When I first read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), I stayed up all night with a flashlight under the covers in such a fever of reading that I hardly needed to fake sick to stay home from school to finish it. Whether or not Brontë fever is an excusable absence, I’m sure it was time well spent. I did stay home, did finish the book, and started rereading it the second I was done. I was in eighth grade at the time, and I am sure if we were to look back on my dating history we would find Mr. Rochester caused at least as much mischief for me as John Bender, who was probably more of a Heathcliff anyway, in a lightweight Chicago suburbs kind of way. For me, full strength Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847) was another matter entirely. Unlike Rochester, Heathcliff never held sway with me, but I stayed home reading him nonetheless, compelled and disgusted, unable to believe that characters, let alone people, could be so relentlessly awful. It was the first thing I had ever seen in which the victims of abuse were horrible people themselves, which somehow didn’t make any of it any better at all. I had even less need to fake sick to stay home to finish that one, which I did, but I distinctly remember feeling physically nauseated for much of the book. A few years later—around the time I got really into Lou Reed –Wuthering Heights became more of a favorite. But I think it is safe to say that whatever part of the novel most horrified me at age 13—and it gave me a lot to choose from—it was not Heathcliff’s considerable shortcomings as a landlord.
It was not until my first semester of graduate school, when Professor Jeff Nunokawa started class with the pronouncement that “Heathcliff is a very, very bad landlord” that I began to see a whole new side to these novels I thought I knew well. I laughed for a minute, but only a minute, because he was absolutely right, and the novel is hardly subtle about it. Yet despite my fevered readings and re-readings, I had never for one moment considered the economics of Wuthering Heights at all, despite half the novel being devoted to Heathcliff’s vengeance by property acquisition. My lack of attention is not unusual. When early reviewers excoriated Heathcliff as “the presiding evil genius … a creature in whom every evil passion seems to have reached a gigantic excess”; as “epitome of brutality, disavowed by man and devil”—it was not his manipulations of mortgages that drew their censure. The Brontës in our collective readerly minds are not necessarily the Brontës as they actually exist on the pages of these best-loved books—that is to say, these imagined Brontë books are incomplete. As many readers—including many who have never looked at one of their novels—well know, the novels of the Brontës are populated by child ghosts, sadistic boys, mad wives, and stormy lovers. Trees fall, split by lightening. Souls speak to each other. Rebel girls speak truth to power. The spurned and imprisoned wreak their vengeance in flames. Sexuality brims and teems and is repressed. Readers remember Catherine and Heathcliff wild on the ever-present moors surrounding Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s cruel treatment at the hands of her brother, his years of bitterness and rage.
“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord”—the unforgettable Wuthering Heights begins with a sentence almost no one remembers, written by a hapless frame narrator most readers scarcely recall outside of his visit from Catherine’s frigid, pleading ghost. Heathcliff’s first words in the novel are spoken to him, and not as a jealous lover, abused foundling, or vengeful sadist but as a landlord asserting his claim to property. “Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir,” he declares, lest his tenant somehow be confused. Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law Catherine (I advise my students call her Catherine II) also first speaks to clarify her relationship not to people but to property: “They are not mine,” she says bluntly when asked about her plans for some puppies. Soon thereafter when she curses Heathcliff, she curses him specifically as landlord: “I hope his ghost will haunt you; and I hope Mr. Heathcliff will never get another tenant till the Grange is a ruin.” It is apparently a very apt taunt. Before we know anything of Heathcliff’s past, the better-known narrator Nelly Dean is presenting him as compulsively a landlord—when Lockwood asks why Heathcliff prefers to live at Wuthering Heights when his other property is so much nicer, she explains that “if he had meant to flit to Thrushcross Grange, as soon as he heard of a good tenant he could not have borne to miss the chance of getting a few hundreds more.” The novel’s beginning is almost equally obsessed with property relations. Even the original Catherine’s first words, or at least the first words directly attributed to her—“‘Catherine Earnshaw, her book,’” the inscription in the journal the curious tenant sets to reading—identify and lay claim to property.
“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord”—the unforgettable Wuthering Heights begins with a sentence almost no one remembers, written by a hapless frame narrator most readers scarcely recall outside of his visit from Catherine’s frigid, pleading ghost.
