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The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is not my first foray into the ouveur of the Brontës. Way back in the archives, I read and reviewed Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (loved it!), and Emily’s Wuthering Heights (so-so). Being the dirty completionist that I am, though, I couldn’t stop there: I gotta catch ’em all! So, that’s why I finally picked up Anne’s longest and best-known novel, to complete the set.

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The blurb made the story sound surprisingly contemporary – a mysterious and beautiful young widow moves in to Wildfell Hall, and Gilbert Markham finds himself irresistibly drawn to her despite the rumours that swell around town – but don’t be fooled. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall has all the 19th century manners and customs that you’d expect, albeit with some unexpected progressive overtones.

A bit of background: Anne was the youngest of the Brontë sisters. She published only two novels (this one, and Agnes Grey, which is also wedged into my to-be-read shelf somewhere…) before she died in 1849, shortly before her 30th birthday. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall was first published the year before her death, in 1848, under the now-famous gender-neutral pseudonym of Acton Bell. It was an instant success, but… well, big sis Charlotte got her Mean Girl on. More on that below.

To the story: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is an epistolary novel, styled as the letters from Gilbert Markham to a friend of his, including a rather large section drawn from Helen Graham’s diaries (Helen being the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall). Yes, it’s the ol’ Brontë switcheroo: the narrator is not always the “narrator”, and despite a supposed single narrative perspective, others’ points-of-view are substantial to the plot. That makes the timeline a little wonky, beginning in 1847 but telling a version of events from 1821 through 1830. Don’t worry, it all irons out nice and smooth.

Gilbert’s letters begin by describing the arrival of a mysterious widow, one Mrs Helen Graham, who has taken up a tenancy in the nearby abandoned mansion called Wildfell Hall. Although he says the woman is “too hard, too sharp, too bitter for my taste” (page 42), and he has his eye on the local vicar’s daughter, their occasional social interactions pique his interest. Eventually, he gets to know the widow and her son quite well (he and the boy bond over their mutual love of dogs, #relatable). Still, Mrs Helen Graham refuses to divulge much about her past or origins, even though doing so would put an end to some of the particularly nasty rumours that have started swirling around the small town.

This all unfolds in Part One of the novel, chapters 1-15. That section ends with Gilbert mistakenly believing that local man Lawrence has secretly entered into an illicit courtship with Mrs Graham. Gilbert has a real shit-fit (kind of inexplicably, seeing as it’s basically no business of his whatsoever), but Mrs Graham concedes that he has a right to know the truth of who she is and her relationship to Lawrence, so she hands over her diaries to Gilbert in the hope that they will speak her truth for her.

All of this might sound very Austen-y, a social comedy with the central romance pot-holed by misunderstandings. However, in Part Two – chapters 16 to 44 – The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall takes a sharp turn. The introduction of Helen’s perspective, through her letters, reveals an entirely different plot and purpose altogether.

It turns out Helen isn’t a widow at all; rather, she is on the lam, hiding from her alcoholic fuckwit of a husband, Arthur Huntingdon. They married young, back when Helen thought he was super-hot and had the naive notion that she could coax him out of his bad behaviour (with the drinking and the dames and what-not).

Sidebar: The prevailing view in analysis nowadays is that Arthur is a stand in for Anne Brontë’s real-life brother, Branwell, who himself was susceptible to the lures of drink and drugs, despite the efforts of his sisters to keep him on the straight and narrow. That’s some quality 19th century tea, right there!

Helen’s story is surprisingly gripping. it’s not like there are a lot of cliffhangers or anything, but I still found myself just-one-more-chaptering as I read my way through, crossing my fingers that the next chapter would be the one where she would leave the sorry sack of shit and be done with it. She’s all about dismantling toxic masculinity, it’s her life-long hobby and obsession, and over the course of the novel she realises and affirms that it shouldn’t be the job of women to reform bad boys. They should reform themselves, or shut the fuck up and leave the rest of us alone. See? Progressive!

Oh, and Mr Lawrence? The one Gilbert thought she was having an affair with? Actually her brother. Whoops!

The story seemed to be wrapping up around the 470-page mark, near the end of Helen’s diary, and I wondered what on earth could be left in the remaining 120 pages… but I stuck with it and, as it turned out, there was indeed more to come.

