“The Creature”

Between the eighties and nineties I was not much involved with academic life. When I returned to teach Open University students a course on “Approaches to Literature” I was surprised to discover that a novel I had thought to be on the periphery of literary focus had become a central part of the curriculum.

Earlier, I had taken for granted, that Frankenstein was an example, certainly a good example, of the gothic form. This form, in my unmodish innocence, unaware how the genre of the gothic had been reclaimed as significant, I regarded as suspect because I thought of gothic as tending towards sensationalism which failed to get inside situations as, say, Jane Austen’s realism did. It worked, that is, on the level of external sensation, or excitement, of the reader, rather than leading the reader into psychological penetration of what was being presented. So while Frankenstein may have been an interesting example of the literature of the time, reflecting the ideas of the time, it did not have inherent strength as a great work of literature, limited as it was by its genre. Such was my old-fashioned view.

So you can guess my surprise when on returning to academe I discovered the same devalued Frankenstein as being given a central role as a classic. Why the sudden elevation? In these intervening years the feminist revolution hit literary studies. So….. you might ask? What has the gothic of this novel, not focused on an exploited female, but centred on male creator and male creature to do with feminism? At first that might seem a difficult question to answer. True, poor Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s betrothed, suffers grievously and then on the wedding night is slaughtered. But she is simply a casualty of the central opposition, too vestigial a character in the novel, for that to be the feminist justification. No, the answer comes in a word that the feminist revolution brought in to the understanding of literature; a word linked to the whole development of critical theory. The word is otherness.

“Otherness” came to prominence in sociology as a word expressing not just difference between one group and and another but a constructed difference based on the hierarchical model of power. So, in terms of feminism, “otherness” was a role prescribed for the female, or ” constructed” in society by the patriarchal male to regulate the position and decide the functions of the female. Those in power, the privileged, assumed normalcy. Outside of that, were those that were treated as other. Feminism meant opposing this regulation, this devalued otherness in favour of equality; an opposition which involved not just fighting against outward political and economic limitation-male franchise, male dominance in the work place- but also the inward limitation of assigned stereotypical forms of behaviour (such as the female being associated with roles of domesticity, nurturing, housework, etc).

In this way, the movement is from the external obvious oppression to internal cultural oppression. Identity politics comes to be developed: “the personal is political” became a popular feminist slogan.

Well and good, you say- and we all may sympathise now with that idea of feminism- but how does that relate to Frankenstein with its male protagonists. The answer takes us a little further beyond immediate feminism. Other identities are similarly constructed according to the hierarchy, deemed to privilege the white male. As well as the feminist, there is also the race narrative, reacting against racism, including the colonial and post- colonial positioning of other races in relation to the dominant tribe. Then we come to gays, and then trans and gender identities, and disabled and whatever other group that can be construed as victimised within a narrative of otherness.

Once you look at Frankenstein this way you can see the fit. The Creature is constructed. The Creature is then condemned for who and what he is. He seeks recognition: he is spurned, rejected, abandoned by his creator. Not only that, but because he appears different, although he harbours feelings of longing for sympathy and endorsement, he is rejected and condemned by society. When he learns about society (educated by default though a hole in the wall) he finds that this kind of rejection has been inherent within human society. A rage builds up within and when rejected he acts violently. This confirms his evil inferiority of nature in the understanding of his creator. The two are involved in a destructive cycle of destruction and violence.

Hence the importance of Frankenstein. That is why it has become such an established classic for our time. For it is archetypal, the modern myth outlining and predicting the fallout of the post- revolutionary struggle towards equality. Published in 1818, it foreshadows Marx, the struggle of the exploited workers and all the other struggles-the feminist, gays, the fight against patriarchy, against the traditional structure of the family, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Mermaids etc- which might come under the umbrella of cultural Marxism. Now these severally may be causes for which you have some sympathy but in Frankenstein you have a work that represents in essence the whole process for these various identities. The Creature constructed to live and yet be different, rejected and denied the right to be the creature he might seek to be. The logic of cultural Marxism finds in Frankenstein the iconic myth of power relations. So when feminism ultimately required the revaluation of the curriculum it is not surprising that the significance of Frankenstein came to be re-assessed.

