Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  Mrs. Gaskell did not like her. Someone told her that Emily ‘never showed regard to any human creature; all her love was reserved for animals’. She liked them wild and intractable. She was given a bulldog called Keeper, and concerning him Mrs. Gaskell tells a curious story: ‘Keeper was faithful to the depths of his nature so long as he was with friends; but he who struck him with stick or whip, roused the relentless nature of the brute, who flew at his throat forthwith, and held him there till one or the other was at the point of death. Now Keeper’s household fault was this. He loved to steal upstairs, and stretch his square, tawny limbs on the comfortable beds, covered over with delicate white counterpanes. But the cleanliness of the parsonage arrangements was perfect; and this habit of Keeper’s was so objectionable, that Emily, in reply to Tabby’s remonstrances, declared that, if he was found again transgressing, she herself, in defiance of warning and his well-known ferocity of nature, would beat him so severely that he would never offend again. In the gathering dusk of an autumn evening Tabby came, half-triumphantly, half-tremblingly, but in great wrath, to tell Emily that Keeper was lying on the best bed, in drowsy voluptuousness. Charlotte saw Emily’s whitening face and set mouth, but dared not speak to interfere, no one dared when Emily’s eyes glowed in that manner out of the paleness of her face, and when her lips were compressed into stone. She went upstairs, and Tabby and Charlotte stood in the gloomy passage below, full of the dark shadows of the coming night. Downstairs came Emily, dragging after her the unwilling Keeper, his hind legs set in a heavy attitude of resistance, held by the “skuft of his neck”, but growling low and savagely all the time. The watchers would fain have spoken, but durst not, for fear of taking off Emily’s attention, and causing her to avert her head for a moment from the enraged brute. She let him go, planted in a dark corner at the bottom of the stairs; no time was there to fetch stick or rod, for fear of the strangling clutch at her throat – her bare clenched fist struck against his red fierce eyes, before he had time to make his spring, and in the language of the turf, she “punished” him till his eyes were swelled up, and the half-blind stupefied beast was led to his accustomed lair, to have his swollen head fomented and cared for by the very Emily herself.’

  Charlotte wrote of her: ‘Disinterested and energetic she certainly is; but if she be not quite so tractable and open to conviction as I could wish, I must remember perfection is not the lot of humanity.’ Emily’s temper was uncertain and her sisters appear to have been not a little afraid of her. From Charlotte’s letters one gathers that she was puzzled and often irritated by Emily, and it is plain that she didn’t know what to make of Wuthering Heights; she had no notion that her sister had produced a book of astonishing originality, and one compared with which her own were commonplace. She felt constrained to apologise for it. When it was proposed to republish it, she undertook to edit it. ‘I am likewise compelling myself to read it over, for the first time of opening the book since my sister’s death,’ she wrote. ‘Its power fills me with renewed admiration; but yet I am oppressed: the reader is scarcely permitted a taste of unalloyed pleasure, every beam of sunshine is poured down through black bars of threatening cloud; every page is surcharged with a sort of moral electricity; and the writer was unconscious of it.’ And again: ‘If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the guiding influence of natures so relentless and so 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. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree – loftier, straighter, wider-spreading – and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work; to the influence of other intellects it was not amenable.’ One is inclined to think that Charlotte never knew her sister.

  (4)

  Wuthering Heights is an extraordinary book. For the most part, novels betray their period, not only in the manner of writing common to the time at which they were written, but also by their concurrence with the climate of opinion of their day, the moral outlook of their authors, the prejudices they accept or reject. Young David Copperfield might very well have written (though with less talent) the same sort of novel as Jane Eyre, and Arthur Pendennis might have written a novel something like Villette, though the influence of Laura would doubtless have led him to eschew the naked sexuality which gives Charlotte Brontës book its poignancy. But Wuthering Heights is an exception. It is related in no way to the fiction of the time. It is a very bad novel. It is a very good one. It is ugly. It has beauty. It is a terrible, an agonising, a powerful and a passionate book. Some have thought it impossible that a clergyman’s daughter who led a retired humdrum life, and knew few people and nothing of the world, could have written it. This seems to me absurd. Wuthering Heights is wildly romantic. Now, romanticism eschews the patient observation of realism; it revels in the unbridled flight of the imagination and indulges, sometimes with gusto, sometimes with gloom, in horror, mystery, passion and violence. Given Emily Brontë’s character, and fierce, repressed emotions, which what we know of her suggest, Wuthering Heights is just the sort of book one would have expected her to write. But, on the face of it, it is much more the sort of book that her scapegrace brother Branwell might have written, and a number of people have been able to persuade themselves that he had in whole or in part done so. One of them, Francis Grundy, wrote: ‘Patrick Brontë declared to me, and what his sister said bore out the assertion, that he wrote a great part of Wuthering Heights himself … The weird fancies of diseased genius with which he used to entertain me on our long walks at Luddenden Foot, reappear in the pages of the novel, and I am inclined to believe that the very plot was his invention rather than his sister’s.’ On one occasion two of Branwell’s friends, Dearden and Leyland by name, arranged to meet him at an inn on the road to Keighley to read their poetical effusions to one another; and this is what Dearden some twenty years later wrote to the Halifax Guardian: ‘I read the first act of the Demon Queen; but when Branwell dived into his hat – the usual receptacle of his fugitive scraps – where he supposed he had deposited his manuscript poem, he found he had by mistake placed there a number of stray leaves of a novel on which he had been trying his “prentice hand”. Chagrined at the disappointment he had caused, he was about to return the papers to his hat, when both friends earnestly pressed him to read them, as they felt a curiosity to see how he could wield the pen of a novelist. After some hesitation, he complied with the request, and riveted our attention for about an hour, dropping each sheet, when read, into his hat. The story broke off abruptly in the middle of a sentence, and he gave us the sequel, viva voce, together with the real names of the prototypes of his characters, but, as some of these persons are still living, I refrain from pointing them out to the public. He said he had not yet fixed upon a title for the production, and was afraid he would never be able to meet with a publisher who would have the hardihood to usher it into the world. The scene of the fragment which Branwell read, and the characters introduced in it – so far as they developed – were the same as those in Wuthering Heights, which Charlotte confidently asserts was the production of her sister Emily.’

