"My name was Isabella Linton": Coverture, Domestic Violence, and Mrs. Heathcliff's Narrativein Wuthering HeightsAuthor(s): Judith E. PikeSource: Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 64, No. 3 (December 2009), pp. 347-383Published by: University of California PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncl.2009.64.3.347 .
Accessed: 26/09/2013 17:27
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp
.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
University of California Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toNineteenth-Century Literature.
This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on Thu, 26 Sep 2013 17:27:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
“My name was Isabella Linton”: Coverture, Domestic Violence, and Mrs. Heathcliff’s Narrative in Wuthering HeightsJ U D I T H E . P I K E
Even though the initial nineteenth- century reviewers of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) could not arrive at a consensus regarding the gender of Ellis Bell (or of any of the Bells), the critics were in general accord as to what they deemed the coarse nature of the novel due to a wide range of reasons, from the novel’s unforgiving and indecorous dialogue to “the brutalizing influence of unchecked passion” dem-onstrated by many of its characters.1 The allegations of coarseness originate with the earliest review in the Spectator in December 1847 but continued well into the next decade of reviews.2 In his June
1 [Anon.], rev. of Wuthering Heights, Britannia, 15 January 1848; rpt. in The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 225. Hereafter Allott’s volume is referred to as The Brontës.
2 References to the novel’s coarseness appear in the following nineteenth-century reviews: [Anon.], rev. of Wuthering Heights, Spectator (December 1847), in The Brontës, p. 217; [Anon.], rev. of Wuthering Heights, Examiner ( January 1848), in The Brontës, p. 222;
Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 64, No. 3, pp. 347–383. ISSN: 0891–9356, online ISSN: 1067-8352. © 2009 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, at http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.
NCL6403_03.indd 347 12/10/09 3:57:55 PM
This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Thu, 26 Sep 2013 17:27:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
348 nineteenth-century literature
1848 review2of the novel for the American Review, G. W. Peck admonishes Bell for his “rudeness” and questions the merits of the novel for a female readership: “If we did not know that this book has been read by thousands of young ladies in the coun-try, we should esteem it our first duty to caution them against it simply on account of the coarseness of the style” (The Brontës, p. 236). This indictment was cast upon Bell’s novel not only for style but also for characterization.
While we can readily see how each of the central charac-ters could be castigated by nineteenth-century reviewers and readers for their less than decorous behavior, it was not until 1857 that the indictment of coarseness was launched against Isabella. This assessment of Isabella is quite surprising on two accounts. First, while the initial nineteenth-century reviewers scrutinize Heathcliff, Hindley, Hareton, and the two Cathe-rines, and also pay considerable attention to Ellen Dean and Joseph, they fail even to acknowledge the presence of Isabella as a figure in the novel. Second, these reviewers generally gloss over Isabella’s role as one of the three narrators of this framed narrative.
Isabella garnered no critical attention or even a citation, except for a mention of her dog,3 until 1851, when a reviewer for Eclectic Review (February 1851) summarily writes: “Isabella Linton is one of the silliest and most credulous girls that fancy ever painted.”4 It is interesting that this depiction of Isabella has not only held sway over critical views for nineteenth-cen-tury reviewers, but has also generally been the tenor of the cur-sory comments on this character for the last one hundred and
[G. W. Peck], rev. of Wuthering Heights, American Review (June 1848), in The Brontës, pp. 236, 238; E. P. Whipple, “Novels of the Season,” North American Review (October 1848), in The Brontës, p. 248; [G. H. Lewes], rev. of Wuthering Heights, Leader (December 1850), in The Brontës, p. 292; Harriet Martineau, obituary of Emily Brontë, Daily News (April 1855), in The Brontës, p. 303; [W. C. Roscoe], rev. of Wuthering Heights, National Review (June 1857), in The Brontës, p. 349; and [Anon.], “The Life and Writing of Emily Brontë, Galaxy (February 1873), in The Brontës, p. 393.
3 The first appearance of Isabella’s name is only in reference to “the hanging of Isabella’s dog,” mentioned by Sydney Dobell in his September 1850 review in the Palla-dium (in The Brontës, p. 279). While Dobell addresses minor characters such as Joseph, he makes no other mention of Isabella in his review.
4 [Anon.], rev. of Wuthering Heights, Eclectic Review (February 1851), in The Brontës, p. 298.
NCL6403_03.indd 348 12/10/09 3:57:55 PM
This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Thu, 26 Sep 2013 17:27:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
wuthering heights 349
fifty years of criticism.5 While both nineteenth-century and con-temporary critics largely represent Isabella as arrested in her infantile girlhood, W. C. Roscoe is the sole nineteenth-century reviewer who notes Isabella’s transformation and sees her as equally imbued with coarseness. He concludes in his June 1857 review for the National Review that both the younger Catherine and Isabella Linton “become so immediately assimilated in coarseness and malice to those of Heathcliff’s household” (The Brontës, p. 349). Roscoe does not develop how this coarseness is tied to Emily Brontë’s grim portrayal of domestic violence, but he clearly identifies the impact of Heathcliff’s violence on Isa-bella’s character and her transformation. Still, he makes a most telling mistake, which plagues most critical discussions of Isa-bella, by saying that Isabella Linton becomes imbued with said coarseness, when in fact it is only as Isabella Heathcliff that this transformation takes place. Critics too often fail to acknowledge the key distinctions that Brontë makes between her character-ization of the unmarried Miss Linton and her more sobering rendering of Isabella as Mrs. Heathcliff.6
Indeed, Brontë first introduces her readers to Isabella Lin-ton as a silly and credulous girl, yet her transformation from a “petted” darling to a married woman, one who flees domes-tic abuse, marks her as a singular character that has been far too long unnoticed by Brontë readers. While critics have been
5 In the past several years, more attention has been paid to Isabella as a victim of abuse, but these articles still give her limited attention and omit any discussion of her role as a narrator and of how Brontë reveals a connection between that abuse and the emergence of her narrative voice along with the dramatic shift in characterization. See Lisa Surridge, “Wuthering Heights, Women, and the Law: A Historical Approach,” in Ap-proaches to Teaching Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” ed. Sue Lonoff and Terri A. Has-seler (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2006), pp. 113–15; and Catherine R. Hancock, “Teaching the Language of Domestic Violence in Wuthering Heights,” in Approaches to Teaching Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” pp. 64–65.
6 The novel in a sense begins with a search for “Mrs. Heathcliff” when Lockwood initially mistakes young Catherine for Heathcliff’s wife, the first Mrs. Heathcliff. Then Lockwood discovers the elder Catherine’s scribbling of her name as “Catherine Heath-cliff” (Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. Beth Newman [Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007], p. 50; all further citations are to this edition and are noted par-enthetically), which we later learn is her musing about the possibility of her becoming Mrs. Heathcliff. So the novel presents a mystery as to who will assume the position of Heathcliff’s wife. In chapter 6, when Isabella is first introduced, she strikes the reader as the least likely of the candidates.
NCL6403_03.indd 349 12/10/09 3:57:55 PM
350 nineteenth-century literature
loath to give Isabella voice due to her supposed marginal role in the novel, Brontë has done the very opposite by giving her narrative voice a seminal role. While Isabella’s striking transfor-mation certainly offers us sufficient reason to merit her closer critical examination, Brontë gives us a more telling clue as to the significance of Isabella’s role as narrator in the novel. Con-siderable critical attention has been paid to questions that arise from Brontë’s use of a framed narrative regarding the reliabil-ity and role of the two central narrators, Lockwood and Nelly; a detailed discussion of Isabella as a third narrator, however, is surprisingly absent.
In his 1959 essay “Wuthering Heights: Narrators, Audience, and Message,” Allan R. Brick begins in a promising fashion by considering Isabella’s role as a narrator, arguing that “no one has properly shown why the reader enters Wuthering Heights under the auspices of Lockwood, is then given over to Nelly Dean, then briefly to Isabella.”7 Brick asserts that this sequencing of narra-tors is neither simply a literary device nor an adherence to a nar-rative convention; rather, the framed narrative is critical to our understanding of “how Emily Brontë’s narrative form is deeply interfused with her essential message” (“Wuthering Heights: Nar-rators, Audience, and Message,” p. 80). Unfortunately, he de-votes but a mere paragraph to Isabella’s role as “an important participant-narrator” and simply reduces her to being “another Lockwood,” who naively crosses the threshold into the Heights (p. 84). Mistakenly, when addressing Isabella’s role as “partic-ipant-narrator,” he refers to her as Isabella Linton—but when she begins her narrative, she is actually Isabella Heathcliff. Yet as unsatisfactory as his estimation of Isabella’s role is, Brick stands correct in his assertion that Brontë’s framed narrative is “deeply interfused with her essential message.” The debate regarding the role of Brontë’s narrators continues to engage critics, and periodically they acknowledge Isabella’s role as a “temporary narrator,” but, as Gideon Shunami concludes, her narrative is ultimately perceived as simply filling in “a ‘dead space’” between
7 Brick, “Wuthering Heights: Narrators, Audience, and Message,” College English, 21 (1959), 80.
NCL6403_03.indd 350 12/10/09 3:57:55 PM
wuthering heights 351
the larger narratives of the tales of the two Catherines.8 Susan Stewart also dismisses the significance of Isabella’s letter by call-ing it a “deviation” from Nelly’s narrative control, and she makes no further mention of Isabella’s role as narrator.9
In her discussion of the reliability of narrative voices in Wuthering Heights, Margaret Homans completely disregards the significance of Isabella’s narrative role, directly contradicting Emily Brontë’s own estimation of Isabella’s letter.10 Before read-ing Isabella’s letter, Nelly explains that she has safeguarded it for all these years because “any relic of the dead is precious” (Wuther-ing Heights, p. 148; emphasis added). While Brontë deems the letter precious (for reasons that we shall see), Homans argues the very opposite: “Isabella’s letter to Nelly is another ‘proof’ document, but she is not a central character and her letter is interesting more because it supplies part of the story that Nelly could not have witnessed herself than because it is a sample of a precious voice” (“Repression and Sublimation,” p. 10; empha-sis added). Thus, Homans as well reduces Isabella’s narrative to the level of plot filler. Yet Isabella’s letter becomes a criti-cal voice, not just for its intimate portrait of the couples’ mari-tal life but also because it becomes an important key to assess the reliability of conflicting narratives. Chapter 14 of Wuther-ing Heights presents competing and diametrically opposed ac-counts by Heathcliff and Isabella of their marriage and marital relations. In this chapter Heathcliff presents a carefully crafted argument to discredit Isabella’s reliability and her character in an effort to defend and even legally sanction his domestic con-finement of Isabella at the Heights. Moreover, Heathcliff’s ac-count not only clearly reveals that Brontë had a keen awareness of the marriage laws and coverture, but also, more surprisingly, it shows her very incisive understanding of the legal grounds by which a husband could incarcerate his wife as well as the legal
8 See Shunami, “The Unreliable Narrator in Wuthering Heights,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 27 (1973), 466.
