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Literature’s Exception(s)

Alison Case’s Nelly Dean (2016): An Exceptional Neo-Victorian Novel?

Nelly Dean (2016) d’Alison Case : un roman néo-victorien exceptionnel ?
Isabelle Roblin


Nelly Dean d’Alison Case semble être une exception parmi les nombreuses ré-écritures contemporaines de l’unique roman d’Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. L’hypotexte et l’hypertexte ont la même narratrice principale, Nelly Dean qui, dans la version contemporaine, raconte à Mr Lockwood non seulement l’histoire qu’elle lui avait rapportée mais aussi l’histoire qu’elle avait occultée. Ce pourrait être un roman néo-Victorien typique qui cherche à combler les vides narratifs du roman originel, en se concentrant sur Heathcliff et Cathy, les principaux protagonistes. Cependant, ce n’est pas le cas : c’est un cas vraiment unique dans son ex-centricité puisque Nelly Dean se focalise sur… Nelly Dean. Même si de sombres secrets familiaux sont révélés, et si la sexualité et l’inceste sont évoqués (ce qui renforce la contemporanéité du roman), ces secrets ne sont pas ceux auxquels les lecteurs de fictions néo-Victoriennes s’attendent. Après un bref récapitulatif des caractéristiques habituelles de la fiction néo-Victorienne, j’analyserai ce qui fait de Nelly Dean un roman vraiment exceptionnel dans ce sous-genre, au moins pour le moment, puisqu’il peut éventuellement annoncer une nouvelle tendance dans la fiction néo-victorienne.

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  • 1 Among neo-Victorian novels where servants of real-life characters are given a voice of their own is (...)

1Patsy Stoneman, a specialist in Brontëan studies, explains in her introduction to her seminal study of ‘Brontë transformations’ that she had chosen to focus on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights ‘not only because they are powerful texts which make an impact on their readers, but also because they are famous texts which are widely handled in different ways; literally “broadcast”, they have fallen on various soils and borne various fruits’ (Stoneman 1). Alison Case’s 2016 Nelly Dean is but one of these many fruits. It has however some features which make it different from other neo-Victorian novels, broadly defined here as ‘contemporary fiction set in the nineteenth century, or that which mimics the Victorian novel’ (Carroll 172). So, is Nelly Dean an exceptional neo-Victorian novel or does it in fact conform to the narrative and political tenets of neo-Victorian fiction? First, as the title clearly indicates, the famous story is retold in the first-person narrative by Nelly Dean, the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights. This, in itself, is not particularly new as rewriting canonical texts from the point of view of the servant is now almost a sub-genre of contemporary neo-Victorian fiction. Indeed, as a reviewer pointed out, since the 1990s, ‘it seems as though every fictional servant from literature is being hauled out from below stairs and forced to sing their song’ (‘Girl with her Head Book’s Review of Nelly Dean’) from, for example, Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly (1990), a rewrite of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to the more recent Longbourn by Jo Baker (2013), Thornfield by Jane Stubbs (2014) and Nelly Dean by Alison Case (2016), to name but a few.1 However, the very status of this specific servant, who is also the main narrator in the source novel, makes her a particularly relevant centre of consciousness for the retelling of the famous story, as we shall see in a first part. Then, while many neo-Victorian authors use their novels to criticise, challenge or even subvert what they see as the many ills and the hypocrisy of Victorian society and literature, Alison Case clearly sides with those who admire Emily Brontë’s novel and want to pay homage to her. She wanted her own story ‘to deepen and complicate the original, not to undermine or simplify it’, as she notes in ‘Writing Nelly Dean’, a postface to her novel (490). To ‘deepen and complicate’ Wuthering Heights, she resorts to another familiar neo-Victorian narrative device which we will be studying in a second part: the revelation of dark family secrets, dealing with the sexuality of the characters. Once again, contrary to, for example, D. M. Thomas’s 2000 Charlotte, a sequel of Jane Eyre, these revelations do not aim at ridiculing or belittling the main protagonists, nor do they fill in the blanks of the hypotext. Moreover, unlike Lin Haire-Sargeant’s H: The Story of Heathcliff’s Journey Back to Wuthering Heights (1992), or Emma Tennant’s Heathcliff’s Tale (2005), which try and solve the mystery of Heathcliff’s origins and of his three-year absence from the novel, the secrets that are revealed in Nelly Dean do not involve Catherine or Heathcliff, who remain throughout the hypertext firmly in the background. They focus instead on Nelly herself, whose own story, she alleges, is as worthy of interest as that of her masters, a claim that is to a certain extent typical of the contemporary neo-Victorian project. In an etymological twist, it could be said that Alison Case is thus excepting or leaving out what is usually at the very heart of contemporary rewritings of Wuthering Heights, which makes Nelly Dean an exceptional novel as well as an uncommon one.

