Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction 
by John Sutherland.
Oxford, 262 pp., £3.99, June 1996, 9780192825162
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A learned, indeed an erudite little book; but also one that is so absorbing, so readable, so quietly and deftly humorous, that it shows up all the dull pretentiousness of nine-tenths of the stuff that gets written nowadays about Eng. Lit. A fascinating and major paradox is involved; but what would be the point of the author displaying it when a fabulous gathering of fictional puzzles will do it for him? The best critic, like the best novelist, leaves the reader to decide. The paradox remains, however. On the one hand, the novelist must tell the truth, and want to tell nothing else: on the other, he has the irresponsibility of a creator whose fondness for his creatures is no guarantee that he will not kill them or save them at a whim, show them up or let them down. You want a happy ending? Dickens, Hardy and above all Thackeray will oblige, however much with tongue in cheek. Dickens and Hardy will do it, while taking the opportunity, in letters or prefaces or afterthoughts, of making clear that it goes against their artistic consciences. Thackeray will exhibit the absurdity of novel-writing with a shrug and a smile of apparent shamelessness.

You, the reader, may settle your fable-land in your own fashion. Anything you like happens in fable-land. Wicked folks die ... annoying folks are got out of the way ... the hero and heroine happy ever after ... Ah, happy harmless fable-land, where these things are! Friendly reader, may you and the author meet there on some future day! He hopes so; as he yet keeps a lingering hold of your hand, and bids you well with a kind heart.

Overdoing things in that fashion, as Thackeray does at the end of his massive saga-novel The Newcomes, has a certain subtlety of purpose behind it. The reader is made to feel a bit embarrassed and ashamed, as if he were being wheedled in oily tones by the proprietor of a pornography shop, who at the same time impresses on him the fact that, while completely in sympathy with his client’s requirements, he himself, the novelist-pornographer, is above such matters. It’s far more effective, as well as more evidently sincere, than the defence Thackeray made to some intellectual friends of George Eliot, who got at him in his own coin by teasing him about the happy end they would wish for two of his characters. He could only reply: ‘the characters once created lead me, and I follow where they direct.’ Oh yeah?

As Sutherland intriguingly shows, many Victorian endings cause puzzles. Was Becky Sharp a murderer at the end of Vanity Fair? – did she kill Jos Sedley? Thackeray here is being even more smilingly serpentine in the way he deals with his reader. He hints, nudges and winks, encouraging the reader to feel how clever he is not to miss the hints, such as the fact that Becky’s solicitors have the names of well-known murderers. In seeming to blunder by making Becky at the end entirely out of character, as a murderess, Thackeray manages to show that there are some things the little adventuress will not do; but since she has no reputation left everyone, including many of his readers, will be happy to think she might. As Sutherland puts it: ‘Does Becky kill Jos? Of course she doesn’t – but maliciously wagging respectable tongues will never believe otherwise.’ The reader who wants her to be as bad as her reputation is wrongfooted. Respectability is always at a shady premium in Vanity Fair, and by not having any Becky remains her own kind of heroine.

Then what about the puzzle that concludes Villette? Did Paul Emanuel survive the storm and return to marry Lucy Snowe? Or was he drowned? Charlotte Brontë produces a subtle variation on the gross Thackerayan formula. The ‘kind heart’ and ‘sunny imagination’ is allowed to conceive ‘the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror. Let them picture union and happy succeeding life.’ But Lucy Snowe is being her own Thackeray. The end has something of the complex irony which attends that of Wuthering Heights, where the foolishly good-natured narrator Lockwood cannot himself picture unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth. Loneliness and loss have made Lucy Snowe as narrator calm in another sense. Her farewell is uttered years after the event. She knows: does it matter what her reader thinks? It is probably the first instance of the device of a genuine double ending, implicit in the psychological and dramatic circumstance of the narrative itself. Mrs Gaskell was fairly hamfisted about it: ‘the idea of M. Paul Emanuel’s death at sea was stamped on her imagination, till it assumed the distinct force of reality; and she could no more alter her fictitious ending than if they had been facts which she was relating.’ Hamfisted it may be in its assessment of Charlotte’s state of mind as an artist, but it goes to the heart of the matter none the less. The artfulness of the ending lies in its contrasting the sadness of a fact with the consolation of a fiction. What the fiction insists on is that neither Lucy nor her creator can alter the facts. Art gives the double ending a kind of truth which a single one could not have had.

This is worth pondering in relation to the bogus double endings and ‘Do what you wills’ of Post-Modernist fiction, and of an elaborate affair like The French Lieutenant’s Woman. By the time such fictions have set themselves up we couldn’t care less about the fate of their characters, or indeed the outcome of the story itself. ‘Fiction’ has devoured itself. True, what Sutherland calls the ‘epidemic’ of Victorian double endings, all briskly defended by their authors, were in response to the pressures of a new reading public, which could make its wants felt. It wanted respectability, and it wanted happy endings. As Sutherland says, novelists like George Moore and Hardy ‘were enraged by the constraints that Mrs Grundy (alias Mr Mudie, the nursemaid of literature) were imposing on their art and their claims to the privileges of realism’. And yet there is a sense in which writers who were rightly Mr Mudie’s enemies brought in time a kind of nemesis on themselves. Say what you like about the constraints which watched over the Victorian novel, they did at least have the rather mysterious effect of making readers believe what the novel was telling them. They were a paradoxical index of seriousness: the absorption in the story of the novel’s reader, and the diplomatic but none the less wholehearted dedication of its writer. The more emancipated the novelist, and the freer he is of social and sexual constraints, the less seriously the form comes to be taken by its equally emancipated readers.