Just as most readers remember young Heathcliff and Catherine on the moor, they would associate the book with a different kind of possession entirely, and with good reason. To the young maidservant Nelly Dean, the child Heathcliff appears “possessed of something diabolical” and the household at Wuthering Heights is “infernal”; Heathcliff himself asks the dying Catherine if she is “possessed by a devil” and calls her selfishness “infernal.” Such rhetoric abounds and is repeated in the book’s early reviews, but there is another rhetoric and frame of reference for possession in the novel, and it is explicit. After the death of his former tormentor, Hindley Earnshaw, Nelly is told that Heathcliff “held firm possession” of Wuthering Heights because Hindley “had mortgaged every yard of land he owned for cash…and he, Heathcliff, was the mortgagee.” When he manipulates his daughter-in-law out of Thrushcross Grange, Nelly explains that “Catherine, destitute of cash and friends, cannot disturb his possession.” Possession comes not just by demons, then, but by cash—and Heathcliff “has nobody knows what money, and every year it increases.” In fact, it is in relation to Heathcliff’s shortcomings as landlord that the rhetoric of demonic possession first enters the novel, when Lockwood complains (with reason) that Heathcliff’s dogs have attacked him. In response to Heathcliff’s question “What the devil is the matter,” Lockwood mutters “What the devil indeed!” and insists that “the herd of possessed swine could have had no worse spirits in them than those animals of yours.” Heathcliff hardly seems displeased with this state of affairs, explaining that the dogs would not have bothered him if he had not touched anything—and this is not even the low point of landlord-tenant relations. Here at least he manages to offer a glass of wine. But the rhetoric of demonic possession here crosses with Heathcliff’s enjoyment of power and cruelty and his behavior as owner and landlord.
Wealthy landowner is not how Heathcliff began. He enters the world of the novel with his relation to property clear (he was “houseless”) and his status as property unknown. His benefactor accounts for the presence of the boy he has brought home in place of the promised gifts for his children by explaining he “picked it up and inquired for its owner. Not a soul knew to whom it belonged, he said.” Heathcliff is entirely dispossessed, even of human pronouns. His introduction into the household itself is a matter of economy, as Mr. Earnshaw’s “money and time being both limited, he thought it better to take it home with him at once, than run into vain expenses there.” Far from being an owner, the child Heathcliff lacks even the status of being owned. This passage as well as the book’s many references to Heathcliff’s dark complexion have led a number of recent interpreters—including a 2011 film version directed by Andrea Arnold—to see Heathcliff as being of African descent and possibly even formerly enslaved. Certainly he labors without compensation throughout his youth at Wuthering Heights. By the time Lockwood meets him, however, ownership has long been Heathcliff’s revenge strategy, and his ownership of all the property in the novel’s world is complete.
The novel gives no information about how Heathcliff came by the wealth he uses to gain ownership of everything in the novel, but the detail of Heathcliff’s financial plotting guarantees that he (and thus his author) somewhere acquired considerable knowledge of property law. Inheritance laws governing farms such as Wuthering Heights were different from laws governing landed estates like the Linton’s Thrushcross Grange. Getting the Heights required only money and patience, because the hereditary owner had become addicted to alcohol and gambling: “Earnshaw had mortgaged every yard of land he owned for cash to supply his mania for gaming; and he, Heathcliff, was the mortgagee.”
Heathcliff’s introduction into the household itself is a matter of economy, as Mr. Earnshaw’s “money and time being both limited, he thought it better to take it home with him at once, than run into vain expenses there.” Far from being an owner, the child Heathcliff lacks even the status of being owned.