2Many critics have been influenced by Charlotte Brontë’s assessment of Nelly as the archetypal faithful servant. As she wrote in her preface to the 1850 New Edition of Wuthering Heights:

3For a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity, look at the character of Nelly Dean’ (315). This view of Nelly has however been challenged by many others. In her postface, Alison Case notes that contemporary ‘[s]tories about servants in nineteenth-century novels, in particular, can usually take advantage of the thick veil most novelists back then drew over life ‘downstairs’. (489)

  • 2 As Armelle Parey remarks, this chimes in with Jean Rhys’s indignant reaction to Jane Eyre: ‘I was c (...)

4This is neatly encapsulated for example in the mock Victorian ending in chapter 44 of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman when the narrator dismisses the servants Sam and Mary, saying: ‘who can be bothered with the biography of servants? They married, and bred, and died, in the monotonous fashion of their kind’ (292–93). In her famous article ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision’, where she defined re-vision as ‘the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction’ (19), Adrienne Rich called for a feminist re-vision of canonical works. Following her injunction, many neo-Victorian writers have tried and redressed the perceived sociological and gender unbalance in Victorian novels by privileging female servants’ voices, proclaiming what Jeremy Rosen calls ‘their commitment to a pervasive epistemology of perspectivism’ (24). Thus ‘Jo Baker explains that Longbourn, her take on Pride and Prejudice, was born out of her noticing the barely acknowledged servants in Austen’s novels when her own family used to be in service’ (Parey 11) and the ‘underdeveloped reference to [their] work’ (Parey 14).2 This view has been theorised by critics like Edward Said. What he wrote in his seminal essay Culture and Imperialism about post-colonial literature has been put in practice by many neo-Victorian novelists: ‘We must therefore read the great canonical texts . . . with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented . . . in such works’ (66). Moreover, as Jeremy Rosen remarks,

  • 3 It would both take too long and be off topic to explain Rosen’s definition of ‘genre’. See his very (...)

the genre’s assertion that every individual regardless of race, gender or class is equally compelling and therefore qualified to be a protagonist (deserving of a ‘voice’) is deeply compatible with the values of a liberal readership, and such texts are marketed to groups that share the identity categories of their protagonists.3 (36)

5Rosen goes on to assert that the genre of minor character elaboration (which neo-Victorian literature is part of) ‘reflects a set of consensus values of liberal pluralism: the right of every individual to speak freely and of every group to contend on behalf of its interests’ (40). The idea that, in a politically correct literary context, servants and masters are equally deserving of the narrator-protagonist status because they all have an equally interesting albeit different life experience to relate, is to a certain extent echoed by Nelly Dean in the eponymous novel:

Who would be interested in such a story [as mine], compared to the destructive passions of highborn ladies and gentlemen, and orphans of mysterious parentage? Certainly not you, Mr Lockwood . . . . But I can tell you, the story was vivid enough for me, while I was living it, and the tears for my lost dream none the less bitter, for shaking the bosom of a stout, plain girl in a homespun apron and cap. (218–19)

6Her story is just as “vivid” as Heathcliff’s, the Lintons’ and the Earnshaws’ and therefore worthy of being told. As Jeremy Rosen puts it, the new narrative point of view clearly manipulates the twenty-first century reader

in the service of the production of sympathy, concern, and identification with a previously minor character who was not, by virtue of her minorness, the principal object of concern in the precursor text. The typical method for achieving such a reorientation of narrative priorities is the representation of the character’s rich interiority—a subjectivity that was not represented in the precursor text. (25)

7However, Alison Case stresses that Wuthering Heights itself is an exceptional novel and that it does not in fact follow the pattern of most nineteenth-century novels as far as the depiction of servants is concerned. They are indeed very much part of the story. It is not only Nelly who plays an important part in the novel: there is also old puritan, dialect-speaking Joseph, who never hesitates to say what he thinks, whether the other characters want to hear it or not. Alison Case writes:

There is no veil over the doings of servants in Wuthering Heights. Nelly is deeply involved in the original story from the start—in fact, she’s narrating most of it, which means she has to be present for almost every significant scene. She is a servant, yes, but she’s also a confidant [sic] and mother-figure to many characters, including Cathy and Heathcliff, and she plays a decisive role in the action at several points. (490)

8The point is taken up by Nelly herself in Nelly Dean as she writes to Mr Lockwood: ‘as you must have guessed by now, I’m a good deal less, and more, than a good servant’ (4). She is absolutely not the voiceless and speechless servant often found in Victorian novels whom neo-Victorian authors ‘lend a voice’ to (Kohlke and Gutleben 19). She is in fact quite talkative and indeed she is the one who tells Mr Lockwood the story we read. She may be a minor character (although that particular point is controversial among Brontë critics), but she is also, at least in terms of quantity, the main narrator, even though of course her story is filtered through Mr Lockwood. This ambiguity as to Nelly’s narrative and social status in Wuthering Heights is resolved in Nelly Dean.

