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A Young Ladies Patriarchal Primer: The Romantic Lead.

We reach day three of the imaginary correspondence course designed to equip you to challenge patriarchy in the streets, and between the sheets, and it is time to look at one of its biggest forms of control, romantic love.

Day 3: Heathcliff, it’s not me, it’s you

Content note for domestic violence, abuse, rape

Wuthering Heights was the only novel of Emily Bronte, we are supposed to consider it a work of genius, and Emily, along with her sisters a triumvirate of women who tower above all others (except of course Jane). The fact is its a half decent piece of juvenile gothic, which indicates at a talent which might have blossomed had Emily not died. The Tennant of Wildfell hall takes a far more mature look at similar themes, and Shirley and Villette have better drawn characters and situations. That we are informed that WH is a classic is as important as any discussion of its literary merits. For what its worth I like WH, its paced with the precision of a Neflix drama, and pulls the reader through the story at a breathless pace. Indeed reading it is rather like indulging in an entire series binge, then emerging blinking into the early morning, wondering where the night went.

The plot of WH, in case you don’t know it, is pretty easy to sum up, despite what critics claim about its complexity. Adopted brother and sister fall in love, get separated, she marries someone else, he sulks, they get more intimate than they should, she dies, their kids eventually marry, then his adopted son marries her daughter. Yes, its Flowers in the attic, without the wank fodder.

The center of the novel is the relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and her adopted brother Heathcliff. It is apparently passionate, so long as you like your passion as written by a particularly immature 14 year old. All dying declarations and dysfunctionality, with a smattering of abuse built in. Interestingly the most famous film adaptation (Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon) omits the second generation, leaving us with just dysfunctionality  and selfishness masquerading as love.

The choice to truncate the novel was probably a wise one, since, after the death of Catherine Earnshaw Heathcliff marries the sister of his hated rival, and is shown to be physically, emotionally, sexually and financially abusive.

The abuse of Isabella Linton

Remember Heathcliff is meant to be one of the greatest romantic heroes of English literature, his love for Cathy supposedly something transcendental. Yet, his treatment of his wife is a litany of abuse.

  1. Rape: Isabella tells her former servant, the narrator of the novel, that she hated Heathcliffe within 24 hours of eloping with him. assuming that they had not had sex before marriage, highly unlikely, this means that Linton Earnshaw is a product of rape, indeed it may well be the reason her teenage infatuation turns to hate.
  2. Physical violence; Heathcliff makes clear his desire to physically assault Isabella even before they are married. “the most ordinary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two: they detestably resemble Linton’s.” He tells Catherine, and is made clear, he does physically assault his wife.
  3.  Emotional Abuse; Heathcliffs emotional abuse of Isabella starts with hanging her pet dog and continues until she escapes. He uses abusive language, denies her somewhere to sleep, mocks and derides her.

The Abuse of Linton Heathcliff

Linton is the product of Heathcliff and Isabella brief time together, most likely the result of rape, and brought up many miles away from Yorkshire. Isabella is not the first survivor of domestic abuse to have to separate themselves from any support systems to feel safe. It is how our society works, blaming the victim, excusing the abuser. Survivors are left to restart lives, pick up the pieces, often isolated and alone, whilst abusers remain, every effort made to accommodate their needs and desires.

It’s clear that part of why Isabella stays away is she believes Heathcliffe will harm their son, again a familiar patters. Abusers often use children as a way to hurt or control their partners, even access visits can become weaponized. When Isabella dies Heathcliff demands Linton be sent to him, with the declared attention of treating him as badly as he was treated, to see how he develops.

Linton is then the victim of a concerted campaign of physical and emotional abuse. which leaves Linton greatly scarred. He may also be the victim of a rape, since in one scene Heathcliff takes him into a room to “punish him” and the authorial door is closed. Given the openness with which all other forms of abuse are shown I am left wondering what is so terrible that Emily Bronte did not describe it? We know it left Linton showing clear signs of PTSD, and that Heathcliff himself did not speak of what went on for the hour behind the closed door (we usually hear him boasting of his abuse).

We are not meant, as readers to like Linton, however likeability is not a requirement for being a victim of child abuse. Indeed the narrative of deserving to be punished is one Heathcliff uses to defend his actions, like so many abusers. It is not up to the victim to change their behaviour to accommodate the abuser, nor does the victim have to conform to narratives which demand perfection before they are even considered a good enough victim.

There are other instances of abuse, physical, emotional, financial, and of a pattern of coercive control which frankly are too long to list, go re read the novel if you want all of them. There is an important lesson here though for our patriarchal primer- culturally Heathcliff is presented as a romantic hero, and his behaviour excused because of “love”.

The myth of romantic love is one of the strongest weapons used to keep us from breaking the chains of patriarchy. Women (and others) are told they must accept abuse, if it is from someone who claims to love them. The romantic hero, be it Heathcliff or Christian Grey is allowed to abuse, in fact, abuse is encouraged, as a sign of their devotion. Love is presented as something which overpowers the romantic hero, who in turn overpowers their prey.

Romance is deadly to women, a charter which says, you must now be abused, in the name of love.

I do not actually believe this was Emily Bronte’s intention. The majority of the book is narrated by Nelly Dean, one of the few realistically drawn figures in it. She not only carries the authorial authority but is probably the character Bronte knew best from real life. The working class, but educated, woman who presided at the births, and laid out the dead, would have been familiar to a vicars daughter. Nelly makes clear that path Heathcliff has chosen will lead to damnation, no small assertion in the culture of the time. Without repentance Heathcliff is destined for hell, and he refuses to repent. Love does not redeem him, love is the excuse he hides behind, the excuse he is provided with to abuse at will.

We have to ask why a villain, in every sense of the word has been re-framed as a hero, the romantic lead. The answer is that patriarchy is best served by convincing generations of women that abuse in the name of love is acceptable.

If you think this is no longer relevant, remember 50 shades darker comes out in 2017. class dismissed.


2 comments on “A Young Ladies Patriarchal Primer: The Romantic Lead.

  1. Wendy Lyon
    December 27, 2016

    Thanks for this! I read this in school during early adolescence, and fell into the trap of seeing Heathcliff as a great romantic hero, and dreamed of having a boyfriend who “loved” me as much as he loved Cathy. Of course when I eventually found one, it wasn’t fun at all.


    • jemima2016
      December 28, 2016

      Its hard to say thank you to a comment which comes from what must have been an awful place to be in, so I shall say glad its in your past, hopefully its just a memory now


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This entry was posted on December 26, 2016 by in A young ladies patriarchal primer and tagged , , , .

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