Today is Emily Bronte's birthday. I remember the first semester I taught Wuthering Heights. I was teaching an upper level Brit Lit class, and overall, it was probably the best class I ever taught. When I remember teaching Wuthering Heights, I remember one woman gushing about how romantic Heathcliff was. Several women in the class turned to the gusher in disbelief.
I asked, "Did you read the book or just watch the movie?"
She confessed that she hadn't read the book. But I already knew that. No one who reads the book sees Heathcliff as someone you'd want to be involved with, at least no one in my generation.
I am fascinated by the Bronte sisters, or I should clarify, since there were five Bronte girls, that I'm fascinated by the three of whom survived to adulthood. I'm fascinated by their childhood practices of creating whole imaginary worlds.
I'm most fascinated by the abusive patterns that we find in the works of Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Heathcliff, for example, acts just like we'd expect an abuser to act. He kills and ruins everything that his wife, Isabella, holds dear; most memorably, he hangs her puppy as they're leaving to get married (or was it as they're leaving on their honeymoon?). She's been warned.
I remember reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in a Victorian novel class in graduate school and thinking, how fascinating--the abusers act just like we know abusers act and the victims act just like we know victims act--and these women wrote before we had years of sociological research to help them understand. When I was in graduate school, these novels were often treated as fantastical, Gothic-tinged romances.
So, in my dissertation, I set out to explore this strain of realism, in the form of domestic violence, in so many late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century gothic works. I'm still mostly proud of that dissertation. Occasionally I wonder if I should have done more with it, but I would have needed to write at least 150 more pages to turn it into a book--and I just didn't have that much more to say.
So, Emily Bronte, today I raise my glass to you. Thank you for being so fiercely loyal to your literary visions. Thank you for blazing that trail and leaving it free and clean for future female writers.
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