  • 4 Although the latter’s subtitle must have been added later, for in my first edition of the novel it (...)

9The related questions of the narrators in Wuthering Heights and their respective reliability have been hotly debated throughout the years. Indeed, ‘[e]ven though Nelly can be regarded as the most important narrator, it must not be forgotten that, in the end, it is Lockwood’s narration that readers really hear. The bulk of the story is of course narrated by Nelly, who tells it to Lockwood. However, the final narration comes to the reader through him and thanks to him, not her’ (Capacés Fabré 13–14). And Mr Lockwood is the sole narrator of the first four chapters, in which he recalls his two meetings with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights, and he also closes the narrative. So Nelly’s first person narrative is in fact framed and controlled by a fairly patronising Mr Lockwood who, for example, writes at the beginning of chapter 15: ‘I have now heard all my neighbour’s history, at different sittings, as the housekeeper could spare time from more important occupations. I’ll continue it in her own words, only a little condensed. She is, on the whole, a very fair narrator’ (178; emphasis added). Sandra Gilbert writes about ‘Lockwood’s uncomprehending narrative’ (257). So does Gideon Shunami in his article on ‘The Unreliable Narrator in Wuthering Heights’. George Worth, in his article ‘Emily Brontë’s Mr Lockwood’, tries and rehabilitates the gentleman but admits that ‘the character of Mr Lockwood, one of the two narrators of Wuthering Heights (the one through whose consciousness all the events of the plot are ostensibly filtered) has been the subject of much critical disparagement and disagreement’ (315). Getting rid altogether of a condescending, upper-class, male narrator or centre of consciousness and replacing him with a female servant is a typical feminist gesture which is also used in Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly for example. However, whereas in Mary Reilly the very name of the woman servant displaces the eponymous male protagonists of the source text (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), in Alison Case’s novel the titular switch is from the place, Wuthering Heights, with all its romantic connotations, to the familiar and unremarkable nickname (Nelly for the more prestigious Ellen) and name of the narrator-protagonist. In both cases a subtitle was added to ‘advertise the connection with the renowned text’ (Parey 6) and ensure that the potential readers would recognize the intertextual link to the illustrious precursor texts: The Untold Story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for Mary Reilly and A Return to Wuthering Heights for Nelly Dean.4

  • 5 I follow here Sandra Gilbert’s lead: “To distinguish the second Catherine from the first without ob (...)

10For Jeremy Rosen, ‘in existing critical accounts of minor-character elaboration’, as he prefers to call novels that are ‘constituted by the conversion of minor characters from canonical literary texts into the protagonists of new ones’ (2), ‘. . . the conversion of a minor character to a narrator becomes an act of liberation or granting of free speech to that character and an act of historical recovery’ (Rosen 200, note 60). However, in Alison Case’s novel, Nelly Dean’s status as a narrator is simply expanded as she becomes the sole narrator of the story from the beginning to the end as Mr Lockwood fades into the background, becoming the mere addressee of her letters. The elimination of Mr Lockwood as narrator has another consequence: the gothic or supernatural element introduced in chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights by his encounter with the ghost of the first Catherine5 while spending the night in her old room (‘swarming with ghosts and goblins’ as he describes it [55]) is also written out of the new text, and replaced by Nelly’s mostly down-to-earth, commonsensical approach. The loss of the best known and most striking ghostly scene from Wuthering Heights is compensated in a way in Nelly Dean by the fairy-tale story of the Brownie narrated in chapter 4 and the presence within the text of old Elspeth, a witch-like figure whose ‘spells’ however are later rationalized by Dr. Robert ‘Bodkin’ Kenneth (466), probably in an attempt to win over the twenty-first century enlightened reader who, like Dr Kenneth, does not believe in witchcraft but can readily accept that ‘belief will often heal [patients], where the medicine alone would be sure to fail’ (466).