9 See Stewart, “The Ballad in Wuthering Heights,” Representations, no. 86 (2004), 184.
10 See Homans, “Repression and Sublimation of Nature in Wuthering Heights,” PMLA, 93 (1978), 9–19.
NCL6403_03.indd 351 12/10/09 3:57:55 PM
352 nineteenth-century literature
grounds by which a wife might be granted a legal separation. As C. P. Sanger noted decades ago, “Emily Brontë clearly had a considerable knowledge of the law.”11 Without Isabella’s let-ter, however, which appears one chapter earlier, Heathcliff’s arguments in defense of his actions appear quite credible, and Isabella’s rebuttal to Heathcliff’s argument are rendered neg-ligible. Ultimately, Isabella’s letter becomes a critical tool to ferret out the question of each of these characters’ reliability, revealing in the process the psychological depth of Isabella’s character, too often trivialized by critics.
Isabella’s letter portrays the dramatic transformation of her character beyond the limits of girlhood, demonstrating, as Ros-coe astutely pointed out in 1857, that she indeed becomes im-bued with a degree of coarseness. This coarseness, manifest in her narrative voice and persona, is carefully wrought by Brontë, and it merits scrutiny. Isabella plays a much greater role in Em-ily Brontë’s novel and our understanding of it than has been acknowledged. Simply in terms of narrative space within the novel, Isabella plays a pivotal role in seven chapters of the novel and is further referenced in a total of seventeen of the thirty-four chapters.12 Critics, however, misrepresent Isabella again and again as a limited and static character, frozen in arrested girlhood. Surprisingly, Melvin R. Watson’s 1949 characteriza-tion still presents the most classic reading of Isabella as a “giddy girl” who acts merely as a foil to Catherine and an instrument of revenge for Heathcliff:
11 Charles Percy Sanger, “The Structure of Wuthering Heights” (1926), rpt. in Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism, 3d ed., ed. William M. Sale, Jr., and Richard J. Dunn (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1990), p. 333. While Sanger does not address nineteenth-century marriage laws, he astutely demon-strates Brontë’s knowledge of nineteenth-century inheritance laws, in regard to both real property law and personal property, in order to trace how Heathcliff acquired the property of both the Earnshaws and the Lintons (see “The Structure of Wuthering Heights,” pp. 334–36).
12 Isabella is referenced over one hundred times in Wuthering Heights, from the first mention of her by Heathcliff in chapter 2 (p. 45) to the final reference to her as “Aunt Isabella” by young Catherine (p. 232). Isabella is referred to throughout the novel mostly as Isabella, but early on she is described as “Miss Linton,” “his [Edgar’s] sister,” “the girl,” “Miss,” then later as “Mrs. Heathcliff,” and lastly as “Aunt Isabella.” She plays a key role in chapters 6, 7, and 10–14 and appears as well in chapters 2, 8, 15–19, and 20–23.
NCL6403_03.indd 352 12/10/09 3:57:56 PM
wuthering heights 353
Isabella, as weak as Catherine is strong, as conventional as Cath-erine is unconventional, as superficially attracted to Heathcliff as Catherine was to Edgar, allows Heathcliff to make his first in-roads on Thrushcross Grange. An emotional, giddy girl who had no knowledge of men or their motives, she felt only the physical attraction of a dark, handsome, well-dressed newcomer to her small circle of acquaintances. Too late she discovered that she was to be only a tool, used briefly and then cast aside to be worn away by rust. Though completely convincing in her role, she is significant only as the device which enables Heathcliff to gain control of Thrushcross Grange.13
Indeed, Brontë does initially introduce Isabella as an inane, spoiled girl who “lay screaming” and “shrieking” in the drawing room (Wuthering Heights, pp. 74–75). Brontë derides her further by having Linton describe her as “lisping” and “cowardly” (p. 76), which is a far cry from Nelly’s final interview with Isabella, and which renders her as commanding both in her speech and in her actions. Even when Isabella is a young lady, prior to her marriage to Heathcliff, Brontë shows her as puerile, fretting and pining over Heathcliff. But a subtle shift in representation also takes place in chapter 10, when Brontë’s narrator describes her as “a charming young lady of eighteen; infantile in manners,” but then adroitly adds, “though possessed of keen wit, keen feelings, and a keen temper, too, if irritated” (p. 119). This passage is ex-tremely nuanced, for it both reinforces the reader’s disparaging view of the foolish and pampered Isabella as well as foreshadows her later defiance. Brontë’s earlier rendering of “the vacant blue eyes of the Lintons” (p. 77) has shifted, for now Isabella pos-sesses a “keen wit” and “keen temper.” At this point in the novel her keen temper is misguidedly directed at “snapping at and teazing Catherine” (p. 120), and the narrator shortly thereafter demeans her as “the infatuated girl” (p. 121), but Brontë also signals through her reference to Isabella’s “keen wit” that she is more substantial than Watson and others have grasped.
Watson’s portrait has been a commonplace reading of Isa-bella, but she ultimately proves to be more than a tool or device
13 Watson, “Tempest in the Soul: The Theme and Structure of ‘Wuthering Heights,’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 4 (1949), 93.
NCL6403_03.indd 353 12/10/09 3:57:56 PM
354 nineteenth-century literature
and is certainly not so much, as Watson concludes, merely “cast aside to be worn away by rust.” Granted, Heathcliff exploits Isa-bella as a strategic economic and psychological tool, but she emerges as a very brazen woman when she actively deserts her husband at a time when laws would not protect her from the consequences of her desertion. Moreover, Brontë gives us an even more significant proof as to why Watson’s classic reading of Isabella as a flat and insignificant character is a gross misrep-resentation. Critical assessment of Isabella as simply a charac-ter, minor at that, neglects Brontë’s portrayal of her as a narra-tor or, as Brick calls her, a “participant-narrator.”
One of the most telling clues as to why we should not trivi-alize Isabella’s role either as character or as narrator is given to us by Brontë when she dedicates a chapter to Isabella’s letter to Nelly. Chapter 13, comprised almost entirely of Isabella’s letter, offers an intimate portrait of domestic abuse within a middle-class setting. The domestic portrait of the Heights is further compounded by the fact that Isabella arrives at the Heights only two months after her marriage. So Brontë’s introduction of a young bride from the gentry class into the domestic mayhem of the Heights is highly unorthodox for the mid-Victorian period. Just before Nelly reads aloud Isabella’s letter, she notes how it was “odd coming from the pen of a bride just out of the honey-moon” (Wuthering Heights, p. 148). The letter powerfully blights the conventional depiction of nuptial bliss. Brontë violates the celestial and romantic image of the honeymoon and its defining moment of a young lady’s transformation from girlhood to wom-anhood and her entrance into her domestic role as lady of the house. Moreover, critics gloss over Nelly’s curious preface to her reading of the letter, when she explains to Lockwood why she still preserves this letter: “Any relic of the dead is precious, if they were valued living” (p. 148). By identifying it as a relic, Brontë valorizes both Isabella and her account, perhaps more so than her readers have been apt to do. Brontë thus informs us that this narrative is anything but filler; rather, something valuable is to be gleaned from both Isabella’s character and her narrative.
Still one of the most perplexing aspects of Brontë’s pre-sentation of Isabella’s letter and narrative is the way in which Brontë simultaneously highlights its importance and buries it. Its
NCL6403_03.indd 354 12/10/09 3:57:56 PM
wuthering heights 355
highlighting is most straightforward, for while Wuthering Heights is littered with letters and notes exchanged between characters,14 Brontë includes Isabella’s letter as the only intact letter, one that is still in Nelly’s physical possession. Moreover, the letter holds a unique textual place within the novel, as it is set off typographi-cally and spatially from the rest of the larger narrative. Just as Isa-bella’s narrative is framed within the larger frame of Nelly’s and Lockwood’s narratives, Isabella’s letter is presented to the reader in a spatial and typographical frame. Since Emily Brontë left no handwritten manuscript with which to compare the 1847 first edition, we must rely on the 1847 edition, published by Thomas Cautley Newby, as a template for how Isabella’s letter is presented to Brontë’s initial readers.15 In this first edition, the letter is set off spatially from the rest of the text with the salutation: “‘Dear Ellen,’ it begins,” as Nelly reads the letter to the convalescing Lockwood. More notably, Isabella’s name appears boldly on the page at the end of the letter, for her name is even more dramati-cally set off spatially and typographically. In the 1847 first edi-tion her name appears both in uppercase letters and in quotes as “‘ISABELLA,’” and is blocked off visually both by a blank space above, separating this valediction from the contents of the letter, and by a blank space below her name, as this is the end of the chapter. It is the only occurrence in the novel when a character’s name is set off in such a manner, and with uppercase letters. Unfortunately, most contemporary editions of Wuthering Heights erroneously present the salutation as “DEAR ELLEN” in upper-case letters; only one contemporary edition corrects this mistake, but it then mistakenly has Isabella’s name at the end without the uppercase letters.16
14 There is a range of correspondence that exists in the novel, from Nelly’s notes, Heathcliff ’s letter to Catherine, Isabella’s note to her brother announcing their mar-riage, Edgar’s letter home after Isabella’s funeral, and Linton and Cathy’s exchange of letters. As to the content of those letters, besides Isabella’s letter, the reader is given a portion of one of Linton’s letters, but it is only a “part of his letter” (Wuthering Heights, p. 247).
