In Chapter 18 of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Nelly recounts the first interaction between Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw. In this brief encounter, Cathy immediately judges Hareton by his appearance, distinguishes him as a servant, and is unprepared for a rude awakening when discovering that the man she insists is a servant, is in fact, her cousin.
During this reading, I was particularly struck by Nelly’s reflection of Hareton and his circumstances: “Good things lost amid a wilderness of weeds, to be sure, whose rankness far over-topped their neglected growth; yet, not withstanding, evidence of a wealthy soil, that might yield luxuriant crops under other and favourable circumstances” (paragraph 54). Nelly’s description of Hareton’s unfortunate luck has striking parallels to Percy Shelley’s, “England in 1819” whose poem begins with “An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king, Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow Through public scorn – mud from a muddy spring, Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, But leech-like to their fainting country cling” (lines 1-5).
While Nelly’s wilderness of weeds metaphor differs from Shelley’s description of a tyrant king who oppresses his people, I can see a distinct connection between the tyrant king and Heathcliff in regard to his treatment of Hareton. Inattentive and unfeeling rulers, like that of the mad king Shelley references, diminish the value of their subjects by neglecting their potential, which is exactly what Heathcliff does to Hareton. By restricting Hareton and diminishing him to a status that is beneath that of his birth, I am convinced Heathcliff becomes no better than the mad king who leeches off his country for the protection of his own wealth and greed.
When we are first introduced to the master of Wuthering Heights and its residents, Mrs. Heathcliff (Cathy Linton) attracts the attention of Mr. Lockwood who initially mistakes her for Heathcliff’s wife, but later learns that she is the widow of Heathcliff’s son. Cathy’s behaviour in the beginning of the novel reminds me of a passage by Margret Fuller in George Eliot’s “Women in the Nineteenth Century” essay which states that when women are forbidden to enter the same spheres as men in regards to occupation because, “‘such things are not proper for girls,’ they grow sullen and mischievous.” In the interactions Lockwood observes Cathy in, first with Joseph and then with Heathcliff, he takes notice of her formidable character and fierce tongue. In her interaction with Joseph, who criticises her for her relation to Catherine Earnshaw and shames her for not being entirely lady like, her first impulse is to admit her connection to Catherine as a means which makes her a powerful woman, which is something typically frowned upon of in this period. In her interaction with Heathcliff, we see her instinct to defend herself with a witty, and often snide remark which Lockwood describes as “cat-dog combat.” Cathy has her mother’s fiery spirit, and while she has indeed grown sullen under Heathcliff’s harsh reign, she has also grown stronger and more mischievous than she ever was because the innocent Cathy Linton would not have survived a single day in the Heathcliff household.
In her discussion of the role of government and its influence on women, Harriet Martineau makes the assertion that the governments of the United States have the power to enslave certain women and seize their property all “without the consent of the governed” (Martineau, paragraph 4). Mary Wollstonecraft also comments on this notion that women are slaves in Rights of Women, where she explains “When, therefore, I call women slaves, I mean in a political and civil sense” (Eliot, paragraph 10). The lack of political representation for women (specifically white women) reduced them to the slaves of their oppressors (white men; husbands and fathers). During this time period, women did not exist as citizens and therefore did not reap the benefits of citizenship. Women were barred from leaving the domestic sphere and had limited exposure to public life. Martineau goes on to question how “obedience to the laws can be required of women, when no woman has, either actually or virtually, given any assent to any law” (Martineau, paragraph 6). This expectation that women ought to obey the laws of land regardless of their agreement with or approval of the law reminds me of Thomas Carlyle’s assertion in “Captains of Industry” that “all human interests, combined human endeavours, and social growths in this world, have, at a certain stage of their development, required organising: and Work, the grandest of human interests, does now require it” (Carlyle, paragraph 10).
I thought it was interesting to see how this concept of organization connects to the strife shared by women who yearned for political representation. Whether it be Martineau organizing and compiling her observations of American society and the role of women within a limited government or George Eliot organizing and constructing her essay that bridges the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller, in an attempt to remove the unjust laws that restricted women from benefiting from the advantages that were solely available to men.
I first read Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre in middle school and instantly found comfort in Jane because she was a woman of her own making. Jane forged her own path and rarely questioned her ability to fly freely, like a bird without a net to ensnare her. It’s without question that Jane, like Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Helen in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was a controversial character for her time and this is where my curiosity lies. I want to learn more about the women of these novels, I want to understand their roles as it relates to their gender and class and how these factors contribute to the prospects available to women during the Victorian era.
These interests stem from my exposure to the courses I enrolled in with Professor Beltz-Hosek that were focused primarily on the Gender and Narration in Wuthering Heights and the Brontë oeuvre. These courses offered me the pleasure to re-read my favorite novels written by the Brontë sisters while also discussing these texts in relation to one another. This semester, I am eager to compare the female representation (Nelly, Catherine I, and Catherine II) in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to the female representation in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, especially regarding Mrs. Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham, and Estella.