I wrote about Wuthering Heights almost two years ago, in my third Talk about books post, “Reading Wuthering Heights with aphantasia”. I said at the time that I’d like to return to the question of

… Nelly Dean’s actions and omissions, and her sometimes defensive attitude when explaining herself to Lockwood and others. Some commentators have seen this as reflecting on her “character”, but I prefer to see it as resulting from her (arguably ambiguous, and precarious) class position. I’d like to write about socioeconomic class, and socioeconomic forces generally, in the novel.

In the two years since then, I’ve become a little less interested in the questions of class and socioeconomic forces in the novel, but I’d still like to attempt a closer look at Nelly Dean’s role. She is the main first-person narrator, her tale being framed by the narrative of Lockwood, who has taken a year’s tenancy of Thrushcross Grange. Lockwood persuades her to alleviate the boredom of his convalescence by telling him the story of events over the previous quarter-century, explaining how Heathcliff became both the owner of Wuthering Heights and Lockwood’s landlord, and why the apparently wealthy misanthrope chooses to live in the meaner dwelling, in a state of mutual detestation with his widowed daughter-in-law. The other members of that ill assorted household are a housekeeper (too recently employed to be familiar with the history), an uneducated and bad tempered young man who is not related to either Heathcliff or the widow, and an aged, censorious servant.

The uncouth young man shares his name, Hareton Earnshaw, with the original owner/builder of Wuthering Heights. The present Hareton is the son of Hindley Earnshaw, the previous owner of Wuthering Heights, who died at the age of 27 in overwhelming debt, following which Heathcliff came into possession of Wuthering Heights as Hindley’s mortgagee.

Nelly first came to Wuthering Heights when her mother nursed young Hindley, and she “got used to playing with the children” (p. 34; Vol 1, Ch iv). She retains an affection for Hindley after he falls into a dissolute life of drinking and gambling following the death of his wife, Frances, and in pite of his neglect of his son. After Frances’s death, Nelly takes over the task of looking after Hareton, “my first bonny little nursling” (p. 63; Vol 1, Ch viii). She takes precautions to prevent his drunken father from killing or injuring him:

I went to hide little Hareton, and to take the shot out of his master’s fowling-piece, which he was fond of playing with in his insane excitement, to the hazard of the lives of any who provoked, or even attracted his notice too much; and I had hit upon the plan of removing it, that he might do less mischief, if he did go the length of firing the gun. (p. 72; Vol 1, Ch viii)

Nelly serves a succession of “masters”, starting with old Mr Earnshaw (father of Hindley and Catherine), followed by Hindley, Edgar Linton, Heathcliff and Lockwood, as well as Catherine during her marriage to Edgar. She doesn’t always behave as she is expected to (either by her employer or by others to whom she might owe an obligation). At some crucial moments, Nelly takes it on herself to depart from her instructions. For example, when Catherine has circumvented Hindley’s orders that Heathcliff should be locked in his room, unfed, at Christmas, Nelly remarks:

I told them I intended, by no means, to encourage their tricks, but as the prisoner had never broken his fast since yesterday’s dinner, I would wink at his cheating Mr. Hindley that once. (p. 59; Vol 1, Ch vii)

There are times when her arguably errant behaviour appears to have drastic consequences, though it is never the sole cause of those consequences. When Catherine takes to her bed and Edgar to his books following his confrontation with Heathcliff, Nelly doesn’t tell Edgar about his wife’s “deranged” (p. 121; Vol 1, Ch xii) state, believing “that Catherine, repenting her conduct, would come of her own accord and ask pardon, and seek a reconciliation” (p. 120; Vol 1, Ch xii). When Edgar finds Catherine acting deliriously, Nelly is quick to make her excuses:

“… she would admit none of us till this evening, and so we couldn’t inform you of her state, as we were not aware of it ourselves, but it is nothing.” (p. 127)

Edgar is not impressed, and rebukes her “sternly”:

“You shall account more clearly for keeping me ignorant of this!” (p. 127; Vol 1, Ch xii)

Almost immediately, she decides to withhold more information from Edgar. Discovering that Isabella has eloped with Heathcliff, she does nothing about it:

But what could be done now? There was a bare possibility of overtaking them if pursued instantly. I could not pursure them, however; and I dare not rouse the family and fill the place with confusion; still less unfold the business to my master, absorbed as he was in his present calamity, and having no heart to spare for a second grief!
I saw nothing for it but to hold my tongue, and suffer matters to take their course … (p. 131; Vol 1, Ch xii)

She repeatedly fails to stop Cathy from visiting Wuthering Heights, notwithstanding Edgar’s instructions that his daughter should not be allowed to leave the grounds of Thrushcross Grange. On Cathy’s first visit, the girl lets slip the fact that her father has “gone to fetch my cousin from London” (p. 195; Vol 2, Ch iv), indirectly alerting Heathcliff to the fact that his son, Linton, is coming to live at Thrushcross Grange, and unwittingly condemning the poor boy to a miserable and severely truncated existence.

