A Ghost Might Actually Come in Handy…

In 19th century England, anxieties about protecting family property became so pervasive that ancestral claims were a common factor in many Victorian novels. This fact is especially true in Wuthering Heights, a novel which circulates around two ancestral homes. In one moment in the first book, the audience is attuned to Mr. Linton’s apprehensions about his property. In this passage, both Nellie and Edgar express anxiety about how quickly Catherine will recover because they are desirous for an heir for the Linton line.  

This excerpt features multiple words which appear to have multiple meanings. We begin the passage with “waited,” which could mean tended to, as Nellie is her nurse, or waited on with temporal impatience. Moving further in the passage, “Mr. Linton’s heart would be gladdened, and his lands secured from a stranger’s gripe, by the birth of an heir” (Brontë 135). These two duplicities work hand in hand with one another to create an unstated, but stifling nervousness surrounding Linton’s concern with his land tied subtly with the culturally discussed duties of a proper Victorian woman. Where one might expect that Linton would be glad of his wife’s company once she gets well, waiting anxiously because she is sick and would hate to lose a companion. Instead, she is subtly rushed in her recovery because Linton has external expectations for their marriage. The fact that at this moment she cannot carry out her essentially contracted duties is a source of worry for the husband, especially as evidenced by the fact that he may not be gladdened by his wife’s renewed health, but by her ability to satisfy his conventional need for an heir to assume his place in the Linton line. 

Looking further into Catherine’s essential position of indebtedness, we may examine another, more clearly stated duplicity. Nellie muses, “there was double cause to desire it, for on her existence depended that of another” (Brontë 135). Even Nellie, clearly indoctrinated into the prevailing ideology surrounding womanhood and marriage, admits that Catherine’s sole purpose in healing is to bring another (possibly more pleasant) life into the world. Her existence is diminished for want of a better, possibly male heir, and she becomes obsolete in the process. Inheritance was so fraught that the thought of investing an entire family line in a very shade of a person yet to come into existence remains the dominant frame of consideration when a woman is deathly ill. In this way, Victorian ghosts hold promise unsurpassed.  

Linton and Nellie are only able to half-mask their anxieties with their thinly veiled double meanings. Ultimately, they are deeply concerned with “the Other.” Roger Luckhurst’s quotation defining the Gothic can also be aptly applied to these concerns as Linton’s Other is, “the undamming of dark forces that rush into and insidiously undermine the order of everyday life” (xi). Because of the family that Linton married into, perhaps his true concern is the dispositions of his neighbors who are not the gentlest of folk. Because of this relation, perhaps another, less obvious fear that permeates Linton’s conscience is a question of matrilineal inheritance, and exactly what traits the child could display from Catherine’s family, and therefore what that may do to his property. Once again in this aspect, Catherine is reduced to nothing should she bring forth an “unacceptable heir” for Linton: someone who would upset the perfection of his gentry familial line. Not only does the child’s existence depend upon her, but her entire worth depends on his. 

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