15 See Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, A Novel by Ellis Bell, In Three Volumes (Lon-don: Thomas Cautley Newby, Publisher, 1847).
16 Most contemporary editions of Wuthering Heights do not preserve the 1847 Newby edition’s typography of the salutation. These editions instead use all uppercase let-ters and present the salutations as DEAR ELLEN rather than “Dear Ellen.” See Emily
NCL6403_03.indd 355 12/10/09 3:57:56 PM
356 nineteenth-century literature
Once we stop and take note of this typographical and spa-tial framing of Isabella’s narrative, it is hard to imagine how critics have for so long diminished Isabella’s role, be it as char-acter or narrator. Once we become aware of this privileged space of Isabella’s letter within the novel, it becomes almost impossible to imagine how any of us as readers skimmed over its significance—as, in fact, almost all of us have done at least in our first and sometimes in subsequent readings of the novel. Isabella’s story gets continually lost and overshadowed by the master-plot of Heathcliff and Cathy’s romance and the master-narratives of Lockwood and Nelly. So why does Brontë give Isa-bella such a powerful narrative and simultaneously have that narrative seemingly lost as “dead space” to her readers?
The reason for this failure may be a brilliant move on Brontë’s part to disguise Isabella’s scandalous tale with the larger romance of Catherine and Heathcliff’s forbidden love. Through her portrayal of Isabella’s transformation in this letter, Brontë takes a daring step to belie the credulous views that her nineteenth-century reader held about marriage, domesticity, and domestic abuse. Nineteenth-century reviewers of Wuthering Heights would periodically make veiled comments about domes-tic violence, but it was usually of minor note, such as A. Mary F. Robinson’s 1883 comment about “dishonoured wives” in her bi-ography of Emily Brontë.17 Not until the late-Victorian period,
Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. Alison Booth (New York: Longman, 2009), p. 123; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights: The 1847 Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, 4th ed., ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2003), p. 106; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. Christopher Heywood (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002), p. 230; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. Diane Long Hoeveler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), p. 125; and Wuthering Heights, ed. Newman, p. 148. While the Heywood edition uses uppercase letters, it is the only edition that preserves the salutation in quotation marks, as it appears in the Newby edition. These editions also differ from the first edition’s typography of Isabella’s signature. The Booth edition (p. 133), Dunn edition (p. 114), Heywood edition (p. 240), and Newman edition (p. 157) all preserve the uppercase letters of the Newby edition, but they omit setting Isabella’s name off with the original quotations marks. In the Hoeveler edition (p. 133) the signature appears as “Isabella” but appears in italics. Linda Peterson’s edition differs from the other contemporary editions for the salutation appears as “Dear Ellen,” but it then omits the uppercase letters for Isabella’s signature (see Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. Linda Peterson [Boston: Bedford, 2003], pp. 130, 138).
17 See Robinson, Emily Brontë (London: W. H. Allen and Co., 1883), p. 160.
NCL6403_03.indd 356 12/10/09 3:57:57 PM
wuthering heights 357
with John Stuart Mill’s writing and most notably the publication in 1878 of Frances Power Cobbe’s “Wife-Torture in England,” did this topic receive broader attention.18 When Brontë was writ-ing, the topic of domestic violence was being addressed behind the closed doors of Parliament during debates over divorce and what constituted cruelty as a just rationale for divorce. Brontë’s inclusion of the issue, which her sister Anne came to address a year later in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), was a highly con-tested issue. Newspapers had exposed the public to some cases, but the general view, especially within the middle classes, was that such abuse was limited to what Cobbe later calls the “kick-ing districts” of the laboring classes. In his comments on Emily Brontë in the Athenæum in 1883, Algernon Charles Swinburne notes that “the details of deliberate or passionate brutality in Heathcliff’s treatment of his victims make the reader feel for a moment as though he were reading a police report.”19 Swin-burne and his Victorian contemporaries would have been able to read these police reports, as they were regularly published in newspapers for public consumption. So nineteenth-century readers may well have picked up on a resonance between scenes from the novel and newspaper accounts, but these newspaper accounts were seldom reports of domestic strife in the middle class; rather, they perpetuated stereotypical views of working classes as crass and intemperate. Perhaps Brontë was intention-ally circumspect in her treatment of the subject, given the bra-zen nature of her portrayal of a middle-class home permeated by domestic abuse, from Hindley’s drunken rages to Heath-cliff’s abuse, and given her introduction of such violence into a middle-class setting where the female witness and victim was a lady from the gentry class.
While we only later learn of Isabella’s final defiance and es-cape through Nelly’s narrative, Isabella’s letter becomes a pivotal turning point in the development of her character and the emer-gence of her bold and even ironic narrative voice. Whereas Mel-vin Watson concludes that Isabella “had no knowledge of men or their motives,” Isabella’s letter clearly shows not only that she has
18 See Cobbe, “Wife-Torture in England,” Contemporary Review, 32 (1878), 55–87.19 Swinburne, rev. of Wuthering Heights, Athenæum (June 1883), in The Brontës, p. 443.
NCL6403_03.indd 357 12/10/09 3:57:57 PM
358 nineteenth-century literature
grasped intimate knowledge of men and their motives but also that she has come to envy masculine power and willfully trans-gresses both class and gender boundaries. It should be noted as well that Isabella signs her letter simply as “‘ISABELLA’” rather than using her new married name, Isabella Heathcliff. While this can be explained by her familiarity with Nelly Dean, Brontë also may be suggesting that, unlike most new brides, Isabella is averse to using her new legal name due to the condition of her mar-riage. While her letter demonstrates that she has gained a com-plex and formidable narrative voice as Isabella Heathcliff, she is simultaneously deprived of a legal voice under the laws of cover-ture. Moreover, her elopement, adroitly maneuvered by Heath-cliff, strips her of any economic power, for no trust or marriage settlement was established prior to her marriage. Joan Perkin notes that marriage settlements along with stipulations regard-ing pin-money were conventional practices instituted to protect married women in both the landed aristocracy and the gentry.20 Given the absence of such a settlement due to her elopement, however, it is unlikely that Isabella would be receiving any pin-money or allowance from Heathcliff. Still, even though Isabella lacks any legal and economic power, Brontë invests her with a critical voice in the novel. Her narrative voice reveals her “keen wit,” which takes a sardonic turn as she doffs her naive notions of romantic love, marriage, and domestic felicity.
Isabella begins her letter by telling Nelly that she is writ-ing to her because she can write neither to Catherine, due to her illness, nor to Edgar, because of his anger over her mar-riage, and she appeals to Nelly to convey her desire to see them both. She indicates obliquely how disastrous her elopement to Heathcliff was, writing: “my heart returned to Thrushcross Grange in twenty-four hours” (Wuthering Heights, p. 149). After expressing her warm sentiments for her brother and Catherine, she interrupts herself by writing, “I can’t follow it, though—” (p. 149). Here we see Isabella’s efforts to restrain herself from and harden herself against the intensity of these feelings.
20 See Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago: Lyceum, 1989), p. 66. For a discussion of marriage settlements and separate estates for married women, see Women and Marriage, pp. 65–73.
NCL6403_03.indd 358 12/10/09 3:57:57 PM
wuthering heights 359
For the first time, we begin to feel a degree of sympathy for Isabella. Before reading her letter, we are loath to have any real sympathy for her: up to this point her character, as the fretful darling, evinces our derision more than our sympathy, echoing Catherine and Heathcliff’s disdain and antipathy. Isabella’s let-ter, however, presents a far more sober and reflective persona. She poses two powerful and incisive questions to Nelly. First, she asks Nelly how she was able “to preserve common sympathies of human nature” when she resided at the Heights (Wuthering Heights, p. 149). This question reveals her understanding that living at the Heights in the midst of Heathcliff and the other men in the house has tainted her sense not only of decorum but also of her domestic life. Here Isabella expresses a keen awareness, foreseeing how living in such debauched environs will eventually coarsen her. So Roscoe’s perception that Isabella became “so immediately assimilated in coarseness” is a percep-tion not lost on Isabella. Her second question is equally pene-trating: she asks, “Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?” (p. 149). We can surmise that this question-ing of Heathcliff’s humanity and madness is not due just to the deterioration of any civility or peace at the Heights, but is tied more to her marriage and is suggestive of Heathcliff’s psycho-logical and perhaps physical brutality. Isabella’s question about her husband’s potential madness had a particular resonance for this period of time. Researching wife battery from the Ed-wardian era through to the Victorian period, Elizabeth Foyster reveals that the notion of polite society and the expectation for men to be honorable and demonstrate restraint gave rise to the speculation, especially among witnesses of domestic abuse, that the husband’s violence was a sign of madness.21 Foyster writes: “Observers did not describe these occasions of wife beating as madness to defend or excuse the husbands’ actions as tempo-rary instances of insanity, instead they employed this terminol-ogy to condemn wife beating” (“Male Honour,” p. 221).
Even before this epistolary account, we see the foreshad-owing of Heathcliff’s violence prior to their marriage, when
21 See Foyster, “Male Honour, Social Control and Wife Beating in Late Stuart Eng-land,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, ser. 6, 6 (1996), 215–24.
NCL6403_03.indd 359 12/10/09 3:57:57 PM
360 nineteenth-century literature
Isabella first displays her infatuation with Heathcliff. He clearly reviles her and openly discloses his brutal fantasy of physical battery when he perversely muses: “You’d hear of odd things if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face; the most ordi-nary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two” (Wuthering Heights, p. 125). While Isabella does not suggest in her letter such physical battery, one can only speculate about other kinds of abuse that he could inflict upon her without leaving any tell-tale marks. Clearly, Isabella’s questions expose the dire state of their marriage.