Such failings, deceptions and self-serving evasions on Nelly’s part may make her seem a malevolent character. In a 1958 essay, James Hafley argued that Nelly Dean is “The Villain in Wuthering Heights”, and suggests that Lockwood’s role is to be the credulous recorder, passing on her self-serving narrative to the reader without critical comment. In Hafley’s view, Nelly is always aware of what she is doing: constantly trying to secure her place, extend her influence and ensure she has as sympathetic and undemanding a master as possible. That, for example, is why she encourages Lockwood’s romantic interest in the widowed Cathy (Hafley, pp. 212–3), in the hope that he will become the long-term master at Thrushcross Grange.

An interpretation that requires us to see Nelly as the villain of a novel that also features Hindley (the bad father), as well as Heathcliff (who is certainly a bad father but also a sadistic husband, dog torturer, kidnapper, briber of lawyers and merciless revenge plotter), though superficially attractive, demands a rather distorted view of the characters’ relative culpability.

She clearly has her faults, and particularly an excessively censorious attitude to Catherine, whom she sees as imperious and headstrong, as well as vain:

I’ve said I did not love her, and rather relished mortifying her vanity, now and then … (p. 70; Vol 1, Ch viii)

Nelly is guilty of inconsistency here, particularly as she will later excuse similar faults in Catherine’s daughter, of whom she will say:

… she had faults to foil her gifts. A propensity to be saucy was one; and a perverse will that indulged children invariably acquire, whether they be good children or cross. If a servant chanced to vex her, it was always: “I shall tell papa!” And if he reproved her, even by a look, you would have thought it a heart-breaking business: I don’t believe he ever did speak a harsh word to her. (p. 188; Vol 1, Ch ix)

Cathy’s high-handed way with servants is evident on her first meeting with Hareton at Wuthering Heights (p. 194; Vol 2, Ch iv). Hafley sees Nelly’s inconsistency as indicative of hypocrisy but it seems just as likely in this instance to be evidence of a simple personality clash between her and Catherine.

It seems clear, too, that Nelly’s perception that Catherine was merely acting up explains her failure to tell Edgar about Catherine’s illness; and arguably Edgar was just as much to blame if, not having seen his wife for three or four days, he didn’t go to see how she was! Nelly’s silence about Isabella’s elopement seems to have had no ill consequences: as she said herself, there was only the “bare possibility” that the fugitives might be caught, and when Edgar learned of his sister’s departure his only reaction was to wash his hands of her.

So, it seems that Hafley sometimes overestimates the effectiveness of Nelly’s supposed villainy. One episode in which her silence does indeed seem to lead to a catastrophic outcome is the one where Heathcliff overhears Catherine say “it would degrade her to marry him” (p. 80; Vol 1, Ch ix). If we can take her assertions at face value, Nelly has not been aware of Heathcliff’s presence, believing that he was working outside. Heathcliff leaves silently, but seen by Nelly, who says nothing. Catherine goes on to say that she has no intention of being separated from Heathcliff, even if she marries Linton:

“… I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.” (p. 81; Vol 1, Ch ix)

When she said that marriage to Heathcliff would “degrade” her, then, she meant it purely in a social sense. Heathcliff misinterpreted her words and disappeared for several years, during which he seems to have made an adequate fortune without Edgar’s involuntary help. It’s not clear to me what Nelly should have done differently. She didn’t get a chance to explain to Heathcliff before his disappearance that he was under a misapprehension as to Catherine’s intentions towards him, and in any case she didn’t approve of those intentions: to use her husband’s wealth to support and protect the man she really loves.

So, if Nelly’s mistakes and defensiveness, her admitted lies and evasions, aren’t indicative of villainy, what do they suggest? Hafley is right in saying that she wants to secure her position in one or other of the households at the centre of the novel. At Edgar’s funeral, she looks forward to her continued employment at Thrushcross Grange, hoping that Cathy and Linton Heathcliff would be allowed to live there, with herself as housekeeper.