Part Three – chapters 45 to 53 – begins when Gilbert finishes reading Helen’s epic diary. She puts it to him that he should not pursue any romance with her, as she is not actually a widow and as such is not free to marry him. He’s all “yeah, okay”, but keeps the flame burning for her all the same. His hopes pick up when Helen’s estranged husband falls deathly ill, figuring that his path will be free and clear… only Helen does the “right thing” and zooms right back to her husband’s side to nurse him. Damn.

Still, her ministrations only keep him alive long enough to make him feel good and guilty before he shuffles off this mortal coil (good riddance). Gilbert keeps a respectful distance – also, he doesn’t know where she is or how to get a hold of her – until he gets word that she’s getting married to someone else. He hustles over to her town to do his “I object!” bit, but finds out when he gets there that it was actually Helen’s brother getting married (we’re back on the poor-communication-kills rom-com plot now) and Helen is overjoyed to welcome him back into her life. She makes him wait a bit, naturally, but in the end they live happily ever after.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall falls smack-bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of the other Brontë sisters: all the angst of Wuthering Heights, with all the introspection and proto-feminism of Jane Eyre. The defining difference in Anne’s work is that she didn’t gloss over the gritty stuff the way her Romantic sisters did, and she didn’t play up spooky Gothic elements either (Wildfell Hall isn’t a “haunted mansion”, it’s just old and empty). All the darkness in her novel – the alcoholism, infidelity, violence – was real, and graphic for the time.

And that’s why Charlotte, her elder sister, removed The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall from circulation after Anne’s untimely death. It had been a great success on publication, but in Charlotte’s view it disgraced her younger sister’s memory. She wanted Anne to be remembered as a sweet, saintly girl who didn’t write about such horrid things. Never mind the fact that Anne did write about horrid things, and well: Charlotte knew best (and was probably quite jealous of her younger sister’s success, besides). And that’s why Anne basically fell from memory for decades, why the names we most commonly associate with the Brontë brand are those of her sisters.

Still, over the last century, Anne has finally garnered the kind of popular and critical attention she deserves. This might sound ridiculous, but I find it hard not to take it personally that Charlotte screwed Anne over like that. “I was rooting for you!” etc. I keep trying to imagine whether my attitude and preference would be different if I had read The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall before Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but it’s difficult. I guess I’ll just have to let bygones be bygones (even though none of them were actually mine to begin with), and judge the works on their own merit. In that spirit, I reckon The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is a winner. A bit convoluted, maybe, but a breath of fresh air in 19th century English literature.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:

  • “Story was a sort of a downer even with the happy ending.” – Ericka Grant
  • “Anne cannot write up to her famous sisters. What a bore!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Too long, too wordy, too predictable and the heroine is insipid.” – ann v menche
  • “Interesting story. I never think of people in that era being so messed up. Why do they have so much free time on their hands?” – M Roberts
  • “This book is WAY too long. 100,000 words could’ve been deleted and we, as readers, would be none the wiser. The writing style is superb. I don’t think anyone in publishing today could emulate the style in which all three Bronte sisters wrote. The story itself is interesting, but Helen’s “abuse” did not really strike me as abuse, but rather “neglect.” When I first heard about this novel, I thought a woman was going to get repeatedly beaten and raped. But sadly, that is not the case. I guess beaten and raped was “too intense” for the time period. Leave it to Viktor Wolfe to write a good “beaten and raped” story!” – Viktor Wolfe
  • “All her angst was a bit tiresome.” – pamie65

Sibling Rivalry: Who Was The Best Brontë?

Now and then you get a random cluster of super-successful people, all from the same family. There’s multiple household names on these particular family trees, recognisable the world over. In the ’80s, it was all about the Jacksons. The ’90s and ’00s had the Baldwins and the Wayans and the Arquettes. Today, you’ve probably got a favourite Hemsworth or Gyllenhaal or Franco. But back in the 19th century, they had the Brontës.

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Who Were The Brontës?

There’s not a whole lot of sex/drugs/rock’n’roll in the Brontë story, but bear with me. In 1812, a clergyman from a barely-literate Irish family (that’d be Patrick Brontë) met and married the love of his life, Maria. They rapidly produced six offspring: Maria (born 1814), Elizabeth (1815), Charlotte (1816), Branwell (1817), Emily (1818) and Anne (1820). (OK, maybe there was a bit of sex… unprotected sex, apparently.)