11As Jeremy Rosen concedes, ‘“minor” [character] is a relative term, and some texts’, such as Nelly Dean, ‘adopt figures that are fairly central in the predecessor text (but not the protagonist, which would qualify the work as using a historically far more common genre: the sequel’ (17). He continues: ‘[m]inor-character elaborations . . . usually recount the same events from a different perspective (though they often also extend the plot temporally)’ (Rosen 195, note 32). This is the case in Nelly Dean: it is a coquel of Wuthering Heights, ‘evoking events that are simultaneous with the source text’ (Parey, 3) and ‘take[s] place in the “same” diegetic universe as their pre-text’ (Spengler 18), retelling familiar incidents in more detail and adding a number of other related episodes and characters, like Nelly’s mother or old Dr Kenneth’s son. However, the novel also goes beyond the ending of the hypotext, which is fairly rare, for as Armelle Parey notes, coquels do not usually ‘disrupt the original ending’ (10). Moving ahead a few years after the end of Wuthering Heights, it provides a new happy ending for all the remaining characters, perilously close to what Henry James mockingly described as ‘a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks’ (590). Thus in Nelly’s last letter to Mr Lockwood, the reader learns that ‘Cathy and Hareton’s modest wedding went off as planned, and the pair are now happily settled at Thrushcross Grange’, that ‘they have a little girl now, and Cathy is expecting her second confinement in December’ (469–70), that ‘old Joseph has been gathered to his forefathers’ (470), that Mr Lockwood is engaged to be married (469), as is Nelly herself, to Dr Robert Kenneth, old Dr Kenneth’s son, and that she hopes she will have a child of her own as she is still young: ‘I am younger now than my mother was when she bore me’, she writes (470–71). This new ‘feel-good’ and optimistic closure is somewhat paradoxically more conventional than its precursor’s, which ends after all with a visit by Mr Lockwood to the graves of the main characters who, even in death, continue to dominate the story.

  • 6 Interestingly, Stoneman argues that in fact ‘in economic terms [Catherine] had no other choice’ and (...)

12As narrator and protagonist, Nelly revisits the events of Wuthering Heights, but unlike other neo-Victorian narrators, she does not provide alternative explanations to some of the most puzzling episodes of the novel. This is for example the case in the famous scene in chapter 9 of Wuthering Heights when the first Catherine confesses to Nelly that she has accepted Edgar Linton’s marriage proposal in spite of her love for Heathcliff. As Stoneman puts it, ‘the whole action of the novel turns on this choice’6 (120). Nelly however does not tell Catherine at the time that Heathcliff is eavesdropping nor that he is leaving after hearing her telling Nelly that it would degrade her to marry him (106) but before hearing the rest of her impassionate speech: ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being’ (108). Nelly does not explain why she kept silent or even lied, since she had told Catherine that Heathcliff was ‘about his work in the stable’ whereas she knew that he was sitting ‘on a bench by the wall’ (103, 102). One can argue that Nelly’s silence triggers off Heathcliff’s departure, transformation and subsequent revenge and therefore conclude that she is at least partly to blame for the impending tragedy. This particular episode has been at the heart of much of the critical debate around Emily Brontë’s novel and has even led James Hafley to see in Nelly the true manipulative arch-villain of the story: ‘Ellen Dean is the villain of the piece, one of the consummate villains in English literature’ (199), he writes. In Alison Case’s rewriting, the whole chapter and its momentous incidents are condensed into a single paragraph. Furthermore, the question of Nelly’s responsibility in the following catastrophic events is totally glossed over:

Did it really happen all in one night? That Cathy pinched me and slapped Edgar . . .? That Cathy sneaked in later, and confessed to me her love for Edgar, and her deeper love for Heathcliff, and poor Heathcliff heard only the former and ran off that very night, and Cathy made herself ill with searching for him? It seems impossible that it was all compressed into one fateful evening, a few hours that changed the whole future for all of us, did we but know it. (377)

13There are other examples in the text of this refusal to fill in the blanks of the source text, which is a characteristic of neo-Victorian novels which Alison Case excepts from her own novel. As Patsy Stoneman puts it,

most of the transformations of Wuthering Heights discussed in [her] book have tried to make the novel into what Roland Barthes called a ‘readerly text’—a text that would yield its secrets if we could just hit on the right interpretative strategy. . . . All these strategies render the text intelligible, but by so doing limit its elusive fascination. In academic criticism, Wuthering Heights only came into its own when it was recognized not as a readerly but a ‘writerly’ text—one which invites the reader to participate in its construction rather than to solve its mystery. (245)

  • 7 Jane Urquhart’s novel Changing Heaven (1990), another ‘transformation’ of Wuthering Heights, also ‘ (...)

14Indeed, few contemporary writers of coquels to Wuthering Heights could reject the tantalizing prospect of solving the problems or at least providing an answer to the two mysteries that are at the very core of Wuthering Heights and encapsulated in Nelly Dean’s famous cryptic remark to Mr Lockwood: ‘I know all about (Heathcliff’s history): except where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money, at first’ (63) in the three years he was away7. Even the eminently respectable Terry Eagleton could not resist the temptation of having a go at hypothesizing Heathcliff’s parentage. In his article ‘Emily Brontë and the Great Hunger’, he sees in Heathcliff a refugee from the Irish potato famine:

  • 8 Françoise Kral remarks that ‘the term gibberish, which entered the English language in the sixteent (...)

