Wuthering Heights
is not a romance

The Reviews

To say that Wuthering Heights caused a stir when it was published would be an understatement. One must keep in mind when reading the reviews that the majority of Victorian literature was intensely sentimental and relied heavily on black-and-white constructions of morality. All of the characters in Wuthering Heights are, by contrast, severely flawed, even the most sympathetic. Early reviewers of Wuthering Heights, in general, did not speak favorably of the novel:

"Wuthering Heights...is a terrific story, associated with an equally fearful and repulsive spot. It should have been called Withering Heights, for any thing from which the mind and body would more instinctively shrink, than the mansion and its tenants, cannot be imagined. ...Our novel reading experience does not enable us to refer to anything to be compared with the personages we are introduced to at this desolate spot—a perfect misanthopist's heaven."

—New Monthly Magazine, January 1848

Given the rest of the review, "terrific" here is likely associated with the root word "terror" rather than with modern synonyms like "great" or "wonderful."

And another exmaple:

"How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors."

—Graham's Lady Magazine, July 1848

Even relatively positive reviews were highly qualified:

"Respecting a book so original as this, and written with some much power of imagination, it is natural that there should be many opinions. Indeed, its power is so predominant that it is not easy after a hasty reading to analyze one's impressions so as to speak of its merits and demerits with confidence. We have been taken and carried through a new region, a melancholy waste, with here and there patches of beauty; have been brought in contact with fierce passions, with extremes of love and hate, and with sorrow that none but those who have suffered it can understand...We have had many sad bruises and tumbles in our journey, yet it was interesting, and at length we are safely arrived at a happy conclusion."

—The American Whig Review, June 1848

This review goes on to predict that Wuthering Heights would "live a short and brilliant life, and then die and be forgotten" once its originality became familiar. That prediction, clearly, has not come true—Wuthering Heights is still a standard of Victorian Gothic literature in classrooms across the United States, and Hollywood still occasionally tries to adapt it to the screen.

Even so, The American Whig Review is not wrong to say that the power of Wuthering Heights lies in its originality. Mary Shelley broke with the tradition of women writing romances and domestic novels to write Frankenstein, a Gothic novel sweeping in its scope and vision. Charlotte Bronte combined the Gothic and domestic into a new kind of romance in Jane Eyre, alternately bleakly agoraphobic and darkly claustrophobic. Emily Bronte dispenses with the romance and a sense of the desolation of the wider world entirely, bringing desperate isolation into the snowglobe-sized world that contains Wuthering Heights.

We will leave with this final review as an ironic commentary on Emily Bronte's incredible—and incredibly unrelenting—originality:

"We detest the affectation and effeminate frippery which is but too frequent in the modern novel, and willingly trust ourselves with an author who goes at once fearlessly into the moors and desolate places, for his heroes; but we must at the same time stipulate with him that he shall not drag into light all that he discovers, of coarse and loathsome, in his wanderings, but simply so much good and ill as he may find necessary to elucidate his history."

—Examiner, January 1848