- Wuthering Heights:Dreams of Equilibrium in Physiology and Physics
In the 1850 preface to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), Charlotte Brontë yields to the will of critics and acknowledges the purported rusticity of Emily's novel: "I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. … [Wuthering Heights] is moorish, and wild, and knotty, as a root of heath" (341). Far from condemning her sister yet never fully condoning her intensities, Charlotte accepts that Emily's novel reflects its author's sequestered life, which Charlotte considered one that wanted only worldly experience and time for Emily to realize greater mastery and a mellower maturity. While the infamously unbridled passions of the novel may have appeared vulgar in its time, however, the execution of the novel was not. On the contrary, as this article will argue, Wuthering Heights advances a holistic perspective on the ways in which material science connects with poetic imagining. By commingling the maturing disciplines of mid-century physiology and physics with literature, the novel accommodates a definition of self not as absolute and ordered but as dynamic and "knotty," conveying an appreciation of disorder similar to that which delivers psychosocial and biothermodynamic equilibrium.
For a century after its publication, Wuthering Heights baffled readers. When first debuted, it was quickly and widely circulated, and while it was distinguished as "one of the greatest novels [of imaginative power] in the language" (Peck 357), it was also considered crude. Reviewers were quick to critique its disconcerting content and form, and called Wuthering Heights "a strange book. … wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable" (Review, Examiner 348), a "powerful" piece "thrown away" (Review, Tait's 346). A century later, a number of critics remained perturbed. In a frequently quoted passage from The Great Tradition (1964), F.R. Leavis confesses, "I have said nothing about Wuthering Heights because that astonishing work seems to me a kind of sport," fitting in, he remarked, with neither the Romantic tradition of Sir Walter Scott nor the "real[istic]" tradition of the eighteenth century (27). For fans and skeptics alike, the novel lacked "the drawing-room civility of novels like Jane Austen's, the social panorama found in [Charles] Dickens and [William] Thackeray, the individual focus of novels of development like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, [and] the recognizable ordinariness of George Eliot's characters" (Newman 24). In short, it subverted the conventions expected of popular mid-century social-realist novels. [End Page 307]
Indeed, some of the most positive views of Wuthering Heights arise from readings that move beyond tradition and expectation. In 1934, David Cecil reawakened interest in the novel by suggesting its virtue not as fiction but as organic poetry (140–41), and in the 1980s, Robert K. Wallace encouraged readers to experience Wuthering Heights as music, vibrant and forceful. Both of these critics recognize Wuthering Heights as deeply interdisciplinary, integrating qualities from distinct branches of knowledge, and, along with the multitude of readings that engage with the novel's penchant for polarities (such as Gothic–domestic, storm–calm, restraint–vehemence, indoors–outdoors, master–servant, Old Testament–New Testament, sanity–madness, vegetable–animal), these analyses of the novel's hybrid qualities prompt interrogations of the science–literature divide. One of the most challenging paradigm shifts that Brontë and her peers faced was the emergence of competing materialist philosophies that demanded a restructuring of meaning and reality. Wuthering Heights confronts these disturbances with its own built-in dualism between physiology and physics.
Critics are progressively discovering that Brontë was more than capable of interdisciplinary exercise. While Elizabeth Gaskell dismisses Brontë's education as "curious" (60), it would be more accurate to call it remarkably catholic. Brontë's studies ranged from Latin and classical subjects to modern texts, including William Buchan's Domestic Medicine (1769), Thomas Graham's Modern Domestic Medicine (1826), and Sir Humphry Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812), esteemed specimens of scientific literature, each of which passed through, if not sat permanently, upon the shelves of her father's library (Chitham 17–32; Caldwell 69–70; Stoneman 117). Although the family library itself was limited, Brontë's father, Patrick, encouraged his children to read without restraint. Brontë (along...