Shelley brought up by feminist May Wollstonecraft, and by William Godwin who heralded the perfectability of man through equality, a great supporter of the French Revolution with her husband Percy Bysshe, also a Godwinite, was fascinated by “Paradise Lost”. But it was a Paradise Lost less based on Genesis than on a reading of Milton’s work similar to that of William Blake(also a radical supporter of the French Revolution), a reading that sees not God but Satan as the hero, as Blake puts it “Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. In Paradise Lost. God the hierarchic Authoritarian Father, the Law -maker, punished and condemned Satan to Hell. Satan, so condemned, seeks a kind of heroic revenge, inspiring Man to oppose God.

What this understanding of the myth fails to record is the moral significance of the need for redemption. For Frankenstein is potentially noble but allows himself, through his obsession, to go against the good; the Creature is not only rejected and therefore deserving of our sympathy, especially because he shows finer feelings, but in his bitter revenge and uncontrolled rage becomes evil. They are not representative of two opposing sides, one good, one wrong. Both require redemption submitting themselves to God, and then through mutual understanding and forgiveness. But Frankenstein in his obsessive male pride has forgotten God. The Creature is only a human construct, uninspired by God. What is missing in this modern myth, what is missing in cultural Marxism, is the understanding of an Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who writes in his great work The Gulag Archipelago 1973 : “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between political parties either- but right through every human heart.”



Mont Blanc

The next day we pursued our journey upon mules; and as we ascended still higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character; and as we ascended still higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on precipices of piny mountains; the impetuous Arves, and cottages every here and there peeping forth from among the trees, formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitation of another race of beings.

We passed the bridge of Pelissier, where the ravine, which the river forms, opened before us, and we began to ascend the mountain that overhangs it. Soon after we entered the valley of the Chamounix. The valley is more wonderful and sublime, but not so beautiful and picturesque as that of the Servox, through which he had just passed. The high and shining mountains were its immediate boundaries; but we saw no more ruined castles and fertile fields. Immense glaciers approached the road; we heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche, and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding aiguilles , and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley.

Mary Shelley Frankenstein Vol.2 Ch. 1

Valley of the Chamounix

Mary Shelley’s novel was probably the most famous and certainly most significant of the Gothic genre of novels which came to the fore in the pre-Romantic period and especially in the decade of the 1790’s. Jane Austen read them with enthusiasm but when she started to write fiction, that same decade, her approach was supremely realistic working upon the ordinary world of everyday experience. Her first novel, Northanger Abbey satirises the popular cult of the Gothic and especially the novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe.

Gothic novels were designed to lead the reader into an unfamiliar world of the weird and the terrifying. Their settings aim to chill and frighten: hence their ancient haunted castles, isolated mansions or ruins, graveyards, remote mountain lanscapes, where the helpless, isolated heroine-or occasional hero- will be exposed to extremes of threat.

The above passage from Shelley is remarkable, given the genre, for its specificity. These are named , identifiable places in the Alps, though in their otherness from the norm, they form a suitable setting (“as belonging to another earth, the habitation of another race of beings”) for the confrontation between Frankenstein and his creature.

We notice in the description that we are taken beyond the picturesque with white cottages peeping out among the forests and the castles and “fertile fields” all features of the picturesque and ordinarily beautiful to something tremendous, of extra dimension: in other words the sublime – “it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps”. This is where wild nature expresses its inhuman otherness, it commands a feeling of awe beyond what might be familiarised as picturesque.

During the Romantic era the sublime took on a new emphasis. It was heralded by a work of aesthetics by Edmund Burke Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Simon Blackburn 1996) Burke’s work “marked a very early Romantic turn away from the 18th -century aesthetic of clarity and order, in favour of the imaginative power of the unbounded and infinite, and the unstated and unknown.”

