Saturday, October 4, 2008

Emily Brontë, Maria Edgeworth, and John Galt - a great curiosity

My glance at the scholarly literature suggested to me that a lot of work on Wuthering Heights has been spent on finding the predecessors of Heathcliff. What mix of Lord Byron, Gothic literature, vampires, and Melmoth the Wanderer went into Heathcliff? I understand this; Heathcliff is fascinating, weird, good fun. The stretches of Wuthering Heights that do not feature Heathcliff are less energetic.

Wuthering Heights kept reminding me of two other novels that I am pretty sure are genuine predecessors: Maria Edgewoth's Castle Rackrent (1800) and John Galt's The Entail (1822).

Castle Rackrent is deceptively titled. One might guess that it's a Gothic novel. It is actually "the Memoirs of the Rackrent Famliy" as told by "honest Thady," or "old Thady," or "poor Thady," a servant of the estate. In one hundred pages, Thady pushes us through at least four different owners of the estate, each one more ridiculous than the previous, who lose the estate through drink or gambling or lawsuits. The new owners come and go, but Thady is always there, always expressing his great respect for the masters, always making them appear ludicrous. He's a sly devil.

A short sample of Thady's voice:

"He is said also to be the inventor of raspberry whiskey, which is very likely, as nobody has ever appeared to dispute it with him, and as there still exists a broken punch-bowl in Castle-Stopgap, in the garret, with an inscription to that effect - a great curiosity." (Oxford, p. 10)

It's a very funny little book, unique for it's time. I don't think Nellie Dean is as underhanded in her narration as the continually ironic old Thady, but every once in a while she would quietly slips a knife into someone, and I would be reminded of the only earlier novel I know of where the servant tells the story.

The Entail is the earliest multi-generational family novel I know. A Glasgow merchant, obsessed with recovering some specific pieces of property, all in the name of his family, successively destroys his own heirs. Over time, though, his survivors are able to find ways to repair some of the damage.

I think this novel is a masterpiece, one of the great novels of the 19th century. That it's not better known is some sort of crime; that John Galt's name is now only seen with the words "Who is" in front of it makes me weep hot tears of anger. Be sure to answer the Randians as follows: "A brilliant Scottish novelist of the early 19th century."

Galt's novel covers four generations of the family, a great grandmother down through her great grandchildren, over the course of one hundred years. A family saga that takes one hundred years - why does that sound familiar? Anyway, two things linked The Entail to Wuthering Heights in my mind. The first is the basic structure - one generation causes harm, a second recovers, however imperfectly.

The second link is the importance of money and the acquisition of property. The passionate, insane relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine obscures the fact that the adult Heathcliff spends much of the book scheming about how to acquire the Wuthering Heights and Grange estates. His motive is revenge rather than profit, but his schemes always seem to be highly monetized. Claude, the merchant in the Galt novel, wants property that he thinks is rightfully his, while Heathcliff knows he's cheating the proper heirs. But the results are not that different. Heathcliff's son Linton has some similarities to Claude's son Watty, too.

I don't know that Emily Brontë read either of these books, although I would be surprised if she didn't. I should write more about Galt and Edgeworth some other time. I would have to reread them to do them justice. That would be a great pleasure.

So ends the Wuthering anniversary. Come back in a year for Expectations.


  1. I'm sorry to say that I've never heard of John Galt! Terrible, I know. I'll have to keep an eye out for him. Maria Edgeworth I'm familiar with, but I haven't yet read Castle Rackrent -- must do that one day!

  2. I own Galt's The Entail and The Provost in not-too-old Oxford World's Classics paperbacks, so at one point he must have been read and taught more. I don't know what happened.

    I think you, and actually almost anyone whos stops by here, would get a kick out of Castle Rackrent. It's a unique book. It's also very short.

  3. Never heard of Galt either. Interesting. Nice to have a Rackrent recommendation--that's the type of thing that I've heard of, with no incentive to read. Never hearing of a good 19th century (and World's Classics) writer is more rare, and more fun. I wonder about those not-so-old editions--if they're some one doing some relatively recent digging (say 25 years or less), or old enough that they were better known before our day (40+ years).

  4. The Oxford Galts are from the early 1980s. It really could be the case of one enthusiastic prof or editor getting them published. Then, plunk, they sink like a stone.

  5. Canongate also brought out some Galt, including the awesome Ringan Gilhaize (orig. 1823), and Scottish Academic Press had a collected scholarly edition going for a while. Looks like it has all gone out of print, though.

    I keep meaning to find an excuse to teach Castle Rackrent...

  6. There is a great new musical adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Check it out at

  7. That does it - John Galt reread project, plus Ringan Gilhaize, coming soon. Awesome? Awesome!

    Castle Rackrent would be great fun in class, wouldn't it? It's short, funny, reasonably fast-moving, with a setting that is not too familiar but not too exotic.

    Good look with the musical, alpal, whoever you are.