Earnshaw unwraps his great coat to reveal to his family a ‘dirty, ragged, black haired child’ who speaks a kind of ‘gibberish’,8 and who will later be variously labelled a beast, savage, demon and lunatic. It’s clear that this little Caliban has a nature on which nurture will never stick; and that’s merely an English way of saying that he’s quite probably Irish. (108)

15Perhaps the most inventive of these coquels so far is Lin Haire-Sargeant’s H: The Story of Heathcliff’s Journey Back to Wuthering Heights (1992), which is ‘the ambitious melding together of the lives of the Brontës with the characters of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. . . . When Heathcliff was absent from Wuthering Heights, he was living with Mr Are of Thornfield, whom, we presume . . . is actually the Mr Rochester of Charlotte’s novel. We learn of Heathcliff’s origins, that he is the son of Mr Are’ (Van Der Meer 77) and his first wife Bertha. Alison Case however ‘wanted to leave the core mystery of Heathcliff’s origins . . . untouched’ (‘Writing Nelly Dean’, 490). She concentrates instead on fleshing out Nelly, providing her with a background story which proves as full of surprises and twists as her masters’.

16Thus, another puzzling aspect of the source novel is explained: Nelly’s partiality to Hindley Earnshaw, which has been noted by many critics. In his 1956 essay, John Mathison, for example, remarks that Nelly is ‘actively taking the part of Hindley’ while he is tormenting the child Heathcliff (120) and that ‘the most Nelly can admit is that Hindley was a bad “example” for Heathcliff’ (121). For her part, Samantha Przybylowicz tries and analyses Nelly’s obvious bias:

As a child, Hindley is described as degrading and abusing Heathcliff on a regular basis, often because of Heathcliff’s otherness and Hindley’s sense of having been displaced by Heathcliff. The violence inflicted upon Heathcliff can be described as villainous; yet Hindley is not often blatantly described as being malevolent, especially early on in the novel. This is likely because he is not one of the characters in the central love triangle, and also perhaps because Nelly, our main narrator, has an affinity for him, as her ‘foster brother’. . . . Nelly’s perspective causes a skewed dismissal of Hindley’s aggression . . . because of the sympathy she exhibits for him throughout the narrative. The reader, however, cannot dismiss Hindley’s brutal actions, especially in light of how they contribute to shaping Heathcliff’s nature. (8–9)

17The reason for Nelly’s partiality for Hindley is accounted for at length in Nelly Dean. Nelly indeed ‘has an affinity’ for Hindley, and both carry on a secret love affair in the first part of the novel, before Hindley is sent away by his father. Sandra Gilbert hinted at that possibility in her chapter ‘Looking Oppositely: Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell’ in The Mad Woman in the Attic:

Nelly’s evasions suggest ways in which her history has paralleled the lives of Catherine and Isabella, though she has rejected their commitments and thus avoided their catastrophes. Hindley, for instance, was evidently once as close to Nelly as Heathcliff was to Catherine. Indeed, like Heathcliff, Nelly seems to have been a sort of stepchild at the Heights . . . . Because she is only a ‘poor man’s daughter,’ however, Nelly is excluded from the family, specifically by being defined as its servant. Luckily for her (or so it seems), she has avoided the incestuous/egalitarian relationship with Hindley that Catherine has with Heathcliff, and at the same time—because she is ineligible for marriage into either family—she has escaped the bridal hook of matrimony that destroys both Isabella and Catherine. (290)

18Perhaps reading this article gave Alison Case the idea for developing the embryonic relationship between Hindley and Nelly in Wuthering Heights into a passionate love affair in Nelly Dean. She takes the story much farther and it soon takes centre-stage in Nelly’s narration. In that regard, like Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child, Alison Case’s Nelly Dean ‘picks up on the ambiguity already present in the Brontëan text’ and ‘positions itself in [its] footsteps, as a magnifying lens or an echo chamber which chooses to amplify the half-voiced and half-silenced clues’ (Kral 54, 55), rather than simply filling in the narrative blanks of the canonical text.

  • 9 The very explicit love-making scene between Catherine I and Heathcliff witnessed by Isabella Linton (...)

19The description of Hindley and Nelly’s first love-making in a cave during a dark and stormy night is very subdued and understated, quite unlike many sex scenes in neo-Victorian novels9:

our refuge kept dry, and crammed in as we were, it soon warmed up as well. . . . then we were able to feel about a little to find the outer limits of our effective shelter, and rearrange ourselves a little more comfortably within them. . . . .
Do I really need to tell you what happened next? Remember that my heart was sore for Hindley’s humiliation by his father, and that I was his only comfort. Remember that we . . . thought ourselves as good as betrothed. Remember that we were frightened and cold and far from home. And I loved him. (107–71)

  • 10 In her article ‘Reading for Abortion in the Victorian Novel’, Emma Burris-Janssen writes: ‘Though a (...)

