Wuthering Heights and the history of Gothic fiction

By Professor Joseph Crawford


When Gothic first became popular in Britain, it was widely assumed that it would be nothing more than a fad. Initially popularised by the bestselling novels of Ann Radcliffe, such as The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Gothic fiction had largely burned itself out by the early 1820s. Audiences had tired of the trappings of Radcliffean Gothicism: sinister monks, evil aristocrats, medieval settings, innocent heroines and isolated castles in foreign lands. Upstaged by new popular genres such as the ‘silver fork’ novels of fashionable high life, Gothic fell into an eclipse from which it was not clear if it would ever emerge.

Wuthering Heights (1847) formed part of a mid-century revival of British Gothic, alongside works such as George W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844–5), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853). These novels revitalised the genre by shifting its setting from the European past to the British present, allowing them to comment directly on contemporary social issues. The setting of Wuthering Heights – a farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors – would have seemed terribly mundane by the standards of Radcliffean Gothic. Still, the novel demonstrates that such ordinary-seeming locations can be just as haunted as any ancient Italian castle. In Wuthering Heights, the intergenerational traumas of one family of Yorkshire landowners take on a level of Gothic intensity that was previously reserved for the melodramatic wickedness of aristocratic villains.

This shift of focus can be seen clearly in the novel’s treatment of Heathcliff. From the perspective of Isabella, whose very name is reminiscent of Radcliffe’s heroines, he appears as a traditional Gothic villain, who imprisons and abuses women within the house he controls. So great is his cruelty that she questions his very humanity, asking: ‘Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?’ Earlier Gothic novels, such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), had insistently linked villainy with supernaturalism, and in Wuthering Heights, it is repeatedly emphasised that Heathcliff no longer seems quite human: Nelly describes him as being ‘not like a man, but like a savage beast’, and to the servants, he is simply ‘that devil Heathcliff’. Even in death, he retains a ‘life-like gaze’ and ‘sharp white teeth’ that ‘sneered’ as though he were undead or vampiric; after his burial, his ghost (or possibly his animated corpse) is glimpsed by the villagers walking the moors on stormy nights. 

However, unlike most previous Gothic novels, Wuthering Heights depicts Heathcliff’s seemingly demonic behaviour as stemming not from diabolical pacts or supernatural forces, but from processes of social exclusion. Heathcliff comes from somewhere else, looking like no one else, speaking a language that no one else speaks or even recognises. He is doomed to be a perpetual outsider not because he is innately evil but because his otherness is written on his body in the form of the nonspecific but unmistakable ethnic difference that leads Nelly to compare him to ‘a regular black’, Lockwood to describe him as ‘a dark-skinned gipsy’, and the young Heathcliff himself to wish, heartbreakingly, that he had ‘Edgar Linton’s great blue eyes’. He becomes a ‘devil’ due to the abuse he experiences in childhood. Rather than a simple tale of innocence persecuted by wickedness, Wuthering Heights thus becomes a story of how innocence can warp into wickedness as social alienation twists Heathcliff into the seemingly monstrous figure he ultimately becomes.

Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were written at the same time by two sisters living in the same house; they both explore how Gothic tropes could be applied to nineteenth-century Britain as easily as early modern Italy. (Similar claims could be made for Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), though she wrote in a more realistic style without the supernatural flourishes of her sisters.) Both novels address similar themes: the abuse of children, the social constraints placed upon women and the human consequences of Britain’s imperial expansion, embodied in damaged, racially-ambiguous figures such as Heathcliff and Bertha Mason. But while Jane Eyre ultimately follows the Radcliffean template whereby the innocent heroine triumphs over the dangers of the Gothic castle, symbolised here by Jane finding love and happiness amid the ruins of Thornfield, Wuthering Heights offers a much bleaker vision. No triumphant heroine regenerates Wuthering Heights. Jane and Rochester are allowed a happy ending, but if Cathy and Heathcliff are ever united it is only as ghosts, roaming the hills together after death. 

Not coincidentally, Jane Eyre was initially much the more popular of the two, helping to usher in a wave of mid-Victorian Gothic fiction by authors such as Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sheridan Le Fanu. These adapted Gothic tropes to Victorian settings with such success that, today, Victorian Britain is commonly seen as the most, rather than the least, appropriate setting for Gothic narratives, as the ongoing popularity of neo-Victorian Gothic media demonstrates. However, while novels such as Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) and Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) followed the example of Jane Eyre in relocating Gothic narratives to Victorian Britain, few went as far as Wuthering Heights in eschewing the redemptive conventions inherited from their Radcliffean forebears. It is one thing to be shown that one’s society has Gothic problems; it is quite another to be told that it is also immune to Gothic solutions.




Joseph Crawford is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Exeter. He is the author of four books on Gothic and Romantic literature.