Isabella’s narrative also brings to light her growing sense of self-irony about her prior misconceptions of her new role as mistress of the Heights. She wryly writes to Nelly: “Now you shall hear how I have been received in my new home” (Wuthering Heights, p. 149). By the time that Isabella composes this letter, all felicitous notions of the happy home life have been banished. Her letter shows her growing awareness of her loss of class sta-tus: far from being the mistress of the house, she finds herself reduced to the level of a servant. When she recounts her initial arrival at the Heights, watching Joseph as he locked up the outer gate, she adds rather sarcastically, “as if we lived in an ancient castle” (p. 149). For Brontë this reference is certainly a Gothic allusion, but Isabella’s comment speaks more to her now jaded view of her new domicile and its inhabitants. Each inmate whom she encounters thwarts her naive conception of her new domes-tic life. First she is sourly greeted by Joseph, whose reaction was to “squint malignantly” at her (p. 149). Her letter even shows that her attempts to befriend the “ruffianly child” Hareton are met with “a threat to set Throttler” on her (pp. 149–50). Still, she exposes her naive expectations when she writes: “I stepped over the threshold to wait till the others should enter” (p. 150). By “others” she means the servants, especially a maid-servant to wait upon her. But instead of such a servant she is met by the debauched and slovenly Hindley, who “demanded grimly” who she was (p. 150). She replies: “My name was Isabella Linton” (p. 151). While this exchange is a means to identify her to Hind-ley, whom she recognizes, her emphasis on “was” also shows her awareness of the grave loss of her former identity. This is a
NCL6403_03.indd 360 12/10/09 3:57:57 PM
wuthering heights 361
pivotal point in Isabella’s narrative, for it marks not only her loss of her family name, status, and home at the Grange, but also the abandonment of her former self as the darling Miss Linton, forsaking both class and gender expectations.
From this point in the novel, Brontë no longer presents Isabella as “infantile” or as a “darling,” but instead gives her a more somber and reflective identity. Isabella surveys the “in-hospitable hearth,” noting its deterioration since her child-hood days, but prefers it over isolation with her husband: “I had sought shelter at Wuthering Heights, almost gladly, because I was secured by that arrangement from living alone with him” (Wuthering Heights, p. 151). Even though Isabella clearly shows here that she no longer harbors any romantic notions about Heathcliff, she still believed that the Heights would offer her comfort and refuge. At first she demands Hindley to direct her to the maid-servant, “as she won’t come to [her]” (p. 152), only to discover that she must fend for herself, as no maid-servant or any female is present in the household. She even takes over the cooking from Joseph, retorting: “I’m not going to act the lady among you, for fear I should starve” (p. 153). This response comes shortly after a most foreboding exchange with Hindley. Though all the men in this household act to force Isabella to give up her class and gender expectations, her encounter with Hindley exposes a fascinating moment in her letter when she confesses her diabolical fantasy. Hindley has just told her to lock and bolt her door against him, whereupon he pulls out his pistol with “a double-edged spring knife” (p. 152). Her re-sponse unquestionably shows us a darker and more intrepid Isabella, whose thoughts are more heinous than feminine or genteel. She discloses to Nelly her fantasy and desire for mas-culine power:
I surveyed the weapon inquisitively; a hideous notion struck me. How powerful I should be possessing such an instrument! I took it from his hand, and touched the blade. He looked aston-ished at the expression my face assumed during a brief second. It was not horror, it was covetousness. (p. 152)
The fact that Isabella knows this to be a “hideous notion” and recognizes her desire for such masculine power is provocative,
NCL6403_03.indd 361 12/10/09 3:57:58 PM
362 nineteenth-century literature
but equally dramatic is the fact that Brontë has her record this reflection. It is not just a passing thought, for Brontë has Isa-bella relive the “hideous moment” as she records it in her let-ter to Nelly. While critics repeatedly acknowledge how the two Catherines defy gender roles and expectations (which is cer-tainly true), this scene presents Isabella as even more transgres-sive, in part due to the fact that these thoughts are recorded and preserved in a letter. Many of the most dramatic moments in the novel when characters defy class or gender expectations come in the heat of a moment in a violent ejaculation, rather than in a state of reflection. Here Isabella is given a tremen-dous psychological depth that we have not seen before in her character.
Brontë deftly handles this scene, for she does not render Isabella’s development so incredulous to the reader as to make her character unbelievable; thus, she shows how Isabella still harbors naive expectations about her new abode. Just after Isa-bella discloses this fantasy and claims that she will no longer “act the lady,” she proposes that Joseph find her a suitable room—a parlor. Joseph ridicules her: “‘Parlour!’ He echoed, sneeringly—‘parlour! Nay, we’ve noa parlours’” (Wuthering Heights, p. 154). Isabella continues to probe Joseph for a proper room in which to eat and settle until she is finally shown into Heathcliff’s bed-room, whereupon she collapses in tears: “I was so vexed I flung my tray and its contents on the ground; . . . hid my face in my hands, and cried” (p. 156). Isabella’s futile reaction is entirely in keeping with her former identity, but her letter proceeds to reveal that ultimately she very cogently assesses the futility of her childish response: “The period of reflection succeeding this silly action compelled me to admit the necessity of smoth-ering my pride, and choking my wrath, and bestirring myself to remove its effects” (p. 156). This is a wonderfully rich passage that displays her radical transformation. Here Isabella exhibits tremendous forbearance and restraint of both her pride and her “keen temper,” which was entirely absent from her charac-ter as Miss Linton. Her reflection also marks her awareness that her pride, heretofore attached to the entitlement of her class standing, must be relinquished if she is to survive at the Heights. So abandoning her ladylike expectations, Isabella stoops down
NCL6403_03.indd 362 12/10/09 3:57:58 PM
wuthering heights 363
like a scullery maid and cleans up the shattered dish of oatmeal on the floor with her pocket-handkerchief.
Isabella’s letter ends by recording her first morning at the Heights, where she both literally and figuratively awakens to the realities of her wretched, new domestic life as Mrs. Heathcliff. Her narrative voice ends with a bitter, ironic edge—far from, as Nelly points out, “the pen of a bride just out of the honey-moon” (Wuthering Heights, p. 148). Upon being awakened by Heathcliff that very morning, Isabella wryly writes: “Mr. Heath-cliff awoke me; he had just come in, and demanded, in his lov-ing manner, what I was doing there?” (p. 157; emphasis added). She has recounted sufficient information about Heathcliff’s pleasure in reviling her that her comment cannot be read as anything but sardonic.
In “The Ironic Vision of Emily Brontë,” John E. Jordan thoroughly assesses Brontë’s characters as either conscious or unconscious of irony.22 Focusing on Wuthering Heights’s framed narrative, Jordan argues that Lockwood’s “outer box” narration “contains the most easy play of conscious irony,” but that Nelly’s “inner box” demonstrates less “conscious irony” (“The Ironic Vi-sion,” pp. 6–7). Unfortunately, Jordan makes no mention of Isa-bella’s as the last narrative “box” or how she uses irony quite con-sciously in her letter. By endowing Isabella with conscious irony, Brontë shows her as having greater insight than if it were merely unconscious irony. Whereas she once naively idealized Heathcliff as having “an honourable soul,” she now grasps the grim reali-ties of her life as Mrs. Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, p. 121). Isa-bella’s letter clearly demonstrates that her awakening has indeed coarsened her sentiments, and the touch of irony is testament to one facet of her harsher perspective. She notes how even Heath-cliff’s “ingenious” tormenting of her causes her to feel a certain fearlessness (p. 157). Yet she has not become entirely inured to his violence and writes that nothing inspires “terror . . . equal to that which he wakens” (p. 157). Her letter proves not to be a hysterical account of her misery, as we might have expected, but instead shows that her voice has not only a sense of irony but also
22 See Jordan, “The Ironic Vision of Emily Brontë,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 20 (1965), 1–18.
NCL6403_03.indd 363 12/10/09 3:57:58 PM
364 nineteenth-century literature
tremendous forbearance. In lieu of commissioning Nelly to inter-cede with her brother Edgar to rescue her, Isabella demands that Nelly keep the contents of this letter out of his hands. She ends boldly but ominously by saying, “Beware of uttering one breath of this to anyone in the Grange” (p. 157). Isabella is fully cog-nizant of what Heathcliff might to do to her, and even tries to protect her brother from her misfortunes and Heathcliff’s wrath. Stripped of any false notions, she writes: “I have been a fool!” (p. 157). Thus, when Isabella’s signature appears boldly at the end of this letter, it represents a remarkably different voice than the “lisping” young lady whom Brontë describes in chapter 6.
While Isabella’s narrative reveals the emo-tional and psychological transformation that has taken place, only with Nelly’s account in chapter 14 do we see the physical toll of Isabella’s new life as Mrs. Heathcliff. Nelly’s account firmly reinforces that Isabella no longer appears a petted darling. The cause of her transformation comes into dispute in this chapter, however, which puts the question of Isabella’s account and its reliability under scrutiny. Upon her arrival at the Heights to see Isabella, as she was solicited to do, Nelly describes the greatly altered Isabella: “Her pretty face was wan and listless; her hair uncurled, some locks hanging lankly down, and some carelessly twisted round her head. Probably she had not touched her dress since yester evening” (Wuthering Heights, p. 158). Nelly’s comment about the state of Isabella’s garb and her appearance in general can be read from two perspectives. First, as Nelly’s role is to enforce decorous, female behavior, being “patriarchy’s paradigmatic housekeeper,”23 her comments can be read as a slight that the once socially superior Miss Linton is now unfit for polite society, which will in fact be Heathcliff’s argument. In contrast to the disheveled Isabella, Nelly sets her bonnet down, representing proper attire, perhaps elevating herself above
23 See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 291.
NCL6403_03.indd 364 12/10/09 3:57:58 PM
wuthering heights 365
Isabella. The stripping away of her genteel status is clearly in-ferred when Nelly comments that had a stranger come upon Isabella, he would have considered her to be “a thorough little slattern!” (Wuthering Heights, p. 158). Second, Nelly’s reference to Isabella as a slattern is quite provocative, suggesting not just her unkempt appearance but her appearing of questionable vir-tue. While Isabella’s narrative clearly gives the background that her fallen condition has come not from her own moral trans-gressions but from her mistreatment by her husband and the masculine debauchery of the Heights, Nelly’s comment presents a different view, which is reinforced by Heathcliff. Once Nelly points out how “sadly the worse” Isabella looks, he unsympa-thetically retorts: “She degenerates into a mere slut!” (p. 161). Heathcliff’s account of his wife’s condition, echoed in part by Nelly’s observation of what others would think, presents a clas-sic scenario of a mentally or morally depraved woman, whose degraded state is her own doing and moral failings.