Heathcliff can buy and lend his way to ownership of Wuthering Heights without much problem, but he must marry his way into ownership of Thrushcross Grange and then cement his claim by forcing his sickly son (heir to the Grange) to do the same. The novel’s confusion of marriage and financial plots is from the outset seen as “writing on the wall”—of the young Catherine’s room, where she has scrawled alternations among the names Catherine Heathcliff, Catherine Linton, and Catherine Earnshaw. The names speculate on different marriages, both of which could divest “Catherine Earnshaw” of her possessions because in the absence of special arrangements (settlements) made before the marriage, a married woman had no money or property of her own. When in a key scene much later in the novel, this Catherine announces her intention to marry Edgar Linton rather than Heathcliff, explaining she does so in part because she would then have the means to free Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Nelly wisely interjects in disbelief “with your husband’s money!” The realities of property relations in marriage seem not to have occurred to Catherine. Certainly no settlements were made on Linton’s mother, because they had eloped and by doing so immediately and permanently transferred all of her belongings to Heathcliff. The claim on the family estate would not be so transferrable—the elder Mr. Linton, we are told, had settled the estate on his daughter in the event of the death of his son, but on her death, it would go to her son and not to her husband. But in terms of the law, when this son whines that all his wife’s things already belong to him—“It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine”—he is absolutely right, and when she offers all of her belongings in exchange for the key to her room, he is correct to tell her “she had nothing to give, they were all, all mine.” This would not, however, necessarily be true of the family estate in the case of his son’s death. Heathcliff understands that, and so coerces his dying son to write a will leaving everything to him.
This coerced marriage between Heathcliff’s son and his great love’s namesake combined with the likely invalidity of a minor’s will constitutes a doubly dubious claim to property. As the narrator Nelly Dean interjects—‘Let him dare to force you,’ I cried. ‘There’s law in the land, thank God! there is; though we be in an out-of-the-way place. I’d inform if he were my own son: and it’s felony without benefit of clergy!’—and as at least one early reviewer remarks, the law did not recognize forced marriages and further required any marriage to take place in a church. This is where money—cash, as the novel twice calls it—enters into these complex laws and marital arrangements—and trumps them. Money would have been necessary to hire a lawyer to challenge Heathcliff’s claims, and at this point, Heathcliff has used his own money to gain both the Earnshaw property and to buy the loyalty of the local attorneys while his victim is “destitute of cash and friends” and “cannot disturb his possession.” Heathcliff’s money trumps just as his devilish nature and sadism trumps all—until he gets bored with owning things and abusing people. Heathcliff’s tenure as landlord ends only when he dies (arguably by a kind of possession by Catherine’s ghost), his calm grave leaving Nelly Dean to “hope its tenant sleeps as soundly.”
Now. Earlier, when I referred to a collective readerly imagination, I was talking about readers such as I was at 13 and as I remained for the next decade before graduate school rather than readers such as I am now. Economic and political readings of these novels in my line of work are commonplace, but many of these rely on complex restorations of historical contexts that are not available to the readers that still form the vast majority of the book’s audience. But I would not have needed any research to see the book’s focus on the relationship between property, money, and sadism—the book literally starts and finishes by associating these issues. Disturbingly, the greatest testament to Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is that he does not use his wealth or physical strength to torture and control her as he uses it on everyone else. But consistently, Wuthering Heights depicts a world in which property and money are controlled by men, who will use them as they will use any physical advantage not only as a means to manipulate and govern but to actively torture those with less of either, whether children or women. When physical advantage fails—as in the case with the almost freakishly weak Edgar Linton—property will do just as well. Years after my fevered reading and in the throes of an abusive marriage, I sometimes cursed my girlhood reading for romanticizing the likes of Heathcliff and Rochester, but to be fair, the warnings were there from the outset if I had read a little differently.
Disturbingly, the greatest testament to Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is that he does not use his wealth or physical strength to torture and control her as he uses it on everyone else. But consistently, Wuthering Heights depicts a world in which property and money are controlled by men, who will use them as they will use any physical advantage not only as a means to manipulate and govern but to actively torture those with less of either, whether children or women.
Money works a little differently in Jane Eyre, in which the economic plot was immediately apparent even to eighth-grade me, because Jane has no money, and she is a child. Unlike anyone in Wuthering Heights other than Nelly Dean, furthermore, Jane is seen to work for money rather than solely for her “keep,” and the terms of employment are explicit in a way Nelly’s never are. Like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre does begin—if not quite so immediately—with assertions of ownership and the lack thereof: “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us … Now, I’ll teach you to rummage my bookshelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years.” As in Wuthering Heights, a sadistic boy makes the ownership of books crystal clear—but here, so too is the money trail. Jane develops a faith that money can be earned but also that her status as dependent without earning or property is less than that of a servant. The first detailed depiction of earning power, however, describes Jane’s wealthy cousin Eliza’s capitalist schemes—she kept chickens and sold the eggs to her mothers housekeeper: “She had a turn for traffic, and a marked propensity for saving; shown not only in the vending of eggs and chickens, but also in driving hard bargains with the gardener about flower-roots, seeds, and slips of plants.” The game is rigged, however—the gardener is compelled by his employer Eliza’s mother to buy whatever her daughter sells and “Eliza would have sold the hair off her head if she could have made a handsome profit thereby.” Like Heathcliff, she is a compulsive earner and “as to her money, she first secreted it in odd corners, wrapped in a rag or an old curl-paper” until she keeps it with her mother, whom she charges “a usurious rate of interest—fifty or sixty per cent.” Eliza works hard, but she is as we say starting from at least third base. Capitalism advantages those who are advantaged already.
