How to set the scene for your novel: Lessons from Emily Bronte

Updated: Nov 11, 2021


Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Reading Room Podcast, where we’ll be reviewing the narrative style and devices of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, to explore what we can learn about narrative exposition as writers.


As it was for Great Expectations, one episode would not be enough to work through the learnings we could derive from Wuthering Heights; we could dissect it paragraph by paragraph, and still return to it another day. Reining in my enthusiasm, I thought we should start at the beginning and explore our introduction to the narrator, the first characters, and the setting of the novel itself.


There are a number of reasons why I look to this novel for inspiration as a writer and escapism as a reader - its wildness, vividness, and creativity both alarmed and awed me as a teenager. Catherine’s ghost at the window in the early chapters haunted me for days. These impressions would only intensify as I reread the book in the years to come; with each revisit, the words would cast more light on my interpretation and understanding. I wanted to be a writer whose work resulted in these reactions from its readers, I still do.


Before we start, I’d like to share two facts for inspiration:


Number 1: Wuthering Heights was self-published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell having been rejected by traditional publishers at the time. Her sisters, Catherine and Anne had done the same for their written work. I love this fact - that the sisters persevered and found a way to circumnavigate cultural prejudices.


Number 2: Currer Bell (a.k.a. Catherine Bronte), presented a biographical notice for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights which details, and clarifies, the origin story of the three sisters and their efforts to become published authors under their male pseudonyms; (Currer for Catherine, Acton for Anne and Ellis for Emily). The following statement spoke to me, all those years ago, as an English Literature student writing my short stories between classes and part-time jobs. I hope it resonates with you just as much today as an aspiring writer - both to catalyse your creativity and to fuel your motivation for your work in progress:


“Ill success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a

wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued.” Currer Bell


As you listen to the chapter, I’d like you to think about exposition - the first paragraph or paragraphs in which the characters, time and place is introduced to the reader. Think about how this information is presented to us and how the action propels the story forward.


Reading as a writer allows you to look at the prose and deconstruct it to reveal the ‘how’ underneath.


Let’s begin.


I loved reading this chapter out aloud and had carried on reading well after I’d stopped recording. Reading chapter 2 refreshed my memory around Lockwood’s dubious status as our primary narrator. But we’ll get to that in a moment. The key device we are looking at today is narrative exposition - information about the setting, character backstories, prior plot events, historical context and so on.


Let’s start at the beginning. At the opening of the chapter, we are presented with a date – 1801, suggesting that we are reading someone’s diary, or journal. This also places the reader within the setting for the novel and confirms the narrative form. While the present is 1801, the primary storyline takes place many years prior. Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, is our narrator. Not, as we would expect, the story’s protagonists, Healthcliffe and Catherine.


We understand that Lockwood has “just returned” to Thrushcross Grange when the story begins and is reflecting on this experience that he relays to the reader. Through Lockwood, we are introduced to the isolated setting of the rundown house and to Heathcliff, who seems to revel in his isolation.


Let’s look at the language, or diction, used to describe Wuthering Heights:

The house is built "strong", with "jutting stones", and “grotesque carving lavished over the front,” indicative of being resolute, hostile, and unmoving.


"Villainous old guns" adorn the space above the fireplace; the chairs are primitive structures. The imagery of the home furnishings is aligned to the uncultured, provincial setting of the land surrounding the house.


Foreshadowing is provided through the concept around the ownership of property. The name "Hareton Earnshaw" is not explained, but the family name plays a crucial role in Wuthering Heights.


Two servants also live at Wuthering Heights: Joseph, the old man with a peevish disposition and an air of religious fanaticism, and the "lusty dame, with [her] tucked up gown, bare arms, and fire-flushed cheeks’" with the frying pan who puts a stop to the bustle with the dogs. They, too, are presented as uncultured, unchecked, and unwelcoming.


The cacophony through the "chatter of tongues" at the back of the house and the "clatter of culinary utensils, deep within", plus "squealing puppies," illustrates a chaos and unruliness to the Heights, which the author has drawn to serve as a comparison to Thrushcross Grange later in the novel.


Let’s look more closely at the scene with the dogs, which narrows in on this theme further:

There is the ‘jealous guardianship’ over Lockwood’s movements marking the scene with the air of distrust and vigilance of strangers to the Heights, and the world inside it. Much like Heathcliff over his home and his ambitions for it.