Therefore, Isabella’s account and Heathcliff’s account are set against each other in extreme opposition. Befitting the gen-der assumptions upon which the laws of coverture are based, Heathcliff launches an argument that Isabella is barely a “ratio-nal creature” and so he must take full control over her. He fur-ther claims that, due to her indecorous appearance, he forbids her from going out for the sake of respectability and the preser-vation of appearances: “I’ll take care she does not disgrace me by rambling abroad” (Wuthering Heights, p. 161). While the laws of coverture give Heathcliff the prerogative to confine his wife to the house as a form of domestic chastisement, his reasons for doing so have little to do with the preservation of his social stand-ing or appearances.24 Still, his argument acts as a legal rationale for her incarceration that would most likely be upheld in a mid-Victorian court of law. In contrast, Isabella refutes Heathcliff’s account and his rationale for her confinement, showing that he confines her because she has tried to run away. Her admission
24 See Maeve E. Doggett, Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law in Victorian England: “Sub Virga Viri” (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992). Doggett presents several legal cases where a wife’s physical confinement by the husband was legally upheld by what became known as the “doctrine of reasonable confinement” (see pp. 15–16).
NCL6403_03.indd 365 12/10/09 3:57:58 PM
366 nineteenth-century literature
comes after Heathcliff tells Nelly how foolishly Isabella behaves, as she is still willing to “come sighing and wheedling” back to him even when he torments her: “I’ve sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention, in my experiments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing back!” (Wuthering Heights, p. 162). While Heathcliff’s desire to exploit Isabella mercilessly is unambiguous, as both he and Isabella attest to it, the rest of Heathcliff’s account is far more questionable as to its reliability.
Chapter 14 presents an interesting dilemma for the reader because Brontë presents two opposing accounts, one by Heath-cliff and one by Isabella, of their two-month marriage. Heath-cliff’s account is given first in this chapter, portraying Isabella as the deluded romantic with an infantile mind who seeks to win the affections of her husband at any cost. Heathcliff even claims that she stays with him quite willingly, for “if she desired to go she might” (Wuthering Heights, p. 162). Isabella vehemently con-tradicts his account by telling Nelly: “Don’t put faith in a single word he speaks. He’s a lying fiend” (p. 162). Without a careful scrutiny of Isabella’s letter and her transformation, Heathcliff’s account that his wife still yearns masochistically for his affec-tions appears far more credible. If we discount Isabella’s narra-tive, Heathcliff’s account falsely colors our reading of Isabella. This is certainly the case with Joyce Carol Oates’s assessment, where Oates argues that Isabella “has enjoyed, and even pro-voked, her husband’s experimental sadism,” but this reading comes directly from Heathcliff’s account.25 If we factor in Isa-bella’s narrative, however, which we certainly should do, then her disclaimer that Heathcliff is “a lying fiend” becomes more credible. Isabella further refutes Heathcliff’s account by telling Nelly that far from groveling back to Heathcliff, she has tried to run away: “I’ve been told I might leave him before; and I’ve made the attempt, but I dare not repeat it!” (Wuthering Heights, p. 162). Further, the fact that Isabella eventually does dare an-other escape, more successfully, lends even more credibility to her account. She reveals to Nelly that far from being deluded, she fully grasps Heathcliff’s reasons for marrying her in order “to obtain power over” Edgar (p. 163).
25 Oates, “The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights,” Critical Inquiry, 9 (1982), 444.
NCL6403_03.indd 366 12/10/09 3:57:59 PM
wuthering heights 367
While the reliability of each of their accounts may still be debated, Heathcliff’s account loses credence if we also look at his reasons for wanting to discredit his wife’s account. Ul-timately, the veracity of Isabella’s account might give her or her brother Edgar a rationale to bring legal action and seek a legal separation. Heathcliff’s account reveals quite explicitly his knowledge of Victorian marital laws: the legal rights of hus-bands regarding confinement, chastisement, and what would constitute, in the eyes of the courts, a rationale for a wife’s pe-tition for a separation. First, Heathcliff justifies his incarcera-tion of his wife by claiming that he confines her to the house to preserve his social standing.26 Looking upon husband and wife when she first arrives at the Heights, Nelly inadvertently backs up Heathcliff’s position. She remarks that if an outsider were to look upon them, Heathcliff would strike the observer as “a born and bred gentleman” (Wuthering Heights, p. 158), while Isabella, in comparison, looks slatternly. Given their ap-pearances, Heathcliff’s air of respectability would have greater credibility, and no doubt his confinement of his slatternly wife would be looked upon by the courts as justified. He lays out further grounds for his actions by using Isabella’s outrage and even her language against her to portray her as both immoral and unfit. After protesting Heathcliff’s account of their mar-riage, Isabella passionately retorts: “I pray that he may forget his diabolical prudence, and kill me! The single pleasure I can imagine is to die, or to see him dead!” (p. 163). Heathcliff well knows that her language could be used publicly against her to deem her unfit. He openly solicits Nelly as a potential witness for his side, saying to her: “If you are called upon in a court of
26 Laura C. Berry and Drew Lamonica both mention how Heathcliff turns the Heights into a prison, confining various members of the household. See Laura C. Berry, The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Vir-ginia, 1999); and Drew Lamonica, “We Are Three Sisters”: Self and Family in the Writing of the Brontës (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2003). Berry focuses on children, but her observations can be applied to women’s roles as well that “houses keep turning into prisons, parental figures keep metamorphosing into prison guards” (The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel, p. 108). Lamonica notes that husbands and fathers can turn into wardens: “The house serves as a literal prison for Isabella, Linton, Hareton, Nelly, and the younger Cathy, with Heathcliff as its terrible warden” (“We Are Three Sisters,” p. 107).
NCL6403_03.indd 367 12/10/09 3:57:59 PM
368 nineteenth-century literature
law, you’ll remember her language” (p. 163). Further, Heath-cliff clarifies in his conversation with Nelly that he has not yet crossed the critical line that would give Isabella due cause to seek legal protection.
Heathcliff clearly assumes the prerogatives of his position as baron under laws of coverture, saying to Isabella: “No, you’re not fit to be your own guardian, Isabella, now; and I, being your legal protector, must retain you in my custody, however distasteful the obligation may be” (Wuthering Heights, p. 163). Given what Heathcliff already exposes about his “experiments” in tormenting Isabella, his claim that he finds it distasteful to exert control over her appears disingenuous. His credibility is further compromised by his keen awareness that Isabella’s brother is a magistrate and has social standing in the commu-nity. Thus, his account of their marriage and of Isabella’s be-havior proves to be a carefully crafted legal defense of his ac-tions. He even tells Nelly to convey his account to Edgar “to set his fraternal and magisterial heart at ease” (p. 162). Heath cliff has a keen awareness of Edgar’s magisterial position, which could pose a grave problem for him if he gave Edgar cause for legal action on behalf of his sister. While before his marriage Heathcliff confesses to the violent fantasy of turning Isabella’s “blue eyes black, every day or two,” after his marriage he knows that he must exercise a certain restraint. He remains within the accepted code of conduct for the baron, which grants him, ac-cording to William Blackstone, the “power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement.”27 After telling Isabella to leave them and go upstairs, Heathcliff then “seized and thrust her from the
27 See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, at The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Yale Law School at <http://www.yale.edu/ lawweb/avalon/blackstone_bk1ch15.asp> In his Commentaries (1765–69), William Blackstone states that according to the “the old law” a husband has the right to “do-mestic chastisement,” but now “with us, in the politer reign of Charles the second, this power of correction began to be doubted: and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband; or, in return, a husband against his wife. Yet the lower rank of people, who were always fond of the old common law, still claim and exert their anti-ent privilege: and the courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehaviour” (Commentaries, Book I, chap. 15). While this is Blackstone’s defense of modern law, the court system did not in fact offer women such guaranteed protection, and the husband’s right to restrain his wife gave him con-siderable interpretative latitude.
NCL6403_03.indd 368 12/10/09 3:57:59 PM
wuthering heights 369
room” (Wuthering Heights, p. 163). Heathcliff toys carefully with his role as baron, but, in Nelly’s presence, he does not overstep the power that the law grants him. Given the laws at this time, only excessive cruelty, not confinement or domestic chastise-ment, could give Isabella cause to seek even a separation, as the possibility of a divorce at this time would be highly unrealistic.
The Divorce Act was not passed until 1857, so before that year the ecclesiastical courts offered an abused wife the most viable, though limited, legal solution. Before the Divorce Act a separation sought through the ecclesiastical courts was a more likely option for women than a civil divorce, which could only be ascertained by an act of Parliament, and “obtaining a par-liamentary divorce was legally complex and extraordinarily ex-pensive,” and was rarely granted.28 Yet while the double sexual standards still plagued the ecclesiastical courts, acts of extreme cruelty and not chastisement or confinement became grounds for a separation a mensa et thoro: “By the late eighteenth cen-tury the ecclesiastical courts had generally come to equate legal cruelty with extreme violence, although the degree of violence required to justify a decree had become less savage since the Restoration; the emphasis had evolved from a clear risk to life to a pattern of ‘grave and weighty’ acts resulting in pain and suffering.”29 In fact, Heathcliff voices his full cognizance of le-gal cruelty when he says: “I keep strictly within the limits of the law—I have avoided, up to this period, giving her the slightest right to claim a separation” (Wuthering Heights, p. 162).