The great Romantic poets sought out the mountains, as earlier poets had embarked on a Grand Tour. Wordsworth brought up in the Lake District ,anyway, explored also the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia and the Alps. Famously, he wrote about the experience of crossing the Alps in Book 6 of “The Prelude”. Coleridge described the valley of the Chamouni in “Hymn Before Sunrise”. These two poems inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley, second generation Romantic, to another take on Alpine landscape, with his “Mont Blanc”. And relating to the description above in Frankenstein Percy and his young wife in 1814 together put together a journal of their travels in the area. The work was then edited by Mary, prefaced by Percy and published in November 1817 as History of a Six Week Tour .

The story of the novel developed from a later tour in 1817 when the Shelleys returned to the area living with Byron in his lodge near Geneva. The group, including Byron’s friend and physician Polidori, talking late into the night devised a ghost-writing competition they would all engage in. Percy’s tale did not develop , Byron began one on a vampire which Polidori later developed and published The Vampyre: A Tale . Mary’s mind was at first blank but then she crossed ideas of setting- the Alps and Republican Geneva- with her husband’s fascination with the new science of electricity and galvanism which provoked ideas about the creation of living beings. What starts as a great enterprise, the noble scientific idealism of Frankenstein, involves unhallowed desecration of the remains of corpses and he becomes increasingly obsessive and secretive. The resulting creation is a disaster. Frankenstein shrinks away in disgust at the ghastliness of the creature, rejecting and abandoning it. However the creature is not so readily dismissed and there follows a cycle of rejection and destruction from which neither can escape. So, along with its traditional gothic sensationalism and frightening violence, the work transcends the limitations of the genre developing a great cluster of ideas on idealism , the limits of scientific endeavour, the potential of science to be destructive rather than ameliorative of the human condition, the concept of the noble savage (from Rousseau) and the corruption in man and in society and social conditioning, the rejection of otherness and the operation of the mentality of revenge based on rejection. Thus the non-realism of the gothic is transcended to become a work of mythic portent in which the original Genesis story of creation (Milton’s Paradise Lost is frequently invoked) is re-adapted with the god of creation failing to re-connect with the creature who fails and who is other, causing a breakdown in the possibility of creative relations being established.

But I’ve rather exceeded my brief which was simply to tell how for the Romantics the sublime took on a new significance which drew them to mountains and the feeling of awe they induced. Once started one never quite knows where a blog might end up!


Marianne’s sensitivity to the beauty of the landscape (see post “Jane Austen and the Picturesque”) shows her feeling for the picturesque, a pre-Romantic era concept, that developed in popularity through the eighteenth century. That it is a fashionable tendency is due largely to the work of William Gilpin(1724-1804). Gilpin distinguishes picturesque beauty from natural beauty : between those which “please the eye in the natural state, and those which please from some quality, capable of being illustrated in painting.” (Essay on Picturesque Beauty). Jane Austen was once, according to her brother Henry, in his Biographical Notice to the first edition of Persuasion , “enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque”. So her early feelings are probably reflected in the enthusiasm of the young Marianne but, her similar distrust of jargon and her suspicion of affectation, would lead naturally to the kind of satirical approach of Edward. Here for instance is the kind of judgement Gilpin would make which Edward clearly has in mind:
At Fair-Mile hill, a very extensive view opened before us, but nothing can make it pleasing, as it is bounded by a hard edge. A distance should melt into the sky, or terminate in a soft and varied mountain line.” Observations on the Western Parts of England” London (1798).

Gilpin’s work, however, prepared the ground for the kind of appreciation the Romantic poets, like Wordsworth and the Lake poets, and Sir Walter Scott, would develop. Between 1782 and 1809 he wrote six books of Observations on various parts of the United Kingdom, including the Wye Valley, the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland. Such places were becoming popular tourist sites. During the French wars following the French Revolution the Grand Tour of Europe was becoming less possible and Gilpin’s work undoubtedly developed the early attractions of holidaying in parts of the country which never before would have been found attractive. So in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet is to go first with the Gardiners to the Lake District on holiday (before it has to be shortened and they limit themselves to Derbyshire) and in the early “Love and Friendship” one of the characters speaks of going a tour of the Scottish Highlands as a result of reading Gilpin’s Observations of 1789.(I’m grateful to Ros Ballaster for details from her Notes as editor of 2014 edition of Sense and Sensibility Penguin Classics)

In her first novel Northanger Abbey Jane Austen also combines sympathetic focus with satire of the modishness of picturesque terminology. She describes the young naive Catherine developing her education in listening to the discussion Tilney and his sister while out for a walk around Beechen Cliff,

that noble hill, whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath……..

