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LeGard (2000) UoS
Domestic Disaffection and the Social Order in Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw
"'We'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!"' (Brontë, 1992, p.136)
The children in Wuthering Heights (1847), declares Wade Thompson, ‘are left to fend for themselves early in life without the love and protection of their mothers', and, as a consequence, he continues, they 'find themselves in a fierce struggle for survival against actively hostile adults who seem obsessed with the desire to kill or maim them' (1968, p.95). Certainly, Thompson's assertion may, with equal veracity, refer to the wretched situation of the children in The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the absence of the mother proves significant in both novels. Catherine Earnshaw is approaching her eighth year when her mother dies; Cathy Linton's birth coincides with her mother's death; Hareton's mother, Frances, dies in the year of his birth; Linton Heathcliff's mother dies when he is twelve; and Flora, Heathcliff, and Miles are orphaned at the ages of six, seven, and eight respectively. The atmosphere of the Heights is dominated by suffering, and the nature of this misery is initially fomented by Mr Earnshaw. Speaking of the Victorian father-figure, the historian J.F.C. Harrison states that '[t]here could be little doubt about his authority over all other members - wife, children, servants - for his effective economic control was backed up by legal sanctions' (1988, p.116). Thus, the social order is established as Mr Earnshaw, who had 'always been strict and grave' with the children (p.29), presides over his household with comprehensive autonomy, and subsequently abuses his legally sanctioned authority. When the six-year-old Catherine spits at Heathcliff, she earns '"for her pains a sound blow from her father to teach her cleaner manners"' (p.26). Further, Heathcliff, who '"would stand Hindley's blows without winking or shedding a tear"' (ibid.), threatens Hindley with Mr Earnshaw's wrath: '"if I speak of these blows, you'll get them again with interest"' (p.27). Certainly, the ailing Mr Earnshaw, conscious of his enervating dominance, is antagonized by meaningless incidents, and '"suspected slights of his authority nearly threw him into fits"' (p.28). Indeed, the significance of the Victorian father-figure's declining authority is exemplified as, incensed by '"Hindley's manifestations of scorn"', Mr Earnshaw '"seized his stick to strike him, and shook with rage that he could not do it"' (p.28). The cruel, violent, and motherless atmosphere within which the Earnshaw children are reared is comparable to the wilful neglect of Flora and Miles by their uncle, the 'pleasant' and 'kind' (p.11) gentleman of Harley street. Bly's prevailing milieu is suggestive of a threatening and portentous evil, as the children's uncle abdicates the responsibility of his guardianship. Edel observes that the governess's attraction to the master 'prevents her from recognizing how callous he is towards the orphaned children. In effect, he washes his hands of them' (1969, p.193). Indeed, although the master has 'for his town residence a big house filled with the spoils of travel' (p.11), he insensitively exiles his nephew and niece to his country home in
Essex. This act seems excessively cruel if, in accordance with Millicent Bell, one is 'tempted to believe that Miles and Flora are the Master's own children' (1993, p.102). Certainly, the uncle's claim that he 'pitied the poor chicks and had done all he could' (p.12) appears inconsistent when considered alongside his principal condition: 'That she [the governess] should never trouble him - but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything [...] take the whole thing over and let him alone' (p.13). The master's indifference towards his charges is exemplified further when the governess receives a letter, 'composed but of a few words' (p.19), from her employer: '"This, I recognize, is from the head-master, and the head-master's an awful bore. Read him, please; deal with him; but mind you don't report. Not a word. I'm off!"' (ibid.) Thus, Flora and Miles experience a succession of guardians - Miss Jessel, Mrs Grose, 'a nursemaid who had stayed on' (p.22), the governess, and most significantly, Peter Quint who was '"much too free"' (p.40) - and, as a consequence of their uncle's abandonment of his responsibilities, are portrayed as openly vulnerable to evil influence and corruption. Certainly, as 'a bachelor