20The consequences are momentous, for Nelly is soon pregnant. At the end of chapter 11 (out of 27), Hindley promises her he will tell his father that she is carrying their child, and that he wishes to marry her. The reader of Wuthering Heights knows perfectly well that it is not going to happen, and since Nelly Dean is marketed as a coquel to Wuthering Heights and not as an entirely different story, Alison Case relies on dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the narrator/protagonist at this stage in the diegesis, a technique often used by neo-Victorian writers. Nelly writes at the beginning of chapter 12: ‘truth to tell, I am not entirely sure what did happen, and who, if anyone, had a hand in it. I suppose I can only tell what I experienced, and what I conjectured, and leave you to draw what conclusions you will’ (194). While she is theoretically (and totally improbably) addressing Mr Lockwood, it is in fact the reader of Wuthering Heights who will draw his/her own conclusions. Indeed, Nelly is going to miscarry the child, or rather to have an abortion induced by a potion her mother forces her to drink. Whereas the sex scenes are very allusive in the novel, the description of the abortion is quite detailed. This of course signals and identifies the novel as contemporary and is ‘another example of a modern-day presence in the text’ (Van Der Meer 78): indeed, no Victorian novel would explicitly depict such scenes,10 and this is for the eyes of the 21st century reader only. For Jeremy Rosen,

the process of expansion by which a contemporary author makes a minor figure into a protagonist—and the everyday behavior of readers who supplement textual material and generate the referential sense of a fictional being—is necessarily presentist, informed by a contemporary sense of what is realistic, plausible, truthful, or authentic. (170)

  • 11 There is also in The French Lieutenant’s Woman a brothel scene and an encounter between Charles and (...)

21Many critics have pointed out that the depiction of explicit hetero or homoerotic scenes (or sex-related scenes, like here a miscarriage or an abortion), was totally unthinkable in ‘respectable’ Victorian fiction and in ‘a tradition where sexual licence was still out of the question’ (Gutleben 172). Steven Marcus for example asserts that ‘representations of Victorian sexuality in “high literature” were conventionalized, and that pornography often made explicit what was otherwise suppressed or obliquely stated in the more public literature’ (quoted in Van Der Meer, 78). Neo-Victorian writers on the other hand often openly describe them: ‘sexsation’, defined by Marie-Luise Kohlke as the ‘contemporary writers’ fascination with the nineteenth century erotic and the multivalent forms of literary re-imaginings of Victorian sexualities’ (Kohlke 2008, 53) has become a hallmark of that genre from its very beginning in the 1960s: one only has to think about chapter 45 of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman which describes the ninety second intercourse (Fowles 304) between the two main Victorian protagonists, Charles and Sarah, and where Charles discovers that Sarah is after all a virgin and thus has never been the French Lieutenant’s woman.11

  • 12 This was also the case in John Wheatcroft’s novel, Catherine, Her Book (1983), which ‘consists of C (...)

22There is in Nelly Dean one last secret, also of a sexual nature, to be revealed concerning the narrator protagonist. Its late disclosure, in the very last pages of the novel, retrospectively sheds a new light onto the whole story: in a death-bed letter to her daughter, Mary Dean confesses that Nelly is in fact Mr Earnshaw’s illegitimate daughter and so Hindley and Cathy’s half-sister. The love affair between Nelly and Hindley was thus incestuous. As Nelly’s mother writes: ‘you see why I had to interfere between you and Hindley, and why I could not let you bear his child?’12 (461). For Nelly, the mystery of Hindley’s behaviour to her when he came back to Wuthering Heights after his father’s death with his pretty and silly wife is finally explained: ‘So many things were recurring to my mind in a new light now. Had he known? Was it that, and not my lowly status, that made him rush to put a wife between us, and after her death, gave an edge of disgust to his longing? . . . He must have known’ (458). However, she is not going to tell Hareton and Cathy II that she is their aunt, and her mother’s secret will not be passed on to the next generation. The suggestion of scandalous incestuous relations between the main characters has been explored in many neo-Victorian novels. In The Lost Child, Caryl Phillips ‘goes as far as to suggest that Heathcliff is indeed Earnshaw’s son, instead of being a usurper’ (Kral 55). Emma Tennant doubles the incestuous link between the characters by making Heathcliff Mr Earnshaw’s son (and thus Hindley and Catherine’s half-brother) and Catherine II Heathcliff’s daughter. She even has the demonic Heathcliff exclaim: ‘My Cathy—my little Cathy—is my daughter, and I begot her on my sister. She weds Linton tomorrow . . .’ (160). This is also the case in Lin Haire-Sargeant’s novel, albeit less explicitly: ‘Mr Lockwood suggests Cathy II is Heathcliff’s daughter by remarking on her “extraordinary dark eyes” (130), a clue unmissed by the reader because Heathcliff’s eyes are often described as such throughout the sequel’ (Van Der Meer 80). But once again, these novels are concerned with the main sexy characters of Wuthering Heights and not with Nelly, ‘a stout, plain girl in a homespun apron and cap’ as she describes herself (219).