A similar wealth of financial detail characterize the novel’s treatment of economic arrangements at the charity school Jane attends as well as the terms of her future employment. Lowood tuition is “fifteen pounds per year,” which is not enough to fund each student, so the rest must be filled by subscription. And yet it is a scandal, in the end, how little is spent on the girls, who are terribly hungry—neither transparency nor the promise of charity is enough to protect vulnerable children from the economic and religious sadism of the school’s principal. The cruel mistreatment of the girls at Lowood is emphatically a part of the Brontës of our imagination, but not the details of the 15 pounds’ tuition. Later, the means by which Jane must search for employment—a “new servitude,” she calls it—comes to her by means of some strange internal revelatory voice which nonetheless advises her in great detail about advertising for a position: “You must enclose the advertisement and the money to pay for it under a cover directed to the editor of the Herald,” which she does and is offered a post for which the “salary is thirty pounds per annum”—which we also know to be double Jane’s current earnings.
Such financial detail does not always enter into Jane’s dealings with her employer Mr. Rochester, but the fact that he is her employer never fades—at least not for her. And, if he forgets the fact that he pays her salary, he is perfectly content to use this fact to coerce her to do his bidding. The financial precision returns “with interest” when it comes time for Jane to leave this position to visit her ailing aunt. Rochester then asks “how much have you in the world, Jane” and he “chuckled” over her response of 5 shillings “as if its scantiness amused him.” He then tries to pay Jane 50 pounds, but she insists he owes her only 15 and has no change. He protests he does not want the change “of course,” but she will not accept more than is owed her, at which point he considers that he might be better off giving her less because she might “stay away three months” with 50 pounds, and so he offers 10. She insists again she is owed the fifteen. When she mentions looking for another position, he wants to take all the money back, claiming suddenly that “he has a use for it.” She refuses. “Not five shillings, sir; nor five pence.” “Just let me look at the cash.” “No, sir; you are not to be trusted.” Little does she know, of course. Rochester’s immediate instinct is to use money as a means of control and influence, while Jane insists on the exchange of money for labor, not for love, influence, loyalty, or other control beyond the agreed upon services. Later, before their intended marriage, when Rochester tries to shower Jane with lavish gifts, she declares that even after their marriage she will stay on as governess and earn her 30 pounds a year, from which she will supply her clothing.
Like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre does begin—if not quite so immediately—with assertions of ownership and the lack thereof: “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg …
Jane’s resoluteness at not confusing the emotional with the financial contrasted with Rochester’s clear desire to do so, is more likely to enter into the “Brontës of our imagination”—both because his attempts at control and manipulation are ultimately thwarted by her will and because of the quality of their banter about it, a stage on which she can hold her own as an equal. She desperately wants the relationship of equality she claims in their stormy love scene, and by earning, even if less, she feels she has a shot at it. The tragedy of the romance of female employment the novel seems to present, however, is that she has no shot. Rochester controls every source of power, including knowledge, and tries to use all of them to manipulating Jane into giving up one of her sole sources of employability—her reputation (a concubine would not be employed as a teacher). Jane must discover family and inheritance and Rochester suffer the loss of his property, vision, and arm—a clear symbolic castration—to render their material status equal to the spiritual status Jane claims. It is an outcome more fantastic than an imprisoned mad wife or moorland ghosts, frankly. Today I choose to see it as Charlotte Brontë’s acknowledgement that the happy ending her genre and likely her heart wants is the realm of pure fiction, and reality would take a great deal more time to catch up. I wish in my younger days, I had paid a bit better attention to the economic details my favorite authors were at such pains to provide, and recollected them a little more before I entered into the binding financial and civic arrangement we prefer to pretend is a matter only of true love.