In chapter 17, however, Isabella does not seek any legal action and instead flees to Nelly at the Grange with “a deep cut under one ear” (Wuthering Heights, p. 177). While the informa-tion we are given here of Isabella’s flight is quite scandalous, Brontë first sets up her entrance through Nelly’s recollection
28 Mary Lyndon Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England, 1850–1895 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), p. 36. Shanley relates that by the nineteenth century only ten parliamentary divorces per year were granted, showing that women were at a grave disadvantage. “Until 1804 all of the successful plaintiffs were men protesting their wives’ adultery, and only four women—each of whom com-plained of adultery aggravated by another enormity such as incest or bigamy—ever received a parliamentary divorce” (Feminism, Marriage, and the Law, p. 36).
29 A. James Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Married Life (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 120.
NCL6403_03.indd 369 12/10/09 3:57:59 PM
370 nineteenth-century literature
of hearing how “some person entered out of breath, and laugh-ing!” (p. 176). Upon seeing Isabella drenched from her trek from the Heights, Nelly once again asserts her role as keeper of women’s decorum. She tells Isabella that “laughter is sadly out of place” and insists that Isabella change her attire before she will follow any of her directives (p. 178). Nelly even describes Isabella’s dress as “a low frock with short sleeves, and nothing on either head or neck. The frock was of light silk, and clung to her with wet” (p. 177). Brontë may be suggesting here that the clinging of her wet, silk dress was indecorously revealing, making her appearance, with the absence of a proper bonnet, shockingly unrefined. Isabella’s appearance only lends further proof to Nelly’s earlier remark about her looking like a slat-tern. Thus, it is fitting for Nelly to want to reprimand Isabella for her indecorous behavior, commencing with her laughter. Yet Isabella vehemently resists Nelly’s moralizing and stands up to her quite boldly, demanding that Nelly order the coach im-mediately. She even refuses to let Nelly dress her wound until her directives are followed. She commands herself with force and conviction that is daunting to Nelly. After requesting to have Catherine’s baby sent out of the room, Isabella tells Nelly that while she does mourn the loss of Catherine, she refused to commiserate with her husband, the “brute beast” (p. 177). As a further affront to the sanctity of marriage, which she has thoroughly shown to have been repeatedly violated by Heath-cliff, Isabella tries unsuccessfully to smash her wedding ring and then drops it into the fire. Brontë uses a very provocative phrase to describe this moment: “she took and dropped the misused article among the coals” (p. 177). While this descrip-tion refers to Isabella’s attempts to damage the ring, the refer-ence equally applies to Isabella as “misused” property.
Throughout this scene, Brontë presents a more coarsened Isabella, which seems to validate W. C. Roscoe’s 1857 com-ments. Isabella tells Nelly how she regretted that Hindley was not a physical match for Heathcliff, for if he was, she says, “I wouldn’t have run till I’d seen him all but demolished” (Wuther-ing Heights, p. 178). During this account Isabella is sardonically laughing, for which Nelly rebukes her, saying how out of place it is in a house of mourning. Isabella continues to disclose
NCL6403_03.indd 370 12/10/09 3:58:00 PM
wuthering heights 371
irreverent thoughts of violence, which have turned, she says, from a desire to be killed by Heathcliff to her present desire that she would “rather he’d kill himself!” (p. 178). Nelly’s ac-count of Isabella’s state of mind, irreverent though it is, cer-tainly lends credibility to Isabella’s own narrative in chapter 13. There is a clear progression of thoughts of violence from what is first revealed in her letter to Nelly about her desire for Hind-ley’s pistol to her present position where she desires this “Mon-ster” of a husband to be “blotted out of creation” (p. 179). Isa-bella’s account is filled not so much with masochistic desires, as Oates suggests, than with a desire for revenge, as Isabella sees violence as a means to free herself from Heathcliff.
Brontë tows a delicate and nuanced line for her nineteenth-century readers in her representation of Isabella in chapter 17, for Isabella’s behavior, from her unseemly laughter and appear-ance to her confessions of extreme malice toward her husband, violates the standards set for genteel middle-class women. Thus, Brontë potentially risks losing her readers’ sympathy toward Isa-bella’s demise. In fact, Brontë’s portrait of Isabella comes strik-ingly close to nineteenth-century accounts of the coarsened nature of laboring-class women, who, though victims of “wife-torture,” are deemed somehow more inured to such violence. Frances Power Cobbe’s “Wife-Torture in England” is perhaps the most renowned nineteenth-century treatise on the subject, though John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor along with others had already championed this cause by the mid-century.30 These reformers saw wife-abuse as predominately a working-class prob-lem, however, precipitated by the harsh economic and social conditions of poverty. Cobbe describes how “the dangerous wife-beater belongs almost exclusively to the artisan and labouring classes,” who lead lives of “hard, ugly, mechanical toil in dark pits and hideous factories, amid the grinding and clanging of engines and the fierce heat of furnaces” (“Wife-Torture,” pp. 58–59). While Cobbe vividly portrays the infernal conditions of
30 Hammerton notes that even “as early as 1846 Mill and Taylor were exposing cases which illustrated judicial leniency towards male brutality. Poor women, they ar-gued, could not expect justice from a bench or jury of men, and thus tolerated pro-tracted ‘torture’ without appealing to the law” (Cruelty and Companionship, p. 58).
NCL6403_03.indd 371 12/10/09 3:58:00 PM
372 nineteenth-century literature
working-class life and how “the men are rude, coarse, and bru-tal in their manners and habits” (p. 60), she does offer a small disclaimer earlier in her article that acknowledges the existence of wife-abuse in the upper and middle classes, arguing that “it rarely extends to anything beyond an occasional blow or two of a not dangerous kind” (“Wife-Torture,” p. 58). Cobbe makes no further reference thereafter to abuse in the upper or middle classes and diminishes its severity by focusing her treatise instead on the depraved conditions of working-class life.
Cobbe’s portrait of the female victims of abuse is ultimately rather unsympathetic. She maintains that “we must not ideal-ize the women of the ‘kicking districts’” and describes them as “wofully unwomanly, slatternly, coarse, foul-mouthed” and “sometimes madly addicted to drink” (“Wife-Torture,” pp. 67, 60).31 This debauched image of an abused wife is a far cry from Brontë’s depiction of Isabella, in the sense that Isabella is nei-ther of the laboring class nor intemperate. Instead Brontë ex-poses how even genteel women can become victims of abuse, due not to their slatternly behavior but rather to their naïveté and their blind inculcation of false notions of romance and marriage, along with the male prerogative of “chastisement.” Heathcliff speaks to such illusions by saying how Isabella had “a fabulous notion” of “picturing in [him] a hero of romance” (Wuthering Heights, p. 161). Nelly earlier describes Isabella as an inexperienced “charming young lady of eighteen; infantile in manners,” who readily succumbs to Heathcliff’s manipula-tion. Yet after living under such duress at the Heights, Isabella eventually comes strikingly close to Cobbe’s portrait of abused women. Cobbe’s assessment of these working-class women as es-sentially “coarse” and “slatternly” mirrors Nelly’s description of Isabella as “a thorough little slattern.” Heathcliff’s brutal com-ment that Isabella “degenerates into a mere slut” and his refer-ence later to her as a “slavish, mean-minded brach” (Wuthering
31 Cobbe does clarify that not all women of the laboring class are, as she notes, such “terrible harpies,” yet her clarification only falls into another prejudice when she states that the “honest, chaste, and industrious” poor women are “generally small and slight of person” (“Wife-Torture,” p. 68). Thus, Cobbe complies with the stereotype of the idealized woman as petite and delicate, whereas the more robust working-class women are the slovenly harpies.
NCL6403_03.indd 372 12/10/09 3:58:00 PM
wuthering heights 373
Heights, p. 162) resonate with Cobbe’s view of the female vic-tims, excepting a few, as “wofully unwomanly.”32 Further, even though Heathcliff does not precisely say that Isabella is “foul-mouthed,” he does beckon Nelly to remember the impropri-ety of her language. Whereas Cobbe sees these working-class women’s coarseness as inherent to their class, however, Brontë instead focuses on how domestic abuse transcends class, where such abuse can harden even a genteel woman and render her “coarse” and “unwomanly.” Brontë’s portrayal of Isabella calls Cobbe’s assumptions into question as to whether these women are truly coarse by nature or whether, as Brontë reveals, they are hardened by such violence. Nevertheless, for the mid- Victorian period, Brontë takes a most radical step by portraying a genteel woman as a victim of domestic violence, where her coarseness is not something inherent to her class but is a re-sult of her domestic life. Brontë reveals the causes of Isabella’s transformation in a far more incisive and critical reading of domestic violence than the one provided by Cobbe’s more limited, class-based analysis. Moreover, Brontë offers a radi-cally new perspective when she presents a man of property with middle-class standing as the perpetrator of marital abuse.
Cobbe does, though, make a small but interesting dis-claimer about middle- and upper-class men who commit “wife-torture.” She argues that these husbands exercise greater re-straint than the men of the “kicking districts,” for they must limit the degree of physical violence to avoid public exposure: “In his apparently most ungovernable rage, the gentleman or tradesman somehow manages to bear in mind the disgrace he will incur if his outbreak be betrayed by his wife’s black eye or broken arm, and he regulates his cuffs or kicks accordingly” (“Wife-Torture,” p. 58). While prior to their marriage Heath-cliff imagines giving Isabella a black eye, he does restrain him-self, perhaps because of his fear of public exposure—especially given Edgar’s position as magistrate. While “cuffs or kicks” are the most common examples of wife-torture cited by Cobbe, she fails to address other kinds of physical abuse that could be in-flicted upon a woman without leaving any tell-tale marks.
32 The OED denotes “brach” as a “term of abuse” meaning “bitch,” as Beth Newman also footnotes in her edition (see Wuthering Heights, ed. Newman, p. 162n).