To accommodate the expanding brood, Patrick moved his family to the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Even though the town’s population had grown exponentially, there was no sewerage or sanitary systems. The water supply was constantly contaminated by the rotting corpses in the cemetery up the hill (D-minus for the town planner). Food was scarce, and everyone survived (barely) on a steady diet of porridge and potatoes. Life expectancy for residents was around 25 years, and infant mortality was nearly half, so getting all of the Brontës up past knee height was a pretty significant accomplishment.

Unfortunately, even though the kids held up alright, their mother didn’t fare so well, and she died the following year. Her sister moved in with Patrick shortly after to help with running the house, but he needed a bit of peace and quiet (or a better education for the rugrats, or both). He found the kids places at a reputable charitable school not far away. Of course, even “reputable” charitable schools in those days had pupils so malnourished that they lost their eyesight, and rats would gnaw on their extremities at night, so it’s all relative.

Sure enough, the Brontës started dropping like flies. By 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth (the two eldest) were dead from illnesses contracted at school. Patrick got fed up with his kids dying, so he brought the remaining ones back home pronto.


Having suffered stoically through all this death and porridge, now finding themselves quite alone in the middle of nowhere, the remaining Brontë sprogs – Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne – took to making up stories for their own entertainment. They created the fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal, writing stories and poems and feeding off one another’s creativity. In fact, they wrote more as children than any of them managed as adults. Just goes to show what lengths kids would go to keep from getting bored when they don’t have iPads.

In 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne had a collection of poems published under their pen names (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). Branwell was making a pest of himself (more on that in a second), and contributed very little to their literary efforts from that point onward. Their isolation meant that the Brontës created their own kind of literary tradition – relatively untouched by the influence of others that came before, and one that could not be replicated by others that came after. Their creative output was, of course, cut short by their untimely deaths (Emily and Branwell bit the dust in 1848, Anne kicked the year after that, and Charlotte made it all the way to 1854). Still, their reputations continued to grow after their deaths. They are now considered to be one of the most influential literary families of all time, and their home in Haworth is a pilgrimage site (the Brontë Parsonage Museum) for booklovers from around the world. None of the Brontës bore any children, so any genetic genius died out with paper Patrick; sadly, he outlived all of his children, dying in 1861.

Parents are probably supposed to say that they don’t have a favourite kid, and Patrick undoubtedly loved them all, but we are under no such obligation! Debate has raged for over a century now: who was the best Brontë? Let’s take a look at the contenders…

Emily Brontë 

Emily gets pretty much all of the love nowadays. She only wrote one novel – Wuthering Heights – which I once described as a bad-boy’s decade-long over getting friendzoned. It’s a pretty spooky read, full of hauntings and moors and incestuous marriages and stuff. I suppose it’s also a pretty good “eternal love” story, if you’re into that kind of thing. Critics have been analysing Wuthering Heights for decades (I gave it a shot, too), and I’d bet they’re not even halfway done – there’s enough layers of metaphor to keep them at it for a while yet. It’s definitely the most iconic Brontë novel (but could we really say that it’s the “best”? hmmm…)

As for the woman herself, Emily was a bit of a character. She had a bit of trouble holding down a job – mostly because all of the jobs for unmarried women her age at the time involved looking after kids, and she didn’t like that. In fact, she once told the pupils at the school where she taught that she preferred the school dog over all of them (same, girl, same). That teaching gig was the only one she ever had. She shrugged off the pressure to become a governess like her sisters, and focused intensely on her writing. She was the determined, hard-working, creative, childless-by-choice one. The media would probably call her a “nasty woman” if she were around today.

Charlotte Brontë 

I must say I’m very biased here, because Charlotte’s magnum opus – Jane Eyre – is one of my favourite books of all time. Charlotte was the “first historian of the private consciousness”, writing a story where all of the action is told through the eyes and experiences of the central character. She pretty much invented first-person narration as we understand it today. Jane Eyre tells the story of a young governess who survives a shitty childhood (complete with evil stepmother, and a boarding school that violates every health code ever), only to fall in love with her boss (who happens to be keeping his mad wife locked in his attic). It was a deeply feminist book, very progressive for its time, and so much more accessible and readable than Wuthering Heights! A highly recommended read from Keeping Up With The Penguins – be sure to check out my full review here.

