Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk

By Janet Gezari | Go to book overview

5. The Performing Body: Villette After Wuthering Heights

"Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?" "Is he a ghoul, or a vampire?" Like the contemporary reviewers of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë takes Isabella's and Nelly's questions to heart in her "Editor's Preface" to the 1850 edition of the novel:

Heathcliff betrays one solitary human feeling, and that is not his love for Catherine; which is a sentiment fierce and inhuman: a passion such as might boil and glow in the bad essence of some evil genius; a fire that might form the tormented center--the ever-suffering soul of a magnate of the infernal world: and by its quenchless and ceaseless ravage effect the execution of the decree which dooms him to carry Hell with him wherever he wanders. No; the single link that connects Heathcliff with humanity is his rudely confessed regard for Hareton Earnshaw--the young man whom he has ruined; and then his half-implied esteem for Nelly Dean. These solitary traits omitted, we should say he was child neither of Lascar nor gypsy, but a man's shape animated by demon life--a Ghoul--an Afreet.1

Brontë's defense of her sister as Heathcliff's creator relies on the premise of authorial inconscience: "Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done." Both the theory of artistic creation set out in the preface (no author can be responsible for the "creative gift") and the history of Emily Brontë's life contained in the "Biographical Notice" (this particular author was "genuinely good and truly great") support this premise. Yet the final paragraph of Brontë's preface confirms her admiration of Heathcliff, for she recreates the novel as a whole in his image, and having done so, not only deprecates its demonism but praises its divinity. A boundary figure, at once human and inhuman, a work of art (half statue) and nature (half rock), he is the image of the novel he dominates and the focus of Brontë's contradictory responses:

'Wuthering Heights' was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor: gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head, savage,

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