That seemed rather too favourable an arrangement to be hoped for, and yet I did hope, and began to cheer up under the prospect of retaining my house, and my employment and, above all, my beloved young mistress … (p. 286; Vol 2, Ch xv)

Of course, Heathcliff has different plans, which indeed involve Nelly’s continued residence at the Grange, but without Cathy’s company. Hafley says “she has now managed things so as to be herself as comfortable as possible after Edgar’s death” (Hafley, p. 212) and implies that she cares very little about Cathy’s “ugly marriage”. But this is to ascribe to Nelly much more control over circumstances than she actually exercises. Of course she is concerned about her own comfort and her continued security of employment — why shouldn’t she be? Gimmerton does not seem to enjoy a thriving economy where she could easily find another position.

Nelly’s sometimes questionable behaviour is better explained by her ambiguous social position than by any supposition that she is a consumately manipulative plotter. She is certainly a servant but one who came to live in Wuthering Heights as a child, before she was old enough to understand what that entailed. As a child, she played with Hindley, who was almost the same age as she was. Later, she would say she had been “his foster-sister” (p. 65; Vol 1, Ch viii), and she weeps “as for a blood relation” (p. 184; Vol 2, Ch iii) when he meets his early death. Giving her the news, the physician Kenneth calls him “Your old friend Hindley” (p. 184; Vol 2, Ch iii).

Lockwood, too, addresses her as “my good friend”, and adds:

“… Excepting a few provincialisms of slight consequence, you have no marks of the manners that I am habituated to consider as peculiar to your class. I am sure you have thought a great deal more than the generality of servants think. You have been compelled to cultivate your reflective faculties, for want of occasions for frittering your life away in silly trifles.” (p. 61; Vol 1, Ch vii)

Nelly laughs at this and tells him:

“… I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy, Mr. Lockwood. You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also; unless it be that range of Greek and Latin, and that of French — and those I know one from another: it is as much as you can expect of a poor man’s daughter.” (p. 61; Vol 1, Ch vii)

By the “sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom”, I take it she means the events she has been recounting and will continue to recount to Lockwood, in which she has had to maintain her balance amid the erratic behaviour of Hindley, Heathcliff and Catherine in particular.

Nelly isn’t the only character whose class position is ambiguous. There’s Hareton, particularly after his father’s death: uneducated and unable to read, living in a house where he is not related to the owner or to the other occupants, but to which he had not long ago seemed the heir. There’s Heathcliff himself, the man with no forename and obscure origins. The main cause of the trouble, and the wrong which drives his desire for revenge, is Hindley’s attempt to force him into the role of a servant, which is clearly not what old Mr Earnshaw had in mind for him.

Nelly has advised him to imagine himself the child of a Chinese emperor and an Indian queen:

“… Were I in your place, I would frame high notions of my birth; and the thoughts of what I was should give me courage and dignity to support the oppressions of a little farmer!” (p. 56; Vol 1, Ch vii)

And then there’s Joseph, the eccentric hellfire-preaching servant who seems to have responsibility for the religious and moral education of the children. In my earlier post, I said that Joseph’s anomalous position in Wuthering Heights suggests that that house represents chaos, the inversion of the expected order, while Thrushcross Grange stands for a too rigid, excessively constrained order. The unintended result of Heathcliff’s malevolent efforts is to bring these houses together under the ownership of Cathy and Hareton.

Until that happens, Nelly is the only character who is (relatively) comfortable in both domains. At the Grange, she is clearly a servant, even if she sometimes forgets her place: in keeping Edgar in the dark, or haranguing Heathcliff as a “hypocrite” and a “deliberate deceiver” for his cynical advances to Isabella, leading Catherine to declare “To hear you, people might think you were the mistress!” (p. 111; Vol 1, Ch xi).

When Lockwood comes back to the Grange after several months away, he asks the new housekeeper if “Mrs. Dean” is in, and receives the answer that “Mistress Dean” is “up at th’ Heights” (p. 307; Vol 2, Ch xviii). Nelly has been merely the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange, but she is “mistress” in Wuthering Heights.

As the character who can most easily pass between the two conflicting houses, Nelly is the ideal narrator — she has seen more of the whole story than anybody else. But more than that, she bridges the abyss between them, maintaining contact while Heathcliff lays the groundwork for the destructive act that in the end doesn’t happen. Hafley and critics like him have understood that Nelly fills a more important role than simply that of narrator. For Hafley, there was an obvious for her to take on, that of villain. I’ve tried to suggest that her true role was less obvious, but no less significant.

Edition and reference:
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights Oxford World Classics (1981); All ellipses are added. James Hafley, “The Villain in Wuthering Heights.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 13,3, (1958), pp. 199–215.

I’m a few days late again, sorry. It’s been a busy week and my eyes (in particular) have been getting tired more quickly than usual. I probably need new reading glasses.

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Thanks for reading.