NCL6403_03.indd 373 12/10/09 3:58:00 PM
374 nineteenth-century literature
Isabella’s letter becomes invaluable in terms of Brontë’s inquiry into the forbidden topic of domestic abuse, intimating that other types of abuse are more unthinkable than “cuffs or kicks.” In her letter Isabella questions Heathcliff’s humanity, asking “Is Mr. Heathcliff a man?” or “is he a devil?” and finally makes a less concrete plea: “I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married” (Wuthering Heights, p. 149). While the let-ter poses these questions (which are never answered), Isabella leaves her husband’s behavior so undefined as to leave open the possibility that this behavior is too abject even to be named. Yet Isabella is not loath to transgress the norms of decorous lan-guage or behavior, as both Nelly and Heathcliff so readily point out. She willingly divulges her desire for her husband’s destruc-tion and her coveting of an instrument of death, but she refuses to divulge what Heathcliff has done. It could be argued that such an omission leaves the reader to think the worst, but what could the worst be? In chapter 17 Isabella again withholds in-formation about her marital life in an extremely ominous man-ner. Nelly has just scolded Isabella about her irreverent attitude toward her husband, to which Isabella responds: “you’ll set me down as really wicked—but you don’t know all, so don’t judge!” (Wuthering Heights, p. 182; emphasis added). While Brontë de-scribes Heathcliff’s malevolence throughout the novel, the eli-sion here of what “you don’t know all” signifies leaves open the possibility that Heathcliff’s abuse toward Isabella transgresses even the Victorian notions of marital misconduct.
While specific details are omitted, Brontë may have been aware of how lenient the laws were regarding the latitude that men had in terms of marital abuse. During the parliamentary debates over the issue of divorce prior to 1857, the House of Lords tried to determine what constituted just cause for a divorce, which proved more restrictive for women than for men:
From a list that included rape, sodomy, desertion, transporta-tion, penal servitude, incest, bigamy, and cruelty, they accepted only the last three, indicating that they did not regard crimes of sexual violence or prolonged absence by the husband as fatal to the marriage bond. Sexual violence within marriage was not even considered by the Lords. A husband had the right of access to his
NCL6403_03.indd 374 12/10/09 3:58:00 PM
wuthering heights 375
wife’s body, and by definition could not be charged with marital rape. (Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law, p. 42)33
In The Subjection of Women (1869) John Stuart Mill directly ad-dresses the subject of sexual violence in nineteenth-century marriage. His comments on marital rape begin with a compari-son to slavery. He argues that a female slave has a moral com-punction to refuse her master’s sexual advances, but that a Vic-torian wife has no such right. She cannot deny her husband’s advances: “however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to—though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him—he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations.”34
Mill’s description speaks eerily to Isabella’s condition, for she knows that “he hates her” and that Heathcliff makes it “his daily pleasure to torture her.” Thus, when Heathcliff discloses prior to their marriage his fantasy of battering Isabella, we can only imagine the ways in which he might degrade Isabella after they are married. We can only speculate the range of sexual vi-olence that could have transpired. It would be unthinkable for Brontë to name the kinds of transgressions that a man could inflict, but she clearly demonstrates that Heathcliff reviles Isa-bella and uses her as an instrument of revenge and retaliation. Thus, it seems extremely implausible to imagine that Linton Heathcliff was ever conceived under amorous conditions. Ju-liet McMaster also raises questions about the “begetting and conception” of Linton; she not only analyzes how images of sexual violence are prevalent in Heathcliff and Isabella’s
33 Maeve E. Doggett notes that the legality of marital rape and immunity from pros-ecution are grounded in legal arguments presented centuries earlier in Sir Matthew Hale’s 1678 History of the Pleas of the Crown: “Whether the immunity predated Hale is unclear. What does seem clear is that it was he who identified the basis of the immunity as an irrevocable consent to intercourse embodied in the marriage contract” (Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law, p. 46).
34 John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, in Essays on Equality, Law, and Educa-tion, ed. John M. Robson, vol. 21 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1984), p. 285.
NCL6403_03.indd 375 12/10/09 3:58:01 PM
376 nineteenth-century literature
marriage, but she also argues that his son Linton and Cath-erine’s marriage is consummated by a “symbolic rape.”35 Lin-ton “summons his father, who provided the will for the mar-riage as he provides the physical potency for its consummation” (“Courtship and Honeymoon,” p. 10). As Wade Thompson observed decades earlier, the novel reveals “a world of sadism, violence, and wanton cruelty.”36 Ultimately, Heathcliff’s treat-ment of Isabella proves so abject that not only does she desire his annihilation but she also argues that she could never “be revenged” (Wuthering Heights, p. 185).
The transgressive nature of Isabella’s account is not lost on Nelly, who tries to silence her for her irreverence by telling her to “Hush, hush!” (Wuthering Heights, p. 179). But Isabella refuses to be silenced. Her formidable presence and intrepid-ness comes to light during her account of her last days at the Heights and her final flight from both the Heights and the Grange. She continually defies both Hindley and Heathcliff, in-timidated by neither one. At the Heights, she refuses to comply with Hindley’s plan to murder Heathcliff by grabbing his pistol, and she is unwilling to hold her tongue as Hindley demands. Isabella sagely tells him that “treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends—they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies” (p. 181). The depth of insight here shows her as remarkably clear-headed. She also admits to be-coming completely inured to the violence in this household, saying that she could be “shocked at nothing” (p. 183). Even the morning after Heathcliff’s brutal attack on Hindley, Isa-bella readily admits to “eating heartily” (p. 184). Then, after Heathcliff breaks down, weeping over Catherine’s death and his potential culpability in it, she confesses how she “laughed scornfully” at his tears (p. 186). Isabella continues to antago-nize Heathcliff even further by saying that if Catherine had as-sumed “the ridiculous, contemptible, degrading title of Mrs. Heathcliff,” then she too would have been reduced to a state similar to her own (p. 186).
35 McMaster, “The Courtship and Honeymoon of Mr. and Mrs. Linton Heathcliff: Emily Brontë’s Sexual Imagery,” Victorian Review, 18 (1992), 3, 10.
36 Thompson, “Infanticide and Sadism in Wuthering Heights,” PMLA, 78 (1963), 71.
NCL6403_03.indd 376 12/10/09 3:58:01 PM
wuthering heights 377
Isabella’s early hope that Heathcliff “may forget his diaboli-cal prudence” finally comes to fruition. She even incites Heath-cliff, causing him to violate his earlier proclaimed self-control of keeping “strictly within the limits of the law” (Wuthering Heights, p. 162), when he throws the dinner knife at Isabella. What is so remarkable about this scene is not so much that Heathcliff has struck Isabella with the knife but rather that Isabella reacts with such defiance as to fight back: “It struck beneath my ear, and stopped the sentence I was uttering; but pulling it out, I sprang to the door, and delivered another which I hope went a little deeper than his missile” (p. 186). Unfortunately, while Heathcliff’s action might have given Isabella cause to seek a separation, her violent retaliation would most likely invalidate her claims of abuse, given how rigid the double standards of the courts were and its expectations of female propriety.37
If such a scene of domestic mayhem were to be recounted by Cobbe rather than Brontë, Cobbe would stipulate that “poi-soned drink” was the chief incitement of the domestic battles between the brutish husband and the unsavory wife, “which lit-erally sting the wretched drinkers into cruelty” (“Wife-Torture,” p. 65). In contrast, Brontë presents a far more psychologically complex portrait of abuse. She clearly paints a loathsome por-trait of Hindley’s excessive consumption of alcohol, as he “swal-lowed gin or brandy by tumblerfuls” until he sunk “below ir-rationality” (Wuthering Heights, pp. 179–80), but she makes no allusions to Heathcliff’s use of alcohol as the precipitating cause of his marital transgressions. His abuse cannot be reduced to the “poisoned drink.” Thus, whereas Cobbe and others saw the dehumanizing and debased social and economic plight of the laboring classes as the prime factors for wife-abuse, Brontë di-verges from such portraits of an abuser, for Heathcliff is neither intemperate nor impoverished. Instead, Brontë shows that the base behavior of Heathcliff and Isabella, in this final confronta-tion between husband and wife, is a result of Heathcliff ’s blatant abuse of his masculine power as baron, which legally sanctions his incarceration and “chastisement” of the feme covert for his ig-noble purposes of revenge. While Isabella stipulates to Hindley
37 See Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law, pp. 37–44.
NCL6403_03.indd 377 12/10/09 3:58:01 PM
378 nineteenth-century literature
that she will not aid his diabolical plot because her conscience could not suffer such action, she too loses her prudence and physically retaliates. Brontë shows Isabella’s violence, unlike Heathcliff ’s abuse, more as an act of self-preservation, present-ing Isabella as a courageous woman who frees herself from her husband’s incarceration.
Brontë astutely shows how Isabella, though hardened by living under the “degrading title of Mrs. Heathcliff,” does not in the end become one of Cobbe’s “wofully unwomanly” vic-tims. Nelly may chastise Isabella for her unseemly appearance and manner when she first arrives at the Grange, but Brontë carefully establishes that her disheveled state is a result of her treacherous escape, and not a permanent mark of her charac-ter. Brontë portrays Isabella’s flight as quite brazen, especially if we consider that she is in the first months of her pregnancy, as she dashes over the moors and treks through wet marshes in her short-sleeved silk frock with “nothing on either head or neck” to protect her. While Isabella had told Nelly earlier in the chapter how she had run the entire way from the Heights, even admitting to falling a number of times, she later describes how she “bounded, leaped, and flew down the steep road: then quitting its windings, shot direct across the moor, rolling over banks, and wading through marshes” (Wuthering Heights, p. 186). Mrs. Heathcliff as fugitive wife is a far cry from the young Miss Linton who makes her first visit to the Heights with her brother, “smothered in cloaks and furs” (p. 82). Instead, here she arrives with scrapes from her falls, drenched from wading through the marsh, with barely a covering on her body.