23So, Nelly Dean is in some respects an exceptional neo-Victorian novel, essentially through what it leaves out, based upon an exceptional, a-typical Victorian novel which it does not seek to question or to ridicule but which it pays homage to. The eponymous narrator-protagonist is a fleshed-out version of the original main narrator, a servant who had a voice of her own in the hypotext and who in the coquel becomes the sole source of the narrative and ‘is not immune to self-serving distortions and revisionism, particularly about her own thoughts and feelings’ (Case 478). Unlike other rewrites, it deliberately leaves ‘the core mystery of Heathcliff’s origins and the strange power of Cathy and Heathcliff’s love untouched’ (Case 490), focusing instead on the less charismatic and romantic figure of the housekeeper. In that regard however, the novel is not exceptional but rather conventional. Indeed, as Jeremy Rosen notes, using E. M. Forster’s terminology of ‘flat’ vs ‘round’ characters in Aspects of the Novel: ‘the primary convention of minor-character elaboration suggests that its social function is to reassert the unique subjectivity and perspective of every individual by representing the interior states and ‘roundness’ of characters that had been ‘flat’, depicted externally or cursorily in canonical texts’ (26), notably servants. Nelly Dean thus ‘takes part in a broader tendency to view novels’ creation of round characters and consequent extension of sympathy to them as an enactment of democratic principles’ (Rosen 29). So, while Nelly Dean deviates from the usual narrative practices of most neo-Victorian novels and is therefore exceptional as far as the treatment of the main characters of the source text is concerned, it is nonetheless very much in the Zeitgeist of 21st century Neo-Victorian fiction in its attempt at making a female servant the narrator-protagonist of one of the best known canonical works of the Victorian era.

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Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights (1847), London: Collins, 1960.

Brontë, Charlotte, ‘Preface to the 1850 New Edition of Wuthering Heights’, Wuthering Heights, New York: Norton Critical Edition, 2003, 313–16.

Burris-Janssen, Emma, ‘Reading for Abortion in the Victorian Novel’, The Victorianist 19 October 2015, last accessed at on 3 August 2019.

Capacés Fabré, Monica, and Maria Dolorès Herrero Granado, eds., ‘The Figure of the Villain in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights’, Facultad de Filosofia y Lettras/Universidad de Zaragoza, 2013-2014, last accessed at on 27 April 2019.

Carroll, Samantha, ‘Putting the “Neo” Back into Neo-Victorian: The Neo-Victorian Novel as Postmodern Revisionist Fiction’, Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies 3.2 (2010): 172–205.

Case, Alison, Nelly Dean, London: The Borough Press, 2016.

Eagleton, Terry, ‘Emily Brontë and the Great Hunger’, The Irish Review 12 (spring-summer 1992): 108–19.

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Gilbert, Sandra. ‘Looking Oppositely: Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell’, eds. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic. The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), New Haven: Yale UP, 2000, 248–308.

‘Girl with her Head Book’s Review of Nelly Dean’, last accessed at on 27 April 2019.

Gutleben, Christian, Nostalgic Postmodernism, The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

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Haire-Sargeant, Lin, H. The Story of Heathcliff’s Journey Back to Wuthering Heights, New York: Pocket Books, 1992.

James, Henry, ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1884), Selected Fiction, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1953, 585–609.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise, ‘Sexsation and the Neo-Victorian Novel: Orientalising the Nineteenth Century in Contemporary Fiction’, eds. Marie-Luise Kohlke and Luisa Orza, Negotiating Sexual Idioms. Image, Text, Performance, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2018, 53–77.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise, and Christian Gutleben, eds., Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma. The Politics of Bearing After-Witness to Nineteenth-Century Suffering, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Kral, Françoise, ‘Literary Filiations and Textual Archeology. Caryl Phillip’s The Lost Child’, ed. Armelle Parey, Prequels, Coquels and Sequels in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction, New York: Routledge 2019, 52–61.

Marcus, Steven, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England, Zürich: Meridian, 1977.

Mathison, John, ‘Nelly Dean and the Power of Wuthering Heights’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 11.2 (Sept. 1956): 106–129.

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Przybylowicz, Samantha, ‘(Dys)Function in the Moors: Everyone’s a Villain in Wuthering Heights’, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 14;1 (2013): 6–20.