The Tilneys were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decide on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing-nothing of taste:- and she listened to them with an attention that brought little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little she did understand however appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear sky was no longer proof of a fine day.

Having confessed her ignorance Henry Tilney was very ready to educate her:

a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in every thing admired by him and her attention was so earnest, that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances-side-screens and perspectives-lights and shades- and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar, that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape.”

Jane Austen was not the only one to satirise the work of Gilpin. William Combe brought out in “The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque” a verse narrative which was illustrated by the outstanding English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. Included are stanzas, like the following, presenting the ridiculed target drawing a landscape while seeking to make the picture adequately picturesque:

"  I've a right-( who dares deny it)
To place a group of asses by it.
Aye, this will do, and now I'm thinking
That self-same pond where Grizzle's drinking,
If hither brought 'twould better seem
And, truth, I'll turn it to a stream.
I'll make this flat a shaggy ridge
And o'er the water throw a bridge
I'll do as other sketchers do
Put anything into the view
And any object recollect,
To add a grace and give effect.

According to Wikipedia, the writer of the Dr. Syntax verses William Combe was a “micellaneous writer” whose “early life was that of an adventurer and his later was passed chiefly within the “rules” of the King’s Bench Prison.” So popular was his first series on Dr Syntax (1809) that two others were written. The illustrator was Thomas Rowlandson well known as a brilliant satirical painter and caricaturist and Dr Syntax is recognised to be our first cartoon character.

Yet despite his excesses the Rev William Gilpin should be remembered with respect. He was one of those doughty Anglican priests who, while ever faithful to their duties, found time for an extraordinary range of achievements. After graduating from Oxford in 1748 Gilpin worked as a teacher, becoming headmaster of Cheam School for Boys in 1755. There he was a very enlightened schoolmaster for the time, refusing to use corporal punishment and instead issuing fines for misbehaviour. He encouraged the boys in sporting activities, as well as interesting them in running school shops and looking after the school gardens. In 1777 he became vicar at Boldre in the New Forest area where he remained until his death in 1804. During his summer vacations he would carry out his tours with observations and drawings which were then published. Three essays on the Picturesque followed which along with the Observations created an enthusiasm for the subject. As well as his art works he published books of sermons and biographies of great figures in the English Church- Hugh Latimer, Wycliffe and Thomas Cranmer. All in all , he was a man who added much to the ongoing cultural and spiritual life of the nation.


“In the nineteenth century Russia under the influence of their progressive parents, a generation of educated young people was convinced of the illegitimacy of the Tsarist regime. Dostoevsky’s “Demons” (1871) is a vivid chronicle of the tragic and farcical process by which progressive liberals discredited traditional institutions and unleashed a wave of revolutionary terror. Not only tsarism but any form of government came to be seen as repressive. As one of Dostoevsky’s characters put it “I got entangled with my data…… shifting from unlimited freedom I concluded with unlimited despotism”.

From John Gray “The Woke have No Vision for the Future” Unherd.

Unherd is one of my favourite websites. It was set up to “push back against herd mentality with new and bold thinking and provide a platform for otherwise unheard, ideas, people and places”. This week there was an essay by the author John Gray quoted above which, within its argument, makes reference to Dostoevsky’s novel “The Demons” ( which when I read it a long time ago was translated “The Possessed”) in connection with recent troubles in the U.S following the George Floyd killing. The argument is complex and I shall not attempt to summarise it here though if interested I would recommend you to look at it on the site. However the discussion of Dostoevsky drew my attention. He is a writer whose big four novels I absorbed in late adolescence but to which I have seldom returned since. Reading Gray’s essay adducing “The Demons” to understand the state of our post-liberal world makes me want to read that novel again.


From Sense and Sensibility

Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne’s attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him when Edward interrupted her by saying, “You must not enquire too far , Marianne- remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth , which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought to be only indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country- the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug-with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility- and I dare say it is a picturesque one too because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush-wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.

