In her lifetime, Emily Bronte saw her first and only novel, Wuthering Heights published.
From the outside looking in (and from the view of Victorian culture), the second to last Miss Bronte was not exactly noteworthy. She was the daughter of a curate in a small Yorkshire town who preferred her animals, her poetry and the small society of her family to the outside world. Uninterested in fashion, marriage, gossip or any of the standard interests of the day for young ladies, she was wholly herself and didn’t give a fig what someone else thought about her.
Today is her 200th birthday.
Wuthering Heights is the tale of tortured love, classicism and revenge. Her protagonists are Healthcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. Catherine is the daughter of a respectable house, Heathcliff is her adopted brother whose origins are unknown. As they grow up, their relationship changes from childhood playmates to young people in love. But then the reality of their world comes crashing down. Catherine marries another man. Healthcliff gives into his long simmering rage. Soon their dysfunctional relationship affects everyone around them, no one remains untouched.
At the time of its publishing, critics didn’t know what to make of this novel. 200 years later, we recognize Emily for the literary genius that she is. Other writers might have romanticized the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine. But in Emily hand’s, her lead characters are deeply flawed. Heathcliff has a temper and is more than willing to inflict violence on another person if he feels that the situation calls for it. Catherine is spoiled and selfish, too comfortable in her status to choose the man she loves over the comfort of a proper home and a wealthy husband.
In the end, we keep coming back to Wuthering Heights because of those flaws. Emily was adept at creating characters that revealed the best and worst of humanity. She died at the young age of 30, today we can only speculate what she could have done as a writer had she lived longer.
Wherever you are Emily, Happy Birthday.