in the prime of life' (p.11), the master appears unconcerned with regard to his wards' welfare, and, because of his absence, his estate falls under the spell of evil forces willing to desecrate, possess, and destroy (Moon, 1982, p.22). Early critics of Wuthering Heights endeavoured to attribute domestic violence to the lower classes. Indeed, the Britannia (1848) writes: 'The uncultured freedom of native character [...] knows nothing of those breakwaters to the fury of tempest which civilized training establishes to subdue the harsher workings of the soul' (Allott, 1974, p.223). Similarly, in the Preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë seeks to assure the reader that they share no similarities with the novel's characters: Men and women who [...] have been trained from their cradle to observe the utmost evenness of manner and guardedness of language, will hardly know what to make of the rough, strong utterance, the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled aversions, and headlong partialities of unlettered moorland hinds and rugged moorland squires (Brontë, 1978, p.XXXII). However, both Emily Brontë and Henry James intentionally locate cruelty and brutality within civilized families. The Heights is described as '"a respectable house: the next best in the neighbourhood"' (p.149). Similarly, Bly is represented as a 'healthy and secure' establishment, peopled by 'thoroughly respectable' servants (p.12). Certainly, Heathcliff's initial impression of the Linton household is one of awe: '"ah! it was beautiful - a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold"' (p.33). The superficial façade of Thrushcross Grange, however, merely conceals the undercurrents of savagery evident within the Linton family. Q. D. Leavis avers that Brontë's intention is to 'stress the aspect of her theme represented by the corruption of the child's native goodness by Society' (1969, p.30). Indeed, Edgar and Isabella are depicted as egocentric and obdurate as they quarrel over a lap dog which '"they had nearly pulled in two between them"' (p.33). The account given by Heathcliff, therefore, represents the torments suffered by the children as they are reared for ingression into the world of class, religion and social intercourse. Thus, the 'broken-in' Linton children are perceived by Heathcliff, the 'Noble Savage whose natural good instincts have not been destroyed like theirs' (Leavis, 1969, p.30). John Fraser asserts that it is dangerously sentimental 'to disregard or excuse the wicked [...] actions of the characters [of Wuthering Heights] by concentrating on their pasts' (1965, p.225). Certainly, Fraser's point is a valid one, and the question of self-responsibility concerning the children once they attain adulthood poses problems. That said, his is not a
completely convincing argument. A true consequence of Mr Earnshaw's tyranny is the children's realization that the social order, and the power it bestows upon the paterfamilias, legitimizes violence and justifies despotism. Initially, Hindley, who 'had learnt to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend' (p.26), routinely inflicts violence upon Heathcliff. Following the death of Mr Earnshaw, however, Heathcliff experiences an escalation of abuse, as Hindley ascends to the position of paterfamilias. Indeed, threatening Nelly with murder, Hindley declares: '"No law in England can hinder a man from keeping his house decent"' (p.52). Heathcliff 'complained so seldom', asserts Nelly Dean, 'that I really thought him not vindictive' (p.28). However, upon his return - significantly, as a gentleman - he proceeds to exact his terrible revenge for his former contemptible miseries, and this bears out N. M. Jacobs's assertion that Heathcliff never reciprocates Hindley's violence 'until he himself has gained the legal and economic status of paterfamilias' (1986, p.79). In accordance with Mr Earnshaw's example, Heathcliff employs his authority in a manner, which is justifiable by Victorian society. Upon imprisoning Isabella at the Heights, he proclaims: '"No; you're not fit to be your own guardian, Isabella, now; and I, being your legal protector, must retain you in my custody"' (p.111). Moreover, when Cathy defies Heathcliff, he strikes her with sufficient force 'to have fulfilled his threat, had she been able to fall' (p.196), and declares: '"I know how to chastise children, you see"' (p.197). Heathcliff's intent to utilize the law to its full extent is made clear. Speaking of Linton and Cathy he says: '"Had I been born where laws are less strict [...] I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening's amusement"' (p.196). Further, Heathcliff influences his son, Linton: '"Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn't hers! It's mine: papa says everything she has is mine"' (p.203). Thus, the natural good instincts and harmony of Heathcliff's nature are by degrees eroded, and so 'the tortured victim becomes in his turn the agent of torture' (McKibben, 1960, p.160). The filial influence exerted upon the Linton children is clearly depicted as Heathcliff, apprehended at Thrushcross Grange, is subjected to Mr Linton's class consciousness: '"the villain scowls so plainly in his face; would it not be a kindness to the country to hang him at once, before he shows his nature in acts as well as features?"' (p.34) Thus, Isabella, in imitation of her father, proclaims: '"Frightful thing! Put him in the cellar, papa"' (p.34). The parents of Isabella and Edgar Linton, writes Elliott B. Gose, give their children too much and keep them at the level of dependent babies (1967, p.19). Certainly, Edgar is weak, undemanding, and non-violent. However, he is equally prepared to assert control over his household. Learning of Isabella's marriage and subsequent misery, Edgar disinherits his sister and refuses to offer her assistance: '"we are eternally divided; and should she really wish to oblige me, let her persuade the villain she has married to leave the country"' (p.106). Isabella, therefore, in defying the wishes of the paterfamilias is no longer his concern: '"Trouble me no more about her. Hereafter she is only my sister in name"' (p.97). The presence and significance of the master and absence of the mother are firmly established in Wuthering Heights. The social observation of The Turn of the Screw, however, concerns the absence of the mother and the master, which consequently results in a disrupted social order. That there is an illicit sexual relation between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint seems certain, and the suggested affair indicates the initial sign of the irregular social order. The governess's predecessor 'was a most respectable person' (p.12), and thus, the embodiment of respectability is seduced by Quint, who is '"never - no, never! - a gentleman"' (p.36). Dispatched by her employer to Bly, the governess exercises 'supreme authority' (p.12) over the children and the servants, and finds herself in a position unfamiliar to Victorian women.
The governess's authorial status, therefore, is further evidence of the disruption within the social order. Perceived by the governess, atop the crenellated Gothic tower in absolute possession of Bly, Peter Quint is clearly a representative of the lower classes. Indeed, his social status is indicated by his physiognomy: '"He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight, good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair"' (p.36). 'Most nineteenth-century novelists', writes Graeme Tytler, 'are concerned, like their predecessors, almost entirely with the color of the hair' (1982, p.213). Indeed, another corrupter of a small boy is Dickens's Fagin, the 'very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair' (Dickens, 1994, p.71). Thus, Quint's identifying features indicate his social class, and sum up his 'familiarity with the socially and morally unacceptable' (Moon, 1982, p.24). As opposed to the view proposed by Edmund Wilson - that the governess is the significant protagonist of the tale, the centre of interest in The Turn of the Screw focuses upon 'a couple of small children in an out-of-the-way place, to whom the spirits of certain "bad" servants [...] appeared with the design of "getting hold" of them' (James, 1908, p.118). Although the reader is not explicitly informed as to the nature of the children's corruption, an erotic relationship if not in deed, then certainly in discourse - between the servants and the children is implied although to construct an interpretation of the entire story upon this is perhaps too rationalistic to accord with the full depth of the conveyed horror. Nevertheless, learning of Quint's 'secret disorders, vices more than suspected' (p.42), and of his being '"too free"' (p.40), the governess experiences 'a sudden sickness of disgust' (p.40). That the children's corruption is sexual in nature is arguably borne out by James's statement that the apparitions should be capable of 'exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims so conditioned might be conceived as subject to' (1908, p.123). Certainly, Victorian youngsters were "conditioned" into an ignorance concerning sex, which was 'unmentionable in the early Victorian home' (Harrison, 1988, p.119). Furthermore, their questions upon the subject 'were turned aside, so that they grew up puzzled, ignorant and resentful’ (ibid.). The disastrous consequence of the children's exposure to the servants, therefore, is to induce in them a desire for more sexual knowledge. 