Wednesday, October 08, 2014

another note on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - Naturalism

Penguin English Library jacket (1970s style) - turning a detail of Branwell's bad picture into an iconic image

[Branwell's painting of 1833-34, commonly referred to as the Gun portrait, showed himself and his three sisters. Emily was 15 or 16 at the time.

The Gun Portrait, from an old photo

Arthur Bell Nichols thought the painting so poor (or so unflattering to his late wife Charlotte) that he destroyed it, retaining only the part showing Emily, who definitely came out best.

Emily, from the Gun Portrait (NPG)

Even so, the portrait is markedly improved by the cracks (which, for instance, make her nose look interestingly snub instead of characterlessly straight). But what above all transformed the effect is the Penguin jacket-designer's crop.  This, by eliminating the back of Emily's head, conceals the Victorian sloping shoulder-line and the languid hair, and creates an altogether more forceful image. Here is a woman, we're convinced, who already has Wuthering Heights in her sights.]


This note is about David Daiches' 1965 Introduction to the Penguin English Library edition of Wuthering Heights.

And first some trivia.


1.  Professor Daiches was an interesting man - read his 2005 obituary in The Scotsman:

His surname (Jewish/Yiddish rather than Scottish) is pronounced  "day chiz"  or "die chiz". That's probably how you pronounced it already, but it's good to know..!


2.  Daiches (referring to an article by Thomas Moser, in which Heathcliff is identified with the Id) says:

This view involves an admission that the latter part of the book - Heathcliff's revenge and its final abandonment, the growth of love between the younger Catherine and a now-civilized Hareton - is inferior and indeed novelettish, the grafting on to the real novel of a conventional moral pattern ... etc etc. 

OED novelette, n. :

1. A story of moderate length having the characteristics of a novel. Now: a short, light, romantic, or sentimental novel (freq. depreciative).

These days the unusual word "novelette" is apparently still used in the world of writing competitions to refer to a fiction longer than a short story but shorter than a novella, i.e. 7,500 - 18,000 words, approximately.

But generally the meaning of "novelette" over the past two centuries has been derogatory. Classically it evoked books that were typified by sentimentality, triviality, and trite morality. They might be chauvinistically dismissed as reading material for young ladies or uneducated persons.  The novelette might be regarded as namby-pamby.  A typical example is A.A. Milne's send-up "The Seaside Novelette".

"Penny-novelettes" were, I suspect, the direct forebears of what my own generation called "Mills and Boon romances". Economics plays a big part in this. The novelette was cheap. Hence it tended to be short and written without much care. Appealing to connoisseurs was out of the question. Originality was out of the question. The skill was to hit off broad effects for a popular audience.

(The word novelette could also be used to mean trashy genre fiction, e.g. a "pornographic novelette").

I am writing of novelettes as if they really exist, and they do. But as you may have already suspected, the term was rarely used to talk about real named novelettes (Try finding a list of novelettes!) Characteristically "novelettes" are what one never reads oneself.  The word is typically used to evoke a general class of degraded and feeble fiction, in order to compare it, or contrast it, with a book that one does read.

(Such as Wuthering Heights, in this case.)

A recent development is the revaluation of trashiness, as in the following quote, where Robert McCrum is actually praising The Great Gatsby:

The plot, ripped from the pages of a tabloid and crossed with a romantic novelette, has the potency of cheap music.  

(The Guardian 8/9/2014)

I had forgotten, incidentally, that when I was writing about Charlotte Brontë's Angrian tales (Mina Laury etc), I referred to them (certainly without pejorative intention) as "novelettes". I must have picked it up from Heather Glen, editor of the Penguin Tales of Angria (2006). This term has been widely adopted by Angrian scholars since Winifred Gérin first used it. She took it from a letter of Charlotte to Hartley Coleridge (10 December 1841), though in fact Charlotte's "demi-semi novelette" was a later effort (Messrs Percy and West, the first version of Ashworth). [I am taking Jos Bemelmans' PhD thesis (Hull, 1988) as authoritative on both the date of the letter and the ms referred to.] Charlotte, of course, was using "novelette" in its depreciative sense (self-depreciative, in this instance). 



Anyway, back to Wuthering Heights.

Daiches generally approves of Moser's Freudian contention that Heathcliff represents the Id, and his own Introduction leads us in the direction of allegory as soon as it defines the principal critical question as "Who and what is Heathcliff?"

I believe it's a wrong direction.

What Daiches does say well ( what everyone says in their own different ways) is that Wuthering Heights combines naturalism with supernaturalism.

Here's Daiches:

... perhaps the most striking thing about Wuthering Heights is its combination of matter-of-fact precision in the telling and monstrous symbolic conflicts in the actual story... there is .. a lack of surprise at her own story in Emily Brontë's manner, a sense of habituation, as though the manic emotions of Heathcliff and the elder Catherine were part of a world of feeling she took quietly for granted. It is to what might be called the sublime deadpan of the telling that the extraordinary force of the novel can be largely attributed. In spite of Nelly's constant refrain of 'hush' as she endeavours to soothe Catherine or placate Heathcliff, she shows no sense of the real oddness of these goings-on...

But were they really so odd?