  Now this is either a pack of lies, or it is true. Charlotte despised and, within the bounds of Christian charity, hated her brother; but, as we know, Christian charity has always been able to make allowances for a lot of good honest hatred, and Charlotte’s unsupported word cannot be accepted. She may have persuaded herself, as people often do, to believe what she wanted to believe. The story is circumstantial, and it is odd that anyone should, for no particular reason, have invented it. What is the explanation? There is none. It has been suggested that Branwell wrote the first four chapters, and then, drunk and doped as he was, gave it up, whereupon Emily took it over. The argument that these chapters are written in
a more stilted manner than the subsequent ones does not, to my mind, hold water; and if there is in them a somewhat greater pomposity in the writing, I should ascribe it to a not unsuccessful attempt on Emily’s part to show that Lock-wood was a silly, conceited ape. I have no doubt at all that Emily, and Emily alone, wrote Wuthering Heights.

  It must be admitted that it is badly written. The Brontë sisters did not write well. Like the governesses they were, they affected the turgid and pedantic style for which the word litératise has been coined. The main part of the story is told by Mrs. Dean, a Yorkshire maid of all work like the Brontës’ Tabby; a conversational style would have been suitable; Emily makes her express herself as no human being could. Here is a typical utterance: ‘I tried to smooth away all disquietude on the subject, by affirming, with frequent iteration, that that betrayal of trust, if it merited so harsh an appellation, should be the last.’ Emily Brontë seems to have been aware that she was putting into Mrs. Dean’s mouth words that it was unlikely she would have known, and, to explain it, makes her say that in the course of her service she has had the opportunity to read books, but, even at that, the pretentiousness of her discourse is appalling. She does not read a letter, she peruses an epistle; she doesn’t send a letter, but a missive. She does not leave a room, she quits a chamber. She calls her day’s work her diurnal occupation. She commences rather than begins. People don’t shout or yell, they vociferate; nor do they listen, they hearken. There is pathos in this parson’s daughter striving so hard to write in a lady-like way, only to succeed in being genteel. Yet one would not wish Wuthering Heights to have been written with grace: it would be none the better for being better written. Just as in one of those early Flemish pictures of the burial of Christ the anguished grimaces of the emaciated creatures concerned, their stiff, ungainly gestures, seem to add a greater horror, a matter-of-fact brutality, to the scene, which make sit more poignant, more tragic, than when the same event is pictured in beauty by Titian; so there is in this uncouth stylisation of the language something which strangely heightens the violent passion of the story.

  Wuthering Heights is clumsily constructed. That is not surprising, for Emily Brontë had never written a novel before, and she had a complicated story to tell, dealing with two generations. This is a difficult thing to do because the author has to give some sort of unity to two sets of characters and two sets of events; and he must be careful not to allow the interest of one to overshadow the interest of the other. This Emily did not succeed in doing. After the death of Catherine Earnshaw there is, until you come to the last finely imaginative pages, some loss of power. The younger Catherine is an unsatisfactory character, and Emily Brontë seems not to have known what to make of her; obviously she could not give her the passionate independence of the older Catherine, nor the foolish weakness of her father. She is a spoilt, silly, wilful and ill-mannered creature; and you cannot greatly pity her sufferings. The steps are not made clear which led to her falling in love with young Hareton. He is a shadowy figure, and you know no more of him than that he was sullen and handsome. The author of such a story as I am now considering has also to compress the passage of years into a period of time that can be accepted by the reader with a comprehensive glance, as one seizes in a single view the whole of a vast fresco. I do not suppose that Emily Brontë deliberately thought out how to get a unity of impression into a straggling story, but I think she must have asked herself how to make it coherent; and it may have occurred to her that she could best do this my making one character narrate the long succession of events to another. It is a convenient way of telling a story, and she did not invent it. Its disadvantage is that it is impossible to maintain anything like a conversational manner when the narrator has to tell a number of things, descriptions of scenery for instance, which no sane person would think of doing. And of course if you have a narrator (Mrs. Dean) you must have a listener (Lockwood). It is possible that an experienced novelist might have found a better way of telling the story of Wuthering Heights, but I cannot believe that if Emily Brontë used it, it was because she was working on a foundation of someone else’s invention.

