The Birth of Wuthering Heights: Emily Bronte at Work (review)
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The Birth of Wuthering Heights: Emily Brontë at Work, by Edward Chitham; pp. viii + 218. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, £42.50, $49.95.

Edward Chitham, who probably knows as much about the Brontës’ lives and careers as anyone living, has been adding to the store of Brontëana for over twenty years. Much of this work is driven by an impulse to unearth what facts can be known about the Brontës, given the relatively scant documentary record of their lives compared to those of other canonical Victorian writers. It is impelled further by a desire to sift some reasonable truth from the overheated Brontë legend—the accumulation of half-truths and imaginative speculation that has gathered around the Brontës at least since Charlotte’s death, if not before. Such aims are laudable, given the hold the Brontës’ lives have always exercised upon the imaginations of their readers. Chitham’s scholarship is careful, thorough, and painstaking. He examines manuscripts in minute detail, deciphering the minuscule, often illegible writing he aptly names “Brontë small script.” He assesses the relative merits of revisions over the course of a poem’s composition. He comments upon newly discovered Latin translations that the young Emily Brontë produced by way of honing her skills, intelligently evaluating the merits of the expressive English into which she rendered them. He consults school registers, parish records, and almanacs. He has a thorough command of the extensive biographical scholarship as well as the recent textual scholarship that corrects for the carelessness of earlier editions, and has contributed to both. Nevertheless, [End Page 310] I suspect that many readers will wonder, as I do, how much The Birth of Wuthering Heights tells us that we really need to know.

The book, Chitham announces immediately, owes its existence to the case made by Tom Winnifreth in Brontë Facts and Brontë Problems (a collection the latter co-authored with Chitham in 1983) that Wuthering Heights (1848) must originally have been a one-volume work, which Emily Brontë revised and expanded to fill a second volume during 1846 and 1847. No manuscript of Wuthering Heights survives, and no documentary evidence absolutely confirms this very plausible suggestion. Winnifreth points out that if we nonetheless accept his conjectures, we are compelled to emend the received tradition of three loving sisters living and working together in harmonious contentment and nurturance, a tradition begun by Charlotte herself and greatly enhanced by Elizabeth Gaskell. Instead, we must admit the likelihood of some rivalrous acrimony among the sisters, since it would seem that Charlotte’s contribution was a stumbling-block in the way of the proposed publication of a book comprising one prose tale by each sister: The Professor, Agnes Grey, and Wuthering Heights. He suggests further that his conjectures, if accepted, require us to revise the romantic (or Romantic) portrait of Emily Brontë as brooding, untutored genius from whose head Wuthering Heights “must have sprung fully fledged” (87).

Chitham’s book fleshes out in great detail Winnifreth’s tightly argued six pages. Imaginatively extrapolating from the slim evidence available, it considers Emily Brontë’s work habits, the processes by which she crafted her poems, and the degree to which Emily participated in revising and editing her poems for publication in the 1846 volume of poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. It explores how her experiences as a student, both in Brussels with Constantin Heger and at home under Patrick’s tutelage, might have influenced her understanding of literature as craft and art. In the process, it makes a sometimes overly teleological argument: Brontë’s familiarity with parts of Horace’s Ars Poetica, for example, is pressed into service as an “influence” upon her thinking about literature, and thus upon Wuthering Heights, to which all roads are understood to lead.

In this (first) part of his book, Chitham traverses some ground he has trodden previously, and readers familiar with that work may find themselves occasionally experiencing déja vu. He has carefully combed over new material as well, specifically translations of and commentaries on the Aeneid and the Ars Poetica bearing Emily’s signature. Part Two...