The involuntary connection of seriousness with strict convention where the novel form is concerned is shown by novels as different as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Portrait of a Lady. The ‘puzzle’ in the former concerns, for Sutherland, the question of whether Alec D’Urberville is to be regarded technically as a rapist. Was Tess raped, or was she seduced? Sutherland, taking this as an important legal question, inclines to the view that Tess must herself in the end be considered more guilty of murder than Alec is of rape. Writing in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1892, in a review more or less contemporary with the novel, Mrs Oliphant took the same view. But in 1968 Tony Tanner took both social injustice and Sophoclean irony for granted, observing that ‘she who is raped lives to be hanged.’ Sutherland makes the permissible retort that she who was seduced in 1892 has become she who is raped in the permissive Sixties. It could be argued, however, that it is part of Hardy’s unconscious technique in presenting Tess to shy away from both the idea of rape and the idea of seduction. In the latter case her purity would be impugned: in the former the dream image he has of her would be compromised by brutal rather than pathetic association. For Tess leads her multiple existence entirely in Hardy’s imagination, and the remarkable achievement of the book, which infuriated a neo-realist like George Moore, was Hardy’s power to install her in his readers’ sensibilities, too – effectively, neither raped nor seduced.

The query raised by the ending of The Portrait of a Lady is, as Sutherland rightly contends, not a query at all. Was Isabel Archer’s loyal suitor, Caspar Goodwood, left by the last words of the novel with any hope that she might turn to him in time, and abandon her husband, the repellent Osmond? No, he was not. And the ending congests, both lightly and weightily, all the seriousness of the novel, all its moral point. But that seriousness would run the risk, like all too much straight seriousness in novels (George Eliot’s, for example), of being merely tiresome, if the ending of James’s story had been other than it is. Its fascination was recognised, and absurdly misunderstood, by the well-known and influential critic R.H. Hutton in his review in the Spectator of November 1881. He praised the novel highly, but abominated what he regarded as James’s open hint that his ‘ideal lady’ saw, at the end, ‘a straight path’ to a liaison with her rejected lover. Henrietta Stackpole has demonstrated all the banality of common sense by taking his arm and saying, ‘Look here, Mr Goodwood, just you wait!’ – which are almost the last words of the original novel. The reader may feel that the brash female journalist is privy to some secret intention on Isabel’s part: but James’s own artistic purpose – a sufficiently clear if subtle one – is to underline the vulgarly simple point she is making. There is of course no other possibility for James’s own ‘ideal lady’ than to know her fate and see it through to the end. As for her admirer, he is young, and time will do its trick. He will not pine after Isabel for ever, and if he does it will make no difference to the decision she has made.

Hutton had done worse work than most critics of a novel can boast of, however, and Sutherland’s chapter is well called ‘R.H. Hutton’s Spoiling Hand’. The living seriousness of the 19th-century novel was underlined by the consequence, for, in some distress of mind, James brooded on the matter and finally, in 1908, he added a final paragraph which loses the moving subtlety of the early version and adds nothing but the needless certainty that Caspar Goodwood has, where Isabel is concerned, nothing to wait for. It is a fetching example of James’s late style: Henrietta ‘stood shining at him with that cheap comfort’ – having told him he is still young – ‘and it added on the spot, thirty years to his life’. Caspar Goodwood, we feel, will join – has already joined – the ranks of those doomed Jamesian bachelors whose destiny is to live out a dignified and somehow aesthetically noble life of selfless earning, toiling and non-living.

The titular question – ‘Is Heathcliff a murderer?’ – turns out something of an anti-climax. Heathcliff certainly brings about Hindley’s death by encouraging – almost forcing – a man already an alcoholic to drink himself into a coma. Perhaps he also stands by while Hindley chokes on his own vomit? Perhaps he stifles him? The interest here lies not so much in what happened as in how the author saw Heathcliff, and how the novel expects that the reader should see him. And here we are very much in the dark: not for nothing has Ian Jack, its meticulous editor, noted that ‘Wuthering Heights is one of the most enigmatic of English novels.’ Much depends on how Emily Brontë imagined her hero, as well as very skilfully creating him, and covering her authorial tracks. I would say that as a young woman she had daydreams about herself as a male vessel of roughness and violence, no doubt in contrast to what was expected of women at the place and time. Daydreams are in the head, and so is Heathcliff, which is the novel’s chief weakness; for the more often one reads it the less one believes either in Heathcliff’s ‘real’ wickedness or in the deathless ‘passion’ of the lovers, which has promoted so many sentimental films. What one admires more and more, on the other hand, is Emily’s skill at disciplining her daydreams into a superb plot, and thumbing her nose invisibly at the domesticated ‘little me’ outpourings of her sister Charlotte. Being in the head, daydreams of passion can be purely abstract; but there is no doubt of Emily’s daydream feelings being those of Heathcliff himself, murderous and destructive as they seem to be. In a sense of course Heathcliff himself is no more than the old Byronic hero with his ‘one virtue and a thousand crimes’, the one virtue being his ‘undying’ passion for Cathy, his alter ego.

