Emily Brontë’s reputation in the literary world lies almost entirely on her novel Wuthering Heights. Her “strange book” has fascinated and perplexed readers and critics alike from the time it was first published to this day. It is a book towards which there is no indifference.
Early critics were uncertain as to what to make of Ellis Bell’s novel, but even those who criticised it negatively couldn’t deny its powerful and unforgettable characteristics. In the January 1848 Atas’ Review, despite its being portrayed as a “strange and inartistic story” with “shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity”, it is also (together with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre) “not to be forgotten” and of its author “Ellis Bell is only a promise, but a colossal one.” In the Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper of the same month a similar review was printed “Wuthering Heights is a strange sort of book – baffling all regular criticism; yet it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it.” A more significant statement – revealing the impact it had on critics in those days – was the Examiner review that read “notwithstanding its defects, we remember thinking better in its peculiar kind than anything that had been produced since the days of Fielding.” Mostly, critics emphasised its excessive violence, cruelty, wildness and inhumanity, a novel of a sort which did not fit into any specific category.
When the 1850 edition was published with a preface by Charlotte Brontë disclosing the Bells’ true identity, the critics were bewildered and disconcerted. In the 1850 Leader review, of the two sisters (Emily and Anne) it is said “Curious enough it is to read Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and remember that the writers were two retiring, solitary, consumptive girls! Books, coarse even for men, coarse in language and coarse in conception, the coarseness apparently of violent and uncultivated men”. There was however, more constructive criticism in that month of December, the Athenaeum printed a review more in accordance with the way modern readers see the Brontë sisters work “… characteristics of English female genius, we have long noticed: – but it has rarely been more simply, more strongly, some will add more strangely, illustrated than in the volume before us.”
In the end, the idea that remains is that Wuthering Heights was and still is a memorable, powerful and strange book that will continue to fascinate generations of readers.