The Rolling Stones or the Beatles, Gavaskar or Viswanath, Sridevi or Madhuri Dixit, Coke or Pepsi: in our teens, we define our identity in part by choosing some persons or things over others, even though they do not belong to mutually exclusive categories. It is perfectly possible to admire both Sachin Tendulkar’s geometric precision and Brian Lara’s expansive flourish, but at a certain point in our lives it might appear important to assert the superiority of one over the other. And so it was that, around the age of 17 or 18, I told myself that I was for Emily Brontë and against Jane Austen.
I understand more clearly now why I made that choice. The world of Austen’s fiction, dominated by social status and the need to find adequate husbands for young women, was uncomfortably close to the urban, middle-class India I knew and despised. It’s no wonder there have been so many Indian films based on Austen’s books. Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was something completely different, a taboo-breaching tale whose central characters lived the axiom Friedrich Nietzsche later framed: “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” It didn’t hurt that the author’s life was tragically short, and very little biographical information was available about her, allowing me to create an imaginary Emily Brontë for myself.
The novel tells a story of passion, betrayal, and revenge, played out against the windswept Yorkshire moors. The title refers to one of the two homes in and around which virtually all the action takes place. A pompous narrator called Lockwood helpfully explains near the beginning,
“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.”
The Heathcliff mentioned by Lockwood is the story’s fulcrum. He is an adopted gypsy boy mistreated in his adoptive home; grows to love Catherine, who loves him back though they’ve been brought up as siblings; runs away after misunderstanding what he overhears Catherine say one day; and returns having made a fortune, to wreak vengeance on all who crossed his path and prevented the consummation of his love. His revenge, which lasts for two decades, extends to pet dogs and progeny. He acts out another Nietzschean aphorism: “Love of one is a piece of barbarism: for it is practised at the expense of all others.” That aphorism concludes, “Love of God likewise”, but the last bit isn’t relevant to Wuthering Heights, which, despite constant appeals to divinity and references to heaven and hell made by characters, is not a Christian narrative. Its distance from Christian themes appealed to me as much as its distance from urban, middle-class India, because studying European literature is one long, deep dive into sin, guilt, sacrifice, and redemption, from Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it feels good to come up for air. Brontë’s almost miraculous achievement is to tell a tale through a series of moralistic narrators that nevertheless has no interest in fundamental Christian themes. The story, unrelenting in its negativity for long stretches, provides a hint of a happy ending, but even that cannot be called redemptive, for it does not emerge from repentance on Heathcliff’s part.
So, how is it that this tale of unrepented brutality came to be so beloved? Its appeal lies in the elemental connection between Heathcliff and Catherine, encapsulated by Catherine’s cry, “I am Heathcliff”. Brontë successfully creates in our minds the notion of a love so deep and necessary that we sympathise with its overturning of all conventions. The fact that Heathcliff is often considered one of the great romantic characters in fiction despite his surly unkindness through much of the narrative testifies to Brontë’s uncommon power in conveying that profound passion. Her descriptions of the lovers tearing at their hair, foaming at the mouth and gnashing their teeth can seem over-the-top, but she balances those with a complex structure of nested stories in which one narrator might relate what he was told by another person who in turn is reporting contents of a letter written by a third character.
Influence of Indian thought
Emily Brontë, born on July 20, 1818, died little more than 30 years later, on December 19, 1848, claimed by what 19th century Europe called the disease of artists, tuberculosis. Aside from her lone novel, she published a few poems alongside verses by her two sisters, Charlotte and Anne. The book, which sold a mere two copies, was titled The Poems of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, Ellis Bell being the male pseudonym adopted by Emily Brontë in a world where women were not deemed worthy of being published. Since then, dozens more poems by her have been discovered and printed, but the most famous remains one from the book, called No Coward Soul Is Mine, which would be an apt title for a biography of the author.
The poem hints at the influence of Indian thought, possibly filtered through the German poetry and fiction she read in Brussels where she spent a year learning French and German. The deep impression made on European authors by early translations of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala (or Abhijñānashākuntalam) and Buddhist and Hindu texts has been extensively analysed, but that analysis has not, to my knowledge, been extended to the Brontë sisters’ writings. No Coward Soul Is Mine is addressed to god but dismisses as “unutterably vain” the “thousand creeds that move men’s hearts”. It appears similar in spirit to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Brahma, composed a few years later, which explicitly derived its ideas from the Upanishads. Read No Coward Soul Is Mine, and draw your own conclusions about the nature of the god Emily Brontë worshipped.
“No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear
O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears
Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.”