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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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History of the Text

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Wuthering Heights’s Publication History: Compared to most Victorian novels, Wuthering Heights underwent an unusual publication history. First, it was not serialized in a magazine like many Victorian novels at the time. Second, its initial publication was haphazard and rushed, because Emily Brontë’s publisher wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Jane Eyre, which Charlotte Brontë had published a month beforehand. Finally, several key changes were made to the 1850 edition three years later—and not by Emily Brontë herself.

  • 1847 Edition: The first edition of Wuthering Heights was published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. The novel was distributed as part of a three-volume set with Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey by publisher Thomas Cautley Newby in 1847. Wuthering Heights occupied two volumes, while Agnes Grey occupied one. The novel sold very few copies, possibly owing to the dismal reviews it received. The success of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre may have influenced Cautley Newby’s decision to release Emily and Anne’s novels together in a single set of volumes. 
  • Charlotte Brontë and the 1850 Edition: In 1850, less than two years after Emily Brontë’s death, Charlotte Brontë edited the original manuscript of Wuthering Heights and released it as a second edition with Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. In her preface, Charlotte tries to convince readers that Ellis, Anton, and Currer Bell are not the same author—as was suspected, even after she addressed the rumors in the preface to the third edition of Jane Eyre. She goes on to reveal that Ellis, Anton, and Currer are in fact all sisters, and that they wrote under male pseudonyms because “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

Literary Predecessors and Influences: As a Victorian novel, Wuthering Heights was strongly influenced by gothic and Romantic literature.

  • Novel: By the time Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, novels were immensely popular among the general public. Nevertheless, the novel as a form was still relatively new and considered inferior to serious and traditional literary forms, such as poetry and academic histories. However, novels, which sprang from medieval and early modern romances that featured exciting tales of adventure and intrigue, were immensely popular. 
  • Romanticism and Gothic Literature: Though Wuthering Heights is a work of Victorian literature, its emphasis on emotion and the natural world reflects its roots in Romanticism. Furthermore, the novel’s incorporation of supernatural elements and gloomy settings draws on the genre conventions of gothic fiction. Gothic texts use supernatural imagery and events to create a dark and dramatic reading experience. Gothic literature, which originally rose to popularity in Germany, emerged as a subgenre of Romanticism in England. As the 19th century progressed, Victorian gothic literature gained in popularity. 

Wuthering Heights’s Reception History: Critical reception of Wuthering Heights was initially negative after its publication in 1847, owing in part to its shocking content and perceived unoriginality.

  • Immorality: Many critics were offended by Wuthering Heights, particularly because of the abhorrent behavior of characters like Heathcliff. In 1848, a reviewer for Atlas declared it a “strange, inartistic story” and remarked that “[w]e know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity.” Charlotte Brontë attempted to apologize for Heathcliff and clarify the novel’s brutality in the preface to the 1850 edition, published after Emily had died. She explained that a writer with the “creative gift” sometimes works passively under a higher guidance, so the result is quite out of the writer’s hands.
  • Unoriginality: Because the Brontë sisters—or the Bell brothers, as they pretended to be—published novels at around the same time, there may have been some confusion about the authorship of Wuthering Heights. Charlotte published Jane Eyre first and achieved immense popularity. Publisher Thomas Cautley Newby rushed the publication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, but he may not have clarified that neither of these novels were written by Charlotte, or Currer Bell. Critics took issue with Wuthering Heights in part because of its inconsistent style and its gothic themes, which were likened to those in Jane Eyre.

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