I am afraid it is but too true,” said Marianne; “but why should you boast of it?”

I suspect,” said Elinor, “that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration than they feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious, and will have an affectation of his own.

It is very true ” says Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense of meaning”

I am convinced ” said Edward,” that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined,tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farmhouse than a watch-tower-and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at his sister. Elinor only laughed.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility Vol. 1 xv111

One of the delights of reading Jane Austen is coming across conversations like this-lively and clever bringing out character in its relation to the topic at hand as well as the thematic development of the novel. He points to the terminology he uses as opposed to that which he should use if pre-disposed to the picturesque (“bold” rather than “steep” for hills, and instead of”distant objects out of sight” what “ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere”) in a way that demonstrates amusingly that Edward knows a lot about the picturesque while disclaiming such knowledge. In doing so we appreciate the wit of clever judgement.

Elinor, with rational perceptiveness, recognises the discrepancy between what Edward is claiming and how he is doing it and she sees it as a way of avoiding “one kind of affectation” by “falling into another”. Such a claim points to the relevance for us of the way argument in general is conducted. It is not simply about an old aesthetic topic now irrelevant ( though in fact this argument continues to resonate for a population of scenery admirers where we are always engaged with the question as to what particularly raises or lessens our admiration for such a particular scene) it is about the way people argue. Marianne, with sensitive intelligence, recognises the general tendency to adopt particular terms or stereotypical notions disallowing nuance. So she often stays quiet rather than using language which is “worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning”.

Edward then furthers the debate by developing the argument he has earlier made based on an admiration combining beauty and utility (which word of course points to the philosophy Bentham was at that point developing and which will have a major effect on the nineteenth century and beyond in utilitarianism) with a more specific criticism of the picturesque: “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles” using contrasting illustrations-“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing.”

The theme of the novel, indicated by the title, balances sense with sensibility. Marianne is the character who represents “sensibility” which emphasises fine feeling. In a recent blog on the development of the word “romantic” we saw how its emphasis became associated not so much with the old romances as with suitable settings and attraction to these. The word developed strong subjective connection of how it looks to how I feel about its appearance. This prepared for a development of “picturesque” ideas distinguishing what looks good (“romantic”) at the expense of more objective ideas of value. To Edward the “cottage” is a ruin,its justification as a building is lost. Picturesque values might emphasise the cottage’s graceful appropriateness for overall effect of a view. And such internalised effects were thoroughly investigated, as Edward mockingly shows in his use of the vocabulary.

The argument concludes unresolved. Elinor keeps her balanced appreciation of the two sides of the argument by laughing. Marianne is too inclined towards a romanticism upholding the feelings to understand a counter point of view. With her primacy of the feelings commands her reason.

We can see in the movement from the rational minded Edward to the romantic Marianne the balancing centre of the Elinor who laughs- her laugh representing the wit and wisdom of the artist who could appreciate both points of view.

It is a wisdom of which we are sorely in need to this day. During Lockdown, after three months there is increasing sense of imbalance and lack of proportion. A widely respected professional novelist, mainly of children’s books, tweeted a witty ironic comment -not unworthy of Jane Austen- on a proposed definition of women, which was met with outrage. No considered argument -that I saw publicised- was used to answer the implied criticism. The author was simply traduced for not being on the side of approved opinion.

Oh, for the sense of balance a Jane Austen’s laugh might bring!


From Charlotte Bronte responding to G. H. Lewes (respected Victorian critic to become George Eliot’s partner) who had recommended her to read Jane Austen.

I got the book (ie. Pride and Prejudice) and studied it. What did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced garden with neat borders and delicate flowers-but no glance of vivid physiognomy-no open country- no fresh air-no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.


On the morning of a fine June day, my first bonny nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born.

We were busy with the hay in a far away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon, across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go; he says she’s been in consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr Hindley-and now she has nothing to keep her, and she’ll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You’re to nurse it Nelly- to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it, day and night-I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”

“But is she very ill?” I asked, flinging down my rake, and tying my bonnet.