Though Isabella refuses to change her garb until she has finalized the arrangements for her departure from the Grange, she tells Nelly: “I’ve no objection to dress myself decently” (Wuthering Heights, p. 177). Symbolically, her eventual donning of decent attire signals her self-transformation. In our final glimpse of Isabella, Brontë portrays her as a strong woman who regains her composure and is in full command of herself. Nelly recounts: “Isabella ceased speaking, and took a drink of tea; then she rose, and bidding me put on her bonnet, and a great shawl I had brought, and turning a deaf ear to my entreaties for her to remain another hour, she stepped on to a chair, kissed
NCL6403_03.indd 378 12/10/09 3:58:01 PM
wuthering heights 379
Edgar’s and Catherine’s portraits, bestowed a similar salute on me, and descended to the carriage” (p. 187).
Living under the oppression of the Heights, Isabella tem-porarily loses herself to the abuse of the Heights and its lack of human decency when she resorts to violence. In the descrip-tion of Isabella’s departure, Brontë shows her as able to redeem herself and re-create her life anew. She is neither the overin-dulged, vacuous Miss Linton nor the hardened Mrs. Heathcliff. She regains decency in the manner of both her attire and her womanly gesture of kissing the portraits and Nelly before she departs. Her decision to leave is not a hysterical reaction or an irrational flight; instead, she collects herself, sips her tea, dons her bonnet, and departs from the Grange without a tear. Thus, Brontë allows Isabella the possibility not only for escape but also for self-transformation.
While on one level Isabella is victorious, on another level, as a fugitive wife and single mother, she has become far more marginalized in terms of her social and economic position. Still, Brontë presents this as a better option than living under the laws of coverture that allow Heathcliff to pervert his power as baron. Though she does not address the issue of domestic abuse, Drew Lamonica clearly identifies how provocative Brontë’s character-ization of Isabella is: “In one of the most radical escapes allowed a woman in a Victorian novel, Isabella flees, pregnant and alone, to live and raise her child by herself, anticipating the escape Anne’s Helen Huntingdon makes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ” (“We Are Three Sisters,” p. 110). Lamonica rightly notes as well that “al-though [Isabella] gains a kind of victory over her relative identity as Heathcliff’s wife, her identity is erased from the novel, and we only hear of her death” (“We Are Three Sisters,” p. 110). Nelly tells Lockwood that she believes that Isabella’s “new abode was in the south, near London” (Wuthering Heights, p. 187), but we never know for certain. We may surmise that Edgar supported Isabella financially, since she had “a regular correspondence” with him after her departure (p. 187), but we cannot know for certain. The fact that we hear nothing of Isabella’s life as a single mother and fugitive wife is a troubling issue; it may be that Brontë had more difficulty imagining the specifics of Isabella’s life as a single mother than as an abused wife.
NCL6403_03.indd 379 12/10/09 3:58:01 PM
380 nineteenth-century literature
If we consider the three Brontë sisters and their novels, we can see a clear pattern emerge among Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre (1847), and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in terms of the issues of confinement, escape, the life of the fugitive wife, and single motherhood. Emily Brontë dares to show a bird’s-eye view of the way in which the laws of coverture can be abused and used as a justification for the incarceration of the feme covert. While Charlotte Brontë justifies Rochester’s confinement of Bertha in Jane Eyre due to her madness and suggestions of her moral turpi-tude, Emily Brontë presents Heathcliff’s confinement of Isabella as unjustifiable and frees her heroine. She then ends Isabella’s story before we can learn how she managed to survive as a fugi-tive wife and single mother. Anne Brontë picks up this thread as the starting point for her second novel, when in 1848, a year after the publication of Wuthering Heights, she gives us a provoca-tive portrait of Helen Huntingdon as fugitive wife and single mother in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Thus these three novels create a narrative triptych portraying alternative stories of mar-riage, domesticity, and maternity in mid-Victorian culture.
Given the complexity and unconventionality of Isabella’s story, we must return to Allan Brick’s 1959 observation that “Emily Brontë’s narrative form is deeply infused with her essen-tial message” (“Wuthering Heights: Narrators, Audience, and Mes-sage,” p. 80). We must again consider why Brontë gave Isabella a narrative voice and took such care to frame Isabella’s letter within the novel. Ultimately, Isabella’s narrative along with the rest of her story radically calls into question the nineteenth- century ideals of domesticity and companionate marriage, where one marries for love rather than for social position. As John Tosh notes: “Companionate marriage stood at the heart of the Victorian ideal of domesticity. Marriage was assumed to be voluntary, not arranged or imposed, and to be for love, what-ever secondary motives might be involved.”38 This model was en-hanced by the sentimentalizing of the middle-class home, which became a dominant ideology during the time period in which the Brontës were writing their novels. Tosh writes: “The ideal of
38 John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian Eng-land (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1999), p. 27.
NCL6403_03.indd 380 12/10/09 3:58:02 PM
wuthering heights 381
home life had by this time acquired immense cultural authority. While a consistent strand of domesticity is to be found in both aristocratic and bourgeois circles throughout the eighteenth century, it was only in the 1830s and 1840s that the ideal of home was raised to the level of a cultural norm” (A Man’s Place, p. 30). In Wuthering Heights Brontë offers a profound critique of the middle-class cult of domesticity by demonstrating how homes—like their occupants, women and children—can turn into property to be controlled and acquired.
Brontë critically assesses how Isabella naively inculcates a romanticized notion of companionate marriage as she leaves the Grange to elope with Heathcliff. But within just “twenty-four hours,” she becomes brutally aware that he did not marry her for love. Instead, Heathcliff takes full advantage of the laws of coverture, and any hope of companionate marriage ended for Heathcliff when Catherine chose Edgar. Whether Brontë in-tended it or not, her portrait of Isabella shows that as long as the laws of coverture are extant, companionate marriage is at dire risk of being exploited and compromised. Likewise she shows how the dominant ideology of the cult of domesticity can equally be perverted by the laws of coverture and the husband’s prerogative to confine his wife, as we have seen Heathcliff do to Isabella. Through Isabella’s story, Brontë dismantles the senti-mentalizing of the middle-class home throughout her novel, and Isabella’s story lends a female perspective to these issues, which become further developed when young Catherine is confined to the Heights later in the novel. Thus, Isabella’s sardonic remark about Joseph’s locking of the outer gates “as if we lived in an ancient castle” becomes ironically true. Brontë offers a profound critique of the middle-class cult of domesticity and marriage by demonstrating how, even in the nineteenth century, homes can turn into Gothic castles, imprisoning young women.
In 1847, when Brontë was writing Wuthering Heights, the sub-ject of marital abuse was still far from the public’s eye. Yet within the next decade both the Aggravated Assaults Act of 185339 and
39 Cobbe refers to its full title as “An Act for the Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children, and for Preventing Delay and Ex-pense in the Administration of the Criminal Law” (“Wife-Torture,” pp. 76–77). She
NCL6403_03.indd 381 12/10/09 3:58:02 PM
382 nineteenth-century literature
more dramatically the Divorce Act of 1857 greatly increased the public’s awareness of domestic violence through newspa-per accounts of divorce-court cases that often included stories of abuse, though it was still mostly considered to be a “working-class” problem. Both Cobbe and Mill wrote their major treatises on the subject years after the publication of Wuthering Heights. A. James Hammerton asserts: “by the end of the nineteenth century the exposure of marital misconduct among men of all social classes had brought an unprecedented amount of atten-tion to proper ideals of male behaviour in marriage, so that one result of the long marriage debate was a challenge to prevail-ing concepts of masculinity” (Cruelty and Companionship, p. 3). Whereas Hammerton notes a significant change in perspective regarding the “proper ideals of male behaviour in marriage” occurring in the late-Victorian period, Brontë shows decades earlier that middle-class marriages are not immune to domestic violence and that masculine behavior, even in the middle class, must be critically assessed before the ideals of companionate marriage could ever be realized.
abstractJudith E. Pike, “‘My name was Isabella Linton’: Coverture, Domestic Violence, and Mrs. Heathcliff’s Narrative in Wuthering Heights” (pp. 347–383)While critics have scrutinized Emily Brontë’s use of the framed narrative in Wuthering Heights (1847), raising questions about the reliability of the central narrators, Lockwood and Nelly Dean, scant attention has been paid to Isabella Heathcliff as the third nar-rator. Though readers have overlooked the importance of Isabella’s narrative, Brontë highlights her narrative by including it as the only intact letter in the entire novel and devotes almost an entire chapter to her narrative. Isabella’s narrative surfaces in a let-ter to Nelly Dean, offering a highly unorthodox portrait for the mid-Victorian period of the domestic abuse of a young bride from the gentry class. Isabella’s letter, which comprises most of chapter 13, also becomes a critical tool to ferret out the reliability of Heathcliff’s account in chapter 14 of their marriage. By analyzing the conflicting
states that under this act the penalty for such an assault was imprisonment up to “six months with or without hard labour, or a fine not exceeding £20” (“Wife-Torture,” p. 77). Cobbe’s petition was highlighting the failure of this Act to prevent domestic abuse and was instead advocating for “An Act for the Protection of Wives whose Husbands have been convicted of assaults upon them” (“Wife-Torture,” pp. 82–87).
NCL6403_03.indd 382 12/10/09 3:58:02 PM
wuthering heights 383
accounts of their marriage, this essay demonstrates that Heathcliff ’s argument acts as a carefully crafted legal rationale, based upon the laws of coverture, to defend and sanc-tion the domestic confinement of his wife. While the laws of coverture deprived women of a legal and economic voice, Brontë endows Isabella with a complex and at times ironic voice. Brontë paints a powerful portrait of the radical transformation of Isabella from the pampered and infantile Miss Linton to the hardened Mrs. Heathcliff, ending with her as the intrepid, fugitive wife, Isabella Heathcliff. Brontë demonstrates through Isabella’s story that as long as the laws of coverture are intact, companionate marriage is at risk of being exploited and compromised.
Keywords: Emily Brontë; Wuthering Heights; narrative; marriage; do-mestic violence
NCL6403_03.indd 383 12/10/09 3:58:02 PM