Anyway, Charlotte was the pretty, popular one. Case in point: she received a pretty steady stream of marriage proposals throughout her life. One bloke, Reverend Henry Nussey, wrote her a letter asking for her hand – she turned him down because she just wasn’t that into him, and she thought (probably rightly) that being married to a clergyman would be boring as fuck. Another reverend – David Pryce – met her once (once!) at a tea party before he popped the question. She turned him down as well, figuring (once again, probably rightly) that he was bonkers. She did finally marry a curate (Arthur Bell Nicholls) – but even he had to propose twice before she finally conceded. No man was gonna hold Charlotte down!

Turns out, getting married was probably a bad call on her part anyway: Charlotte died less than a year after the ceremony, and it would seem that it was extreme morning sickness that done her in. Her death certificate listed “phthisis” (acute tuberculosis) as the cause of death, but today’s medicine points to an evil foetus as the more likely cause. Still, Charlotte did manage to out-live all of her siblings, and she was certainly more prolific than any of them. That’s a pretty strong case for her being the Best Brontë Of All Time, don’t you think?

Anne Brontë 

When you start Googling people’s opinions on who was the best Brontë, you’re going to come across a squillion articles talking up Anne – the “forgotten” Brontë sister. People seem to really sympathise with poor little Anne, younger sister to two of the greatest female writers of all time. They do have a point: Emily and Charlotte would have been tough acts to follow.

Still, I’m not sure Anne is as “forgotten” as everyone says. Her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is certainly having a resurgence at the moment. It’s the story of a woman living in (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall; she really wants some alone-time, but drunk fuckboys keep coming at her from all directions. Anne basically used this book to sub-tweet all of her siblings. She sent up Charlotte and Emily, who wrote angry hard-drinking men as irresistibly attractive love interests, and her brother Branwell, who was himself an angry hard-drinking man in life. All of her writing had pretty strong moral messages, and her female characters were Strong Independent WomenTM, which was pretty controversial for the time.

Charlotte certainly wasn’t a fan of her younger sister’s work. She actually prevented The Tenant of Wildfell; Hall being republished after Anne’s death, saying “Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” She sounds mad jelly, doesn’t she?

Anne has historically been a dark horse for the title of the best Brontë, but judging by how much love she’s got on the internet over recent years, she’s probably the frontrunner now.

Branwell Brontë 

If you want to talk about the real forgotten Brontë, spare a thought for poor drunk Branwell. Popular opinion would have it that Anne is the one who got shafted, but I’m sure you have never read anything by Branwell – in fact, you probably didn’t even know there was a Brontë brother until now. Right?

In his younger years, Branwell’s father and sister thought he was an absolute genius – he was the darling of the family, intelligent and talented and driven. But, like so many white male boy-wonders before and since, his life quickly descended into a spiral of debt and addiction. Anne took pity on him and got him a job, but mad-dog Branwell got himself fired for having an affair with his boss’s wife (!). He frittered away the money he borrowed from his father (and, reportedly, stole from his employer), drinking and partying in establishments of ill-repute. He’d have been a fun guy to have along on a night out, but you probably wouldn’t have trusted him with your wallet.

As far as his writing goes, he and Charlotte actually co-wrote a book called Juvenilia when they were children. He followed that up with assorted pieces of poetry and prose. Things looked promising for Branwell when he got a few articles published in local newspapers… but he was ultimately waylaid by his love for opium. Branwell’s work is difficult to find today, and he’s barely a blip on the literary critique radar. He lives eternally in the shadow of his sisters, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d unironically call him the best Brontë.

So, who was the best Brontë?

Well, obviously, my vote is with Charlotte (and I give an honourable mention to Branwell, for being such a hot mess). But the true winner is up to you! Cast your vote by commenting below (or telling us your favourite over at KUWTP on Facebook), and subscribe to Keeping Up With The Penguins to be the first to know when we decide the winner 😉

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

There was no possibility of picking up another treatise on how tough it is to be a white man that day… (without driving myself completely bonkers). That’s how I came to read Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece was originally published in 1847 under the title Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and “edited” under the pen name Currer Bell. All of the Brontë sisters took on gender-ambiguous nom de plumes, assuming (quite rightly, it turned out) that literature written by women wouldn’t get a fair shake. Charlotte was once told by Robert Southey that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be”. Firstly, fuck that guy. Secondly, I’m glad Charlotte didn’t listen to him, because her shit is brilliant.

