Culture + Worldview
Relating our faith to our culture
Brontes' "eternal powers"
Rachel Helen Smith
- Rachel Helen Smith (née Thorpe) is a writer based in Cambridge, UK. You can read more of her work at www.rachelhelensmith.com. View all resources by Rachel Helen Smith
Crossing the culture
Brontes' "eternal powers"
The most recent strain of Brontemania, at large throughout 2011, included major film versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and the sale of a Charlotte Bronte manuscript for almost £700,000.
Enthusiasm for the Bronte sisters and their work is nothing new. Their novels have spawned numerous interpretations: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre alone has been adapted for the screen almost 2,000 times. Each re-telling is selective, emphasising certain aspects and ignoring others in order to re-image the characters for a contemporary audience. The controversial casting of the 2011 Wuthering Heights, along with the decision to truncate the ending, is an example of the desire to both affirm and alter the message of the novels.
How is it possible?
When I first read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre I became fascinated by a single question: "How is it possible that three Victorian spinsters living in isolation on the Yorkshire moors could have written some of the most powerful and passionate fiction of all time?"
There are no straightforward answers to such a question, but we may begin by looking to Patrick Bronte. The father of the famous trio, Patrick, was an evangelical minister, providing the Bronte sisters with a traditional Christian upbringing. Early critics, who were shocked by the supposed amorality of the books, struggled to accept that they had been written by the daughters of a clergyman. However, Patrick instilled in Anne, Emily and Charlotte an awareness of the spiritual aspect of life, something that became crucial to their thinking. Each of them grappled with religion — and, in particular, heaven and hell — in their souls and their writing.
Their faith was never a simple affair. The sisters struggled to relate the Christian doctrines which they knew to the world around them, which was full of suffering and pain. Charlotte and Anne both suffered serious spiritual crises during their teenage years, and Emily increasingly withdrew from conventional Christianity, eventually pledging allegiance to a fiercely personal "God within her breast".
For three sisters searching for emotional and spiritual fulfilment, the world of stories and dreams seemed to offer an alternative spiritual ideology. They frequently escaped from the harsh realities of their lives into the wild and free terrain of the imagination. In their novels they could dramatise their inner battles: duty meets freedom, temperance meets passion, restraint meets wildness.
Virginia Woolf described Emily’s ambition for Wuthering Heights as a desperate yearning to create coherence from the chaotic outer — and inner — world which she experienced. However, Emily is never able to move beyond the appealing but frustrating linguistic void: "[Wuthering Heights is] a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say […] 'we, the whole human race' and 'you, the eternal powers...'; the sentence remains unfinished".
Emily’s approach is very different to the autobiographical and systematic analysis of religion that we find in Jane Eyre. Instead, Wuthering Heights is a subtle and shadowy exploration of the doctrine of salvation through suffering. By widening the net of her sympathy beyond the individual characters’ emotions, Emily succeeds in writing a universal novel which speaks directly to the heart of our culture. As Philip Hensher wrote in his recent film review: "Wuthering Heights […] seems exactly right for societies contemplating the abyss."
The novel hints that there may be something on the other side of the void: an eternal and unchanging force "underlying the apparitions of human nature". Critics have struggled to identify the force implied by the ellipsis. Surely it stems from Patrick Bronte’s convictions about the reality that exists beyond the physical world. It is this Eternal Power, which he shared with his daughters, that gives the novels their life force and draws readers to return to them again and again.
 No Coward Soul is Mine, Emily Bronte.
 Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, Chapter 14 ‘Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights’.
 Philip Hensher, ‘The Bronte sisters are always our contemporaries’, Telegraph (November 12 2011).