  But more than that, I think the method she adopted might have been expected of her, when you consider her extreme, her morbid, shyness and her reticence. What were the alternatives? One was to write the novel from the standpoint of omniscience, as, for instance, Middlemarch and Madame Bovary were written. I think it would have shocked her harsh, uncompromising virtue to tell the outrageous story as a creation of her own; and if she had, moreover, she could hardly have avoided giving some account of Heathcliff during the few years he spent away from Wuthering Heights – years in which he managed to acquire an education and make quite a lot of money. She couldn’t do this, because she simply didn’t know how he had done it. The fact the reader is asked to accept is hard to believe, and she was content to state it and leave it at that. Another alternative was to have the story narrated to her, Emily Brontë, by Mrs. Dean, say, and tell it then in the first person; but I suspect that that, too, would have brought her into a contact with the reader too close for her quivering sensitivity. By having the story in its beginning told by Lockwood, and unfolded to Lockwood by Mrs. Dean, she hid herself behind, as it were, a double mask. Mr. Brontë told Mrs. Gaskell a story which in this connection has significance. When his children were young, he, desiring to find out something of their natures, which their timidity concealed from him, made each inturn put on an old mask, under cover of which they could answer more freely the questions he put to them. When he asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world, she answered, ‘The Bible’; but when he asked Emily what he had best do with her troublesome brother Branwell, she said: ‘Reason with him; and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him.’

  And why did Emily need to hide herself when she wrote this powerful, passionate and terrible book? I think because she disclosed in it her innermost instincts. She looked deep into the well of loneliness in her heart, and saw there unavowable secrets of which, notwithstanding, her impulse as a writer drove her to unburden herself. It is said that her imagination was kindled by the weird stories her father used to tell of the Ireland of his youth, and by the tales of Hoffmann which she learned to read when she went to school in Belgium, and which she continued to read, we are told, back at the parsonage, seated on a hearthrug by the fire with her arm around Keeper’s neck. I am willing to believe that she found in the stories of mystery, violence and horror of the German romantic writers something that appealed to her own fierce nature; but I think she found Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in the hidden depths of her own soul. I think she was herself Heathcliff, I think she was herself Catherine Earnshaw. Is it strange that she should have put herself into the two chief characters of her book? Not at all. We are none of us all of a piece; more than one person dwells within us, often in uncanny companionship with his fellows; and the peculiarity of the writer of fiction is that he has the power to objectify the diverse persons of which he is compounded individual characters: his misfortune is that he cannot bring to life characters, however necessary to his story they may be, in which there is no part of himself. That is why the younger Catherine in Wuthering Heights is unsatisfactory.

  I think Emily put the whole of herself into Heathcliff. She gave him her violent rage, her sexuality, vehement but frustrated, her passion of unsatisfied love, her jealousy, her hatred and contempt of human beings, her cruelty, her sadism. The reader will remember the incident when, with so little reason, she beat with her naked fist the face of the dog she loved as perhaps she loved no human being. There is another curious circumstance related by Ellen Nussey. ‘She enjoyed leading Charlotte where she would not dare to go of her own free will. Charlotte had a mortal dread of unknown animals, and it was Emily’s pleasure to lead her into close vicinity, and then tell her of how and what she had done, laughing at her horror with great amusement.’ I think Emily loved Catherine Earnshaw with Heathcliff’s masculine, animal love; I think she laughed,
as she had laughed at Charlotte’s fears, when, as Heathcliff, she kicked and trampled on Earnshaw and dashed his head against the stone flags; and I think when, as Heathcliff, she hit the younger Catherine in the face and heaped humiliations upon her, she laughed. I think it gave her a thrill of release when she bullied, reviled and browbeat the persons of her invention, because in real life she suffered such bitter mortification in the company of her fellow-creatures; and I think, as Catherine, doubling the roles, as it were, though she fought Heathcliff, though she despised him, though she knew him for the beast he was, she loved him with her body and soul, she exulted in her power over him, and since there is in the sadist something of the masochist too, she was fascinated by his violence, his brutality and his untamed nature. She felt they were kin, as indeed they were, if I am right in supposing they were both Emily Brontë. ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff,’ Catherine cried. ‘He’s always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.’

  Wuthering Heights is a love story, perhaps the strangest that was ever written, and not the least strange part of it is that the lovers remain chaste. Catherine was passionately in love with him as Heathcliff was with her. For Edgar Linton, Catherine felt only a kindly, and often exasperated, tolerance. One wonders why those two people who were consumed with love did not, whatever the poverty that might have faced them, run away together.

 
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