Charlotte was, as you’ve probably guessed, the older sister to Emily Brontë (I reviewed Wuthering Heights a little while back). Emily gets all of the love and accolades, but it was Charlotte that truly revolutionised the art of first-person fiction (i.e., she was the first to really write about what was going on in people’s heads). She has been called “the first historian of private consciousness”, and her influence can be seen in the work of dudes like Proust and Joyce. She internalised the action the way that no one before her could, and was one of the first to explore classism, sexuality, religion, and feminism in the way we do today. So, when it comes to the Brontë sibling rivalry, I’m going in to bat for Charlotte.

By the way, if I sound at all like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because the introduction to this edition is off the chain. It’s insightful, helpful, and intelligent – without going over your head. Plus, I just fucking loved Jane Eyre. I absorbed the book like a brand-new sponge baptised in bathwater.



Right from the outset, Jane Eyre is pretty gripping. Jane – the main character, duh – is ten years old, her parents are dead, and she has been sent to live with her nice, rich uncle… but he dies too, so she’s raised by her evil stepmother, alongside her three bratty cousins. Life’s pretty terrible for Jane, but it is beautifully written. I tend to feel pretty disconnected from literature of this period (as most would-be bookworms do); I don’t understand the language, the imagery, the style, and the metaphor. All of it seems anchored in a context that I don’t know enough about to fully comprehend… but not so with Jane! I was immediately immersed in her world. She feels everything so keenly, and passion drips from every word – I mean, she’s a very intense girl, but Charlotte Brontë is artful enough to keep it from sliding into melodramatics. It’s everything that My Brilliant Career should have been.

Jane winds up in a boarding school, and the drama doesn’t stop: she’s pretty mercilessly bullied for a while, the girls are all kinds of weird, and her first best friend Helen Burns dies of tuberculosis. This is where we first see Brontë really draw from her own life (I should do a shot every time an author in this project “writes what they know”). Helen’s death eerily mirrors the deaths of Brontë’s own younger sisters: Elizabeth and Maria Brontë both died of tuberculosis in childhood, as a result of the conditions at their school. So this whole section of the plot is basically Charlotte saying a big ol’ “fuck you” to so-called charitable institutions.

When Jane is done with school, she is transferred to the Thornfield mansion, and introduced to her new master Mr Rochester. Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand: I didn’t really like Rochester much, mostly because he constantly talks over and down to Jane, and he’s basically just a pompous, self-absorbed fuckboy of the highest order… but I found the initial flirtations between he and Jane very romantic. I really wanted to be a keener, more critical feminist, but this shit had me all aflutter. I’m pretty confident that every strong, independent woman who has had the misfortune of falling in love with a man can relate.



The saving grace is that Jane Eyre is a blatant proto-feminist call to arms. Brontë doesn’t even try to hide it in layers of metaphor, like so many other writers of the time. She literally tells us, through Jane, that she thinks women are equal to men and it is absolute bullshit that they aren’t treated as such. She was so woke for her time that it confused the hell out of critics. One Ms Elizabeth Rigby wrote, in her “scathing” review, that “no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert dishes with the same hands, or talks of doing so in the same breath” and as such Jane Eyre must have been written by a man… or, at least, by a woman “so depraved as to have long forfeited the society of her own sex”. Fuck yes, Charlotte Brontë, fuck yes! Troll reviews like that are how you know you’re on the right track.

It’s true that – panty-dropping for Rochester aside – Jane is a bad bitch. She fawns over him privately, sure, but in his company she makes every show of having no time for his bullshit. On the eve of their engagement, she says:

“Here I heard myself apostrophized as a ‘hard little thing’; and it was added ‘any other woman would have been melted to marrow hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise.’

I assured him that I was naturally hard – very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers[e] rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks [engagement] elapsed: he should know fully what sort of bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.”

… and she proceeds to torture him mercilessly every damn day. Jane Eyre was the Beyonce’s Lemonade of its time.

If you’re tempted to roll your eyes right now, stop and think about it: this was a really scathing commentary on class and gender roles back in the day. Of course it wasn’t perfect – Jane doesn’t exactly call Rochester out on his treatment of his “savage Creole” wife that he hid in the attic, and there’s a few moments of superiority and white-saviourism – but it’s hardly fair to put a 21st century head on Charlotte Brontë’s shoulders. As it stands, in her own context, she was a true radical.

And lest this talk of radical feminism scare you off, you should know that Jane Eyre is still fucking hilarious. You wouldn’t call it a “comedy” per se, but I literally laughed out loud countless times. Jane is so witty and dry and clever – maybe a touch too earnest and self-deprecating at times, but it’s endearing. Shit like this had me in hysterics:

“‘No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,’ he began, ‘especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?’