There would be grounds for saying that Wuthering Heights is not only the most enigmatic but also the most misunderstood of Victorian novels. Its Gothic features have been so intelligently domesticated, so ironised through the media of innocent Mr Lockwood and the shrewd servant Nelly, that the reader is apt to be distracted from the wanton, irresponsible violence – and revelry in violence – in which Heathcliff and his author have colluded. Heathcliff expresses a seething cauldron of black humour at someone’s expense – and whose if not the constricting world in which Emily lived, and from which her brother broke out? The spiritualising of Heathcliff’s ‘love’, no more in itself than a necessary mechanism of the brilliant Gothic adaptation, took in all Emily’s fans, especially the male ones, and was tartly put in its place by – of all people – Ivy Compton-Burnett, for whom the novel had ‘received a great deal more than its fair share’ of adulation and reverence. It is impossible to imagine Emily writing prefaces as Charlotte did, but had she done so she might have made the same claim and with a lot more secret point and pungency – that her novel was as ‘unromantic as a Monday morning’.

Puzzles like these go to the heart of a novel and its author – to its viscera too perhaps in the case of Mary Shelley and her monster, which may have produced misunderstandings akin to those of Wuthering Heights. Frankenstein’s monster, as Sutherland brilliantly implies, was at once and blandly taken over by the male science fantasy establishment, with Mary Shelley’s connivance in a sense, for her doctor scientist is of course a male. And yet the creation of the monster is essentially one of the horrors of birth, as young Mary, whose mother had died giving birth to her, and who was pregnant with a third foetus as she wrote Frankenstein, may have come to conceive it. As Ellen Moers suggested, birth might well have seemed sometimes to Mary the process of ‘filthy creation’ that it became for Frankenstein: something disgusting in itself and the cause of endless trouble. The more purely masculine business of electricity and engineering, on which all the many Frankenstein films have been based, came later.

Sutherland must, one suspects, be the first critic to notice in print what poor Hetty, in Adam Bede, is waiting for, although the point may have been unconsciously taken by many if not all George Eliot’s female readers. Pregnant by Donnithorne while betrothed to the virtuous Adam, Hetty in her great dread ‘had waited and waited in the blind vague hope that something would happen to set her free from her terror’. The vocabulary is that of the Gothic damsel in distress, but the meaning is indeed as domestic and as unromantic as Monday morning. Hardy is similarly explicit/inexplicit in Jude the Obscure. At a memorable moment of the novel the earthy Arabella flings at the hero a ‘piece of flesh, the characteristic part of a barrow-pig’. Periphrasis here merely heightens the reader’s knowledge of what has taken place, and exaggerates its significance, already considerable for Jude, who grasps ‘that it had been no vestal who chose that missile for opening her attack on him’. But the sleuth critic Sutherland admirably persists in asking what exactly it is that Arabella does throw, and thus reveals the full rural complications of Hardy’s hidden irony. Kate Millett in Sexual Politics says it’s a scrotum, implying a pig’s full sexual apparatus. But a castrated barrow-pig has no scrotum, only a sexually dysfunctional penis, ‘useless for any other purpose’ than to grease a countryman’s boots. In country matters poor Jude might be considered just as useless and dysfunctional. But Hardy is much too good an artist to give the reader nothing but such a brutally ironic realism. What we should add to the down-to-earth picture, surely, is the wonderful symbol which he sets against it: that of the sudden dawning for Jude of ‘fresh wild pleasure’ – the pleasure of a sexual awakening – coming after the fall of a candle that has blotted out the lifeless inscription on a tomb. Jude is perfectly capable of his moment of sexual realisation and joy, however ill-starred it may turn out to be.

So the puzzle-illuminations continue in this absorbing little critical study, the author always leaving the reader, in the last instance, to make up his own mind. Almost the last of them is the gripping question of why H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man doesn’t take the trouble to make himself a suit of invisible clothes. This must have occurred to every reader of Wells’s brief and powerful fantasy; and the answer of course has got to be that if he had clothes he would be much more boringly successful than he is, and all the Gulliver’s Travels-type grotesque episodes – the London mud that reveals his ankles, the curious dog, the cold weather that drives him shivering into a lair behind the carpets in a huge department store – would not have held us spellbound. But there is a metaphysical reason too, which makes Wells’s tale much more than a science fiction. The invisible man is naked and alone in a heartless society. Nobody marks him or cares about him; and all he has left at the end is his own personal delusion of difference and solitary power.

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