Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2010
'Wuthering Heights stands alone as a monument of intensity owing nothing to tradition, nothing to the achievement of earlier writers. It was a thing apart, passionate, unforgettable, haunting in its grimness.' Thus the eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1911. The sense that Emily Brontë's one surviving novel is quite unlike any other has been a persistent one. (She is the only writer in this volume with just one work of fiction to her name.) 'A kind of “sport”', F. R. Leavis famously called it. 'In an age in which the realist novel seems both to come out of and to return to the ordinary life external to it, Wuthering Heights on the contrary represents something separate in itself, with its own geography, biology, and virtually untranslatable mythology', writes Philip Davis, in his volume on the Victorians for the Oxford English Literary History (2002). Even those closest to Emily Brontë seem to have shared this sense. In her Preface to the second, posthumous edition of the novel, Charlotte Brontë set out to defend it to a reading public that she feared would find it a 'rude and strange production' by giving some account of the author's life and also of 'the locality where the scenes of the story are laid'. But in the end she offered less an explanation than a powerful contribution to the myth of Emily Brontë as an inscrutable genius whose extraordinary achievement was more baffling than intelligible. In the two final paragraphs of that Preface, reprinted in all subsequent editions, she developed an image that was to influence generations of readers, of Wuthering Heights as 'wrought . . . from no model', 'colossal, dark, and frowning, half statue, half rock' (370-1) - more like a natural object than accomplished work of art.