“I guess she is; yet she looks bravely, “replied the girl, “and she talks as if she thought of living to see it grow a man. She’s out of her head for joy, it’s such a beauty! If I were her I’m certain I should not die. I should get better at the bare sight of it, in spite of Kenneth. I was fairly mad at him. Dame Archer brought the cherub down to master, in the house, and his face just began to light up, then the old croaker steps forward, and, says he:- “Earnshaw it’s a blessing your wife has been spared to leave you this son. When she came, I felt convinced we shouldn’t keep her long; and now, I must tell you, the wintere will probably finish her. Don’t take on, and fret about it too much, it can’t be helped. And besides you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass.


D. H. Lawrence uses the phrase “spirit of place” to point to the writer’s gift of rendering the essence of his particular setting. I love this particular passage of Emily Bronte’s great novel because it gives an immediate insight into a society and way of life on the Yorkshire moors around her chosen setting of Wuthering Heights. It also gives a sense of the rich power of the language of the book reflecting the community life of the folk which I shall seek to underline with a comparison of her language with Jane Austen’s.

The narrator is Nelly, a live-in servant whose main employment at this stage of the novel is indoors but who is clearly employed to help as needed with the ongoing life of the farm . Note the rhythm of the opening sentence with its balance of the words “first” and “last” : ” my first bonny nursling and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock” suggests her pride in the association with the family with their long history, her delight in the birth of the new heir and her sorrow at his being the last. The prose renders the excitement of the breathless servant girl pouring out her joy at the the beauty of the new born and the energy of Nelly’s response “Flinging down my rake and tying my bonnet”. But vigour is an element sadly lacking in the condition of the mother. The doctor’s testimony of the mother’s inadequacy brings us to the specifics of place: “the winter will probably finish her……you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass”. The doctor’s brutal realism (rejected as he is by the phrase “old croaker” of the young servant girl) on the physical limitations of the not local wife acts in the passage as a kind of counterpoise to the apparent vigour of the “grand bairn” and the energy of the young Nelly ready to take on her first “nursling”. You do not survive in this kind of place without rude vigour and strength. The breakfast girl’s implicit joy in the beauty of the boy, the pride in the survival of the Earnshaw “stock” is of the celebration of the physical qualities of strength and endurance that make possible survival over generations in a harsh landscape.

In the rhythm of speech we note the strong physical words of common life that stand out : “bonny”, “ancient,” ” stock,” “bairn,” “flinging,””bravely” “beauty,” blessing,” “croaker” “spared””fret” “rush of a lass”. This is language unlike that of Jane Austen. Compare the start of Sense and Sensibility :

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance”.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility

The language here belongs to a different class of gentility -“family, ” long settled” (as against “ancient stock”), “residence”, “respectable” “general good opinion”; gentility which is securely settled, not struggling for survival. We notice the preponderance of longer more Latinate, anglo-Norman vocabulary. The short blunt physicality of the language of Wuthering Heights is absent. It is a contrasting England with a quite different spirit of place.

It is worth noting how the Wuthering Heights passage continues. The doctor’s prophecy is accurate. Yet the wife shows the kind of spirit that shows us why the Yorkshireman was drawn to her. When Nelly approached “She spoke merrily” and in the face of death “that gay heart never failed her”. The language, the merriness and gaiety, reflects a resilience of spirit that can take her so far but not further. It is a resilience of spirit lacking in her husband Hindley. Earlier Nelly had noted “I was very sad for Hindley’s sake; he had room in his heart for only two idols-his wife and himself- he doted on both, and adored one, and I couldn’t conceive how he would bear the loss”. The effect indeed is catastrophic for himself and for his family:

“For himself he grew desperate; his sorrow was of that kind that will not lament; he neither wept nor prayed-he cursed and defied-execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation”.

Again we note the powerful rhythm of reinforcing doubles ( “wept nor prayed”, “cursed and defied” “God and man ” with the force of “execrated”).

Hindley with all his physical strength and his unruly character has none of his wife’s spiritual resilience”. He lacks the moral force to complement his physical powers. His “idol” gone his only recourse is defiant recklessness bringing ruin.