The ‘ruffianly bitch’ became suddenly furious at being mocked by Lockwood – he blamed turn of his facial expression, but we recognise that he was mocking her, and this was the cause of her anger, preceding to rouse the ‘hive’ of remaining ‘fiends.’ Lockwood feels ‘assaulted’ by the overall tempestuous behaviour but, as readers, we look at it as a humorous scene; an impression shared by Heathcliff whose ‘countenance relaxed into a grin.’


Whilst the language used to describe the event is aggressive and violent, it stems from a desire to protect the home. This reads as a foreshadow to later scenes within the novel, particularly surrounding Heathcliff’s feelings and actions towards Cathy and those around her.


How is the countryside surrounding the Heights put forward?


It is a “beautiful country!... completely removed from the stir of society.”


"…the grass grows up between the flags, and cattle are the only hedge cutters" presents an uncultured and wild environment.


“A perfect misanthropist’s heaven” this juxtaposition of elements creates deliberate differences for the reader to contrast. Bronte invites us to consider the relationship between those elements more closely. This device – of presenting opposites against each other, and in instances, attracting - is repeatedly used throughout the novel; subliminally set at the back of our minds so that we recognise it each time it occurs.


Lockwood makes observations that jar in the context of the novel. He makes regular assumptions based on his impressions, such as ‘I detected’, ‘I believe’, and ‘I suppose’. This language is purposely placed to align the character as unreliable. Furthermore, our storyteller is not welcome at Wuthering Heights, and we know this from the opening paragraphs. Heathcliffe both interrupts him and winces as he speaks to him. The servants are equally unwelcoming.


I’d like to draw your attention to specific language used to describe Heathcliff and his character traits in this chapter; words that, as the novel continues, will appear throughout and deepen his character profile:


He has “Dark, black eyes”; His hands are “suspicious”, his mood “sullen”, “surly”, “sour”, and “wincing”.


He is a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect…”; he comes across “slovenly” and “morose.”


The interior of the house does not match Heathcliff’s personality; he is out of place; an outsider when he arrived, a "gypsy" and took control of the "homely" house throughout the novel.


Lockwood mentions, twice, that Heathcliff does not extend a hand to him, yet he still considers Heathcliff a gentleman. At the close of the chapter, Lockwood recognises that Heathcliff has no desire to see him again, yet he plans to visit the following day regardless. This use of paradox is there to jar the reader as they look to make sense of Lockwood’s portrayal of the Heights and its landlord.


Lockwood also projects his personality onto Heathcliffe by way of developing a kinship so as not to feel isolated himself: ‘Mr Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us’. The two characters are nothing alike, in fact, Lockwood misjudges Heathcliff throughout; setting the reader on alert to not take Lockwood’s perceptions as a full truth. This creates a feeling of distrust at the onset of the novel.


By the end of the chapter, we can identify several themes that resonate throughout the novel. We have the wild, uncultured occupants of Wuthering Heights – the landlord, the two servants, and the ‘hive’ of dogs - against the sophistication of Lockwood, who has arrived from ‘society’.


The theme of history and origin is set here too. Heathcliff is the ‘gypsy’ who owns his estate, Lockwood is the ‘gentleman’ with the tainted reputation seeking refuge in the country as a tenant.


Overall, the opening chapter presents more questions than it answers - What chaos will Lockwood encounter at this next encounter? What further proposed insights will he provide? And what, most importantly, will the reader make of his version of events and the additional characters they are introduced to? The reader’s attention is hooked and is encouraged to continue reading.


What did you make of this chapter?


Today’s exercise

To wrap up the episode, I like to share a writing exercise for you to practise the devices we cover in the close reading. For today’s episode, we covered exposition, the role of the narrator and character traits. With a copy of Wuthering Heights in hand (or ear, if you have Audiobooks), or would like to listen to this chapter again, work through Chapter 1 again with a critical eye, and make notes on the words and phrases chosen for this passage.


Set yourself 30 mins for this exercise, however, should you want to keep going into the next chapters, or you find yourself inspired to work on your own story, that’s great, please do! And enjoy


Thank you for joining me this week! If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll follow or subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast app.


I hope you’re enjoying this podcast. If you know fellow writers who would find these episodes helpful, an Apple Podcast review or recommendation would be greatly appreciated to expand our writing community.


It’s great that you’re here on this journey with me in today’s episode of The Reading Room podcast. Until next time, keep reading and writing, with your #eyestothehorizon

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