‘They go to hell,’ was my ready and orthodox answer.

‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pit full of fire.’

‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.'”

Jane Eyre is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints experienced by a clever, funny woman over the course of a decade in the 19th century. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it. Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and highly recommended by Keeping Up With The Penguins (and, as we all know, there is no higher praise than that!).

Note: I loved Jane Eyre SO MUCH that it made the cut for my official shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

  • “This version is “illustrated” with reproductions of paintings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the text. For example, in the middle of a description of Sundays at the Lowood school, when the girls had to walk two miles to church services in the snow, there is a picture of a Native American spearing a buffalo.” – J. W. Shields
  • “I could have read Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, or O’Connor. I could have read Don Quixote a second time or sailed again with Captain Ahab on his philosophical quest. Instead, I wasted a few weeks reading this glorified soap opera with what is perhaps one of the most unintentional comic endings in all of literature. Onward, Sancho, onward!” – Nemo
  • “Gee, this is a classic. But I was shocked by the unremitting sadism in it and soon stopped reading it.” – U. S. ‘nAye
  • “The floral print came off and not noticing this, it transferred to my leg while wearing shorts. Other than that the book is great…” – Nancy Host
  • “I read this against my will.” – Erik

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Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights has been reviewed and critiqued approximately eighty billion times already. My secondhand copy (purchased for $10, once owned by but never borrowed from the library of Riverside Girls’ High, according to the stamp in the front) has a Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Further Reading List (pages!), a Note on the Text, a Genealogical Table, a Bibliographical Notice for the author, and an Editors Preface to the New [1850] Edition… not to mention that the text itself is followed by 13 pages of notes. How can I possibly add to an analysis that’s already longer than the book? I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not optimistic…

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Buy Wuthering Heights here.
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(A hot tip for those of you yet to read Wuthering Heights: given how many characters Emily Brontë names for their parents, and how many of them marry their cousins, an edition with the aforementioned Genealogical Table in the front is really handy!)

So, it’s 1801, right. This moody guy, Heathcliff, lives with his daughter-in-law and her new husband (his own son having perished, at some point). The DIL is hot, but they’re all kind of rude and weird. Their kindly neighbour – who’s trying to narrate this mess – comes to have a sleepover, but they stick him in a really strange room and he has nutty dreams and sees a ghost. He bails quick smart.

Then, presto, we kind of switch narrators, because that kindly neighbour – safe, back at his place – gets bored at dinner and makes his housemaid give him all the dirt on those weirdos up the road. So, it’s the narrator narrating the narration of his housemaid. Got it?

It turns out: that Heathcliff guy was once a ruffian street-kid, with a Cinderella-esque upbringing (once the dude who took him in died, the rest of the family started being really mean). Catherine (we’ll call her Cathy Senior for clarity – you’ll see why in a minute) was a saucy little minx, who flirtatiously tortured Heathcliff for years, but she ultimately decided to marry the snooty guy next door instead. It was a hella dramatic household – years of drunken rages and fights and marriage proposals and death. It’s great tea, but damn, I wanted to tell them all to just calm down for a minute.

Heathcliff went on a sulky walkabout after his true-love-slash-adopted-sister married the snooty guy. Cathy Senior is overjoyed when he eventually returns, which makes Mr Snooty super jealous. Then, Mr Snooty’s sister takes a fancy to Heathcliff, and Cathy Senior is so not jealous of them that she goes properly bonkers and locks herself in her room.

Heathcliff does actually take Mr Snooty’s sister for a wife (seemingly because they both just fancied a shag and this was the only way to get one back then), but being back living with the adopted family that hates him isn’t great for his mental health. Guys, this is just Volume I. Strap in!

In Volume II, Heathcliff decides he doesn’t give a damn who’s married whom, and sneaks in to see Cathy Senior while Mr Snooty is at church. They pash for a bit, but she’s still bonkers, and Mr Snooty ends up catching them at it. It turns out Cathy Senior was knocked up (though none of them have mentioned it up until now) – the shock of the whole situation sends her into pre-term labour, and she dies not long after the shorty drops.

