Tuesday 25 February 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: N is for Nelly as Narrator

‘My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am a pleasure to myself – but, as my own being -’

The above – the words of the first Catherine in Emily Bronte’s 1845-6 Wuthering Heights - is one of the most powerful and famous declarations of love in Western literature. Yet at the pivotal moment – when Catherine reveals the essential connection between Heathcliff and herself, which will bind them, even beyond death – there is a strange interjection. This is the use of name which doesn’t belong to either of these lovers, or even to Edgar Linton, who completes their romantic triangle. Bronte chooses to remind us of this scene’s narrated quality concurrently with this intense emotional statement by using the name ‘Nelly’.

The servant Nelly is not only unsympathetic to the secret imparted to her, but has spent much of the preceding paragraphs trying to stop Catherine expressing her emotions at all – blocking rather than aiding the story, despite her narrator role. This is how she meets her first attempt at confidence:

‘Her [Catherine’s] lips were half asunder as if she meant to speak; and she drew a breath, but it escaped in a sigh, instead of a sentence. I resumed my song, not having forgotten her recent behaviour.’

And Nelly keeps up a caustic commentary throughout the ‘scene’:

‘she may come to the point as she will – I shan’t help her!’

Nelly disrupts and casts doubt on Catherine’s confession, providing us with a possible interpretative framework very different from the romantic tale of star-crossed soul mates which has been the novel’s afterlife. Catherine is ‘shameful’, ‘peevish’, immature (Nelly points out she is only ‘twenty-two) and either ‘ignorant of the duties’ of marriage or ‘a wicked unprincipled girl’, according to Nelly’s spoken responses and retrospective commentary.

And her interference is not only in the incident’s narration. Nelly shapes the conversation she reports, through her unhelpful responses and withholding of information. She directly lies to Catherine, saying they are alone, when in fact Heathcliff hears the opening section of their dialogue, and is evasive in her answers, casting doubt on the veracity of her narration as well as the motivation of her actions.

We can choose to ignore Nelly’s verdict on Catherine – and her quick change of subject to dwell on a minor disagreement with a servant after hearing this articulate declaration perhaps suggests that we should – but we cannot ignore the impact she has on our understanding of Catherine and Heathcliff’s story, so central is she to the retelling.

Our first narrator Lockwood is shown to be unreliable through his bumbling mistakes and ignorance of the situation in which he finds himself, but taking Nelly’s word is even more problematic. Another child exterior to the Earnshaw family but raised within the walls of Wuthering Heights, Nelly can be read as an insidious interloper, more successful than Heathcliff in installing herself within the family and manipulating the novel’s events – and it is her position as narrator which, in many cases, as above, allows her to do this.

What is your view of Nelly in Wuthering Heights? And what should be ‘O’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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