'And it is this craving', writes Dorothea Krook, 'for the illicit, the forbidden, in sexual knowledge with which Quint and Miss Jessel had infected the children that would give them their hold over them' (1967, p.114). Indeed, once the servants gain their "hold" over the children, Flora and Miles display their terrible duplicity, as they hold communion with the apparitions, and lie to the governess whilst maintaining the appearance of innocence. Akin to Heathcliff, Flora and Miles are not born with the inherent corrupt element. Rather, they acquire it via adult influence and example. The miserable existence imposed upon the children in Wuthering Heights degenerates into excessive cruelty with the births of Hareton, Cathy, and Linton. Hareton Earnshaw lives in constant peril from his father: '"Damn thee, kiss me! By God, as if I would rear such a monster! As sure as I'm living, I'll break the brat's neck"' (p.52). Heathcliff inadvertently rescues Hareton, and 'had it been dark [...] he would have tried to remedy the mistake by smashing Hareton's skull on the steps' (p.53). Victorian children, asserts Harrison, 'were expected to subordinate themselves to their parents' (1988, p.116). Indeed, Heathcliff perpetually refers to Linton as his property: '"You've brought it, have you? Let us see what we can make of it"' (p.150). Similarly, following the death of Hindley, Heathcliff declares to Hareton: '"Now, my bonny lad, you are mine!"' (p.136) Like Flora and Miles, Cathy and Hareton are continually neglected by their legal guardians. Upon her birth, Catherine's
daughter 'might have wailed out of life, and nobody cared a morsel' (p.119). Cathy is regularly committed ‘to a servant's care' (p.125), the child Hareton falls wholly into the hands of Nelly Dean, and Edgar's attachment to his daughter 'sprang from its relation to her, far more than from its being his own' (p.134). Almost inevitably, the cruelty and neglect suffered by the children of Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw culminates in murder. Linton is 'slowly tortured to death by his father, whose desire to kill him is overwhelming' (Thompson, 1968, p.96), and, at the conclusion of James's 'wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale' (Gard, 1968, p.277), Miles's 'little heart, dispossessed, had stopped' (p.121). Bibliographic References Allott, Miriam (1961) 'Mrs. Gaskell's "the old nurse's story": a link between "wuthering heights" and "the turn of the screw"', Notes and Queries, 8, pp.101-102. Allott, Miriam (ed.) (1974) The Brontës: the critical heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Aswell, Duncan, E. (1968) 'Reflections of a governess: image and distortion in the turn of the screw', Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 23, pp.49-63. Banerjee, Jacqueline, P. (1984) 'Ambivalence and contradictions: the child in Victorian fiction', English Studies, 63, pp.481-494. Banerjee, Jacqueline, P. (1997) 'The legacy of Anne Brontë in Henry James's the turn of the screw', English Studies, 78, pp.532-544. Beidler, Peter, G. (ed.) (1995) Case studies in contemporary criticism: Henry James, the turn of the screw. Boston: Bedford Books of St Martin's Press. Bell, Millicent (1993) 'Class, sex, and the Victorian governess: James's the turn of the screw'. In: Pollak, Vivian R. (ed.) (1993) New essays on daisy miller and the turn of the screw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Blackburn, Simon (1996) The Oxford dictionary of philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Booth, Wayne, C. (1961) The rhetoric of fiction. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Bradner, Leicester (1933) 'The growth of wuthering heights', Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 48, pp.129-146. Brontë, Emily (1978) Wuthering heights: with selected poems. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. Brontë, Emily (1992) Wuthering heights. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. Broughton, T. & Symes, R. (eds) (1997) The governess: an anthology. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited.
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