This, in turn, makes Heathcliff even more mental (losing his true-love-slash-adopted-sister and all), so Mr Snooty’s sister leaves him… but it turns out she was knocked up as well (gasp!). She runs away to the country to have the kid and eat a lot of peaches… then the story jumps ahead 13 years, and she dies too. I’m serious! I’m not making this up, I swear.

Cathy Junior (yes, Brontë named both characters Cathy, it’s crazy) is a mad little scamp; she thinks her cousins are living far, far away… but it turns out they’re living up the road with Heathcliff, and when she finds out she gets very pissed off. She becomes secret pen pals with Heathcliff’s son and they trade notes via the milkman for a few days, until they decide they’ve fallen in love.

(It kind of seems like deciding you want to marry the guy you’ve been messaging on Tinder for a few days… only that guy is your cousin and living with your mother’s ex-lover and it’s all really fucked up!)

He's Your Cousin - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Heathcliff isn’t at all bothered by the incest, and approves of the match. He’s so determined that Cathy Junior should marry his son that he takes her hostage, knocks her around a bit, and tells her that he won’t release her to see her dying dad until she’s got a ring on it. The whole thing is a study in Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence, and by all rights I should have been shocked and confronted… but I was so confused and bored by their melodramatics that it passed by me with barely an eyebrow raised.

To skip ahead to the end (which I’m sure we’re all eager to do by this point): Heathcliff dies and the implication seems to be that he and Cathy Senior go on to have a rollicking good time in the afterlife, haunting the moors and so forth. Cathy Junior outlives her cousin-husband, and eventually falls in love with her other cousin (even though he’s really stupid). They… live happily ever after? I guess?

I can see why Wuthering Heights has been loved and labored over for so many years – there’s clearly layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, but (unlike Mrs Dalloway) that doesn’t mean that a surface reading isn’t perfectly enjoyable. Of course, you’ve got to keep track of all the love triangles dodecahedrons and set aside any qualms you have about incest…

The thing is, while I was reading Wuthering Heights, I was having a pretty tough time personally – putting on pants in the morning was about all I could manage, let alone immersing myself in Brontë’s madness. I’ll definitely read this book again, not because the first time was so good, but because I could not possibly have got everything out of Wuthering Heights that it has to offer, when so much of my brain space was occupied with other things. Ergo, at this point, I can really only recommend it to someone who’s got the emotional and mental stability to enjoy it properly.

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any emotional turmoil of your own going on, go for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights:

  • “This book wasn’t particularly good and it wasn’t particularly bad. I don’t really like this style but I’m reading the classics so that I can say that I did.” – the1cuttiepoo
  • “Classic Victorian plot of everyone being too proud to be happy.” – Jamie K Devine
  • “A serious and depressing masterpiece where Heathcliff is an evil jerk and everyone dies….” – David Allen Patterson

If all you knew about Wuthering Heights before you read this review was drawn from the Kate Bush song, don’t worry – you’re not alone! Check out more songs inspired by classic literature here.

101 Funny Book Tweets

We talk a lot of shit about Twitter, but it’s actually a wonderful platform for pithy jokes. To celebrate me finally getting in gear and properly starting a dedicated Keeping Up With The Penguins Twitter account, here are 101 funny book tweets. (Okay, fine, I also needed to find a use for the ridiculously large bank of screenshots taking up space on my phone…)

101 Funny Book Tweets - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Funny Book Tweets of 2022

Relatable Funny Book Tweets

Screenshot of tweet from @PatrickNathan
"me: "omg I can't wait to read this!"
me: *places it on shelf for six years*"

Funny Book Tweets About Pride And Prejudice

Read my review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Funny Book Tweets About Moby Dick

Read my review of Moby Dick here.

Funny Book Tweets About The Brontës

Read more about the Brontës here.

Funny Book Tweets About Frankenstein

Read my review of Frankenstein here.

Funny Tweets About Kids Books

Screenshot of a Tweet from @blackcindy: "Matilda was dead ass walking around with adoption papers fjjcjffc my good sis was ready to kick it"

Funny Book Tweets About Kafka

Funny Book Tweets About To Kill A Mockingbird

Read my review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

Funny Book Tweets About The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Read my review of The Picture Of Dorian Gray here.

More Funny Book Tweets

Screenshot of a Tweet by @joboyley: "My daughter has started a story and 'Rebecca' no longer has the greatest opening lines in literature." with a picture of a handwritten note that says: "As the day becomes night, the ghosts start to stir. Some littrely start to stir, because they are chef ghosts."
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