Daiches could perhaps have supported his view from Charlotte Brontë's remarks:
If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable, of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation. 
Or could he? Does Charlotte in fact say that such relentless natures don't exist, or that such fearful scenes don't happen? I'd say that they do, and consequently I'd draw the line between naturalism and supernaturalism differently. While admitting, of course, that some scenes in Wuthering Heights are fanciful (Heathcliff digging up the grave, maybe), it seems naive to deny the existence of lifelong irrational attachments and vengefulness and cruelty. Emily's characters in childhood or young-person-hood seem often to act in ways that we ought to recognize as fairly normal (much more easily than the Victorians did).  Regrettably or not, children, and teenagers, often behave like this.

To come back to "novelettish" for a minute, I believe that the young Catherine/Hareton scenes are also more naturalistic than they're given credit for. Daiches dismisses the primroses in the porridge as a way of taming Hareton - he forgets that Cathy puts them there to tease him, not to tame him. Here, as in the earlier Catherine/Heathcliff scenes at the same age, the outward pattern of teasing and violent fury that covers an inward consciousness of growing inseparableness seems very well described to me.

To this list can be added the scenes between the elder Catherine and Edgar Linton, and the scenes between the younger Catherine and Linton Heathcliff; though each of these relationships is different in quality, they also have some things in common. They are all marvellously naturalistic. It would seem that Emily could draw on significant first-hand experience of boy/girl bickering.  


Emily wrote a good deal of the book in convincing Yorkshire dialect, which she transliterated the way she heard it. I believe that's connected with a peculiarity of the narration and suggests that Emily was one of those people who had total recall of narratives.

As everyone knows Wuthering Heights is narrated by characters in the story. Mostly, the narrative is told by Nelly to a listening Lockwood. Lockwood, we might assume, transcribes Nelly's words, but this device isn't carefully kept up. At the start of Ch 15 he says that he is transcribing (and condensing), but some of his own intercessions (e.g. at the start of Ch 10) don't look like written diary so much as real-time thinking on his part. Nelly herself reports the narrations of others: among the longer narratives, those of Isabella, Zillah and Heathcliff himself come to mind.

Now what is striking is the transparency of these narrative veils.

[Joseph] hurried below, gasping, as he descended the steps two at once.

'"Whet is thur tuh do, nah? whet is thur tuh do, nah?"

'"There's this to do," thundered Heathcliff, "that your master's mad; and should he last another month, I'll have him to an asylum. .."

Leaving aside the giveaway inverted commas, this looks like merely third-person narrative by an omniscient narrator. In fact it is supposed to be Lockwood reporting Nelly reporting the words of Isabella. But these layers of reportage interpose no tint; Joseph is still Joseph and he speaks exactly the same way as if we were listening to a tape recording. That's what I mean by transparency.

This can be called an artificial convention; even more artificial, in some ways, than those monstrously detailed narratives in the letters of an epistolary novel. It is in fact an old convention: you can see it when Mrs Heartfree quotes the brutal sea-captain in Jonathan Wild.  Or when Edmund Bertram quotes at length the exact words, the very tone, of Maria Crawford in Ch 46 of Mansfield Park. Nothing up to this moment had suggested that Edmund would be  a good mimic, or could bear to mimic this, of all things. But Jane Austen wishes us to hear what he heard.

Emily takes this convention much further, and at a time when other novelists were moving in a contrary direction.

But I would also relate it to something that may be thought naive, the ability (indeed compulsion) of some people to narrate conversations word for word, and with incredible accuracy. I think Emily imbibed that practice from Tabitha Ackroyd and did the same thing herself.

In such narrations, the remembered event is relived by the teller, inasmuch as they feel all the emotions that they felt when the event actually occurred. In this respect the narration is transparent, it does not colour the event but transmits it.

To put this in historical context, Emily was doing this at the same time that Robert Browning was experimenting in his dramatic monologues with how deeply the character of the narrator colours and distorts what is being told.  And I think part of the fascination of Charlotte's Villette depends on our strong suspicion that Lucy Snowe is a highly selective narrator. The narrators in Jane Eyre and Agnes Gray are also very clearly interested in presenting their own sides of their own stories, though we are not so troubled as in Villette by our awareness of things being kept out of sight.

Emily's narrators are different.* They are not, for the most part, leading characters in the stories they tell (Heathcliff being a notable exception). None of them appears interested in distorting the story to present themselves in a better light, or to present others in a worse light, or to make a case, or to censor parts of the story. Instead, they appear to want to tell the story just as they experienced it; or maybe they simply can't help doing so. In Emily's world, the narrator does not control the story; instead, the story possesses the narrator.

We can perhaps take this thought a little further. The story in Wuthering Heights does have some deceit in it (for example, the younger Catherine deceiving her father about her visits to the Heights); typically, deceits such as this are childish, temporary and not very successful. For the most part the characters speak their minds to a striking extent. Heathcliff  is always extremely candid to Nelly. He seems to gain Isabella as a bride without making any attempt to hide his dislike for her. The older Catherine before her marriage hides no feelings from Nelly. The older Catherine hides nothing from Edgar; she is happy until she is not. And so on.

[*  Michael Schmidt, I discover, makes the same observation in The Novel: A Biography (p. 293).]

* * *

Previous note, about Emily's lost writings:

Potential influence of Scott on Wuthering Heights:

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At 3:24 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

At a tangent, your reference to the deprecatory sense of "novelette" reminds me that it's a fairly popular girl's name in Jamaica. My wife's cousin, for example.

At 4:07 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

That's fascinating! And a very nice name too.

(So far as there's any logic to these things, I'm guessing the name could have come from French, originally as a cute diminutive way of saying "new" or "young".)


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