuthering Heights there are no such explanations, and the supernatural elements form some of the most powerful scenes in the book. In fact, there are no explanations or apologies for the book at all, it just is.

Emily Bronte did something few writers ever do. She wrote exactly what she wanted to write, in exactly the way she wanted to write it, and it shows in the commitment of every word. The writing is full on and passionate, like an exhilarating storm.

But she was not just a writer of thunder and lightning, she was also a writer of delicacy and beauty, too. In the end, the storm of Wuthering Heights blows itself out. The last paragraph, with Earnshaw visiting the graves of Cathy and Heathcliff, is, to me, one of the most lyrically beautiful paragraphs in English literature. The flow and rhythm of the words is lovely. Although it's usually said that a picture paints a thousand words, these few words paint more than any picture could ever do:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

As a reader, I love those words. As a writer, I wonder how many hours she had to slave over them to get them just right.

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte didn't just write a compelling historical romance, she transformed the Gothic novel and brought it home.

Amanda Grange


Nadeem1414 said... i visited to "The Gothic novel and historical romance" which is very interested.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

An extremely interesting and perceptive piece, Amanda. I hadn't thought of 'Wuthering Heights' in quite that way before. But you're right.

Thank you. It's set me thinking.

Historical Romance Author said...
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Jane Odiwe said...

Amanda, you've made me want to read Wuthering Heights all over again - a fascinating insight!