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1 Among neo-Victorian novels where servants of real-life characters are given a voice of their own is for example Lady’s Maid: A Novel by Margaret Forster, first published in 1990, in which the passionate love affair between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning is told in the third-person narrative or through the eyes of Lily Wilson, Elizabeth Barret’s maid. As for Mr Darwin’s Shooter by Roger McDonald, published in 1998, it focuses on the life of Syms Covington, Darwin’s servant aboard the Beagle. Within the realm of fiction, a maid, Bessy Buckley, is also the main protagonist and narrator in Jane Harris’ The Observations (2006), where she discovers she is the unwitting subject of her mistress’ intense scrutiny.

2 As Armelle Parey remarks, this chimes in with Jean Rhys’s indignant reaction to Jane Eyre: ‘I was convinced that Charlotte Brontë must have had something against the West Indies, and I was angry about it. Otherwise, why did she take a West Indian for that horrible lunatic, for that really dreadful creature?’ (quoted in Thieme 77; Parey 21, note 25).

3 It would both take too long and be off topic to explain Rosen’s definition of ‘genre’. See his very thorough introduction, ‘Three Axes of Genre Study’ (Minor Characters Have Their Day. Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace, 1–43), for a detailed analysis of what he means by ‘genre’.

4 Although the latter’s subtitle must have been added later, for in my first edition of the novel it does not appear.

5 I follow here Sandra Gilbert’s lead: “To distinguish the second Catherine from the first without obliterating their similarities, we will call Catherine Earnshaw Linton’s daughter Catherine II throughout this discussion” (675, note 22).

6 Interestingly, Stoneman argues that in fact ‘in economic terms [Catherine] had no other choice’ and that ‘since as a woman she can possess nothing in her own right, she must marry someone who can’ (120).

7 Jane Urquhart’s novel Changing Heaven (1990), another ‘transformation’ of Wuthering Heights, also ‘resists the temptation to explain its original, neither offering truth nor resolving enigmas’ (Stoneman 249). Instead, it plays ‘with place, time, words and history’ and demands a reading like poetry, with attention to single words’ (Stoneman 249).

8 Françoise Kral remarks that ‘the term gibberish, which entered the English language in the sixteenth century has a very uncertain etymology’ but adds that one of its possible origins could be “the Irish word gob or gab (mouth)’ (60, note 4). So, Terry Eagleton’s interpretation of the Brontëan text could after all not be as outlandish as it seems at first.

9 The very explicit love-making scene between Catherine I and Heathcliff witnessed by Isabella Linton in Emma Tennant’s 2005 Heathcliff’s Tale makes an interesting counterpoint to the restraint used in that particular depiction.

10 In her article ‘Reading for Abortion in the Victorian Novel’, Emma Burris-Janssen writes: ‘Though abortion was criminalized more or less severely throughout the nineteenth century, it lurks beneath the surface of many Victorian texts. However, its presence cannot be acknowledged—cannot be “spelled out” for the reader. This, I would argue, is not only because it was criminalized by the Victorian legal system, but also because it was criminalized by the generic conventions of the Victorian novel’. She also points out that throughout much of the nineteenth century, the phrase ‘“female pills” served as a euphemism for abortifacient drugs’.

11 There is also in The French Lieutenant’s Woman a brothel scene and an encounter between Charles and a prostitute (chapter 39) which, as Marie Luise Kohlke argues (2008), have become typical of the ‘sexsation’ of the representation of the Victorians in contemporary fiction.

12 This was also the case in John Wheatcroft’s novel, Catherine, Her Book (1983), which ‘consists of Catherine’s diary notes from Wuthering Heights expanded by Catherine four months after her marriage’ (Stoneman 243), in which ‘the sequence of events shows how Catherine and Heathcliff first make love when she is twelve, having accidentally seen Nelly and Hindley “cleaving”, though she has already guessed that Nelly is their half-sister and this is why Hindley is to be sent away’. She then ‘realizes that Heathcliff is also her father’s illegitimate son’, which is why she denies him ‘because she believes that their incestuous union will bring an apocalyptic judgement on them both’ (Stoneman 244).

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Isabelle Roblin, « Alison Case’s Nelly Dean (2016): An Exceptional Neo-Victorian Novel? »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 08 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Roblin

Isabelle Roblin is an assistant professor at the Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale, specialising in contemporary American and British literatures, and has published many articles on Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, C. S. Forester, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, among others. She has been studying contemporary literary adaptations of ‘the canon’, for example Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001), a re-writing of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone de With the Wind (1936), Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly (1990), a re-vision of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Emma Tennant’s and Lin Haire Sargeant’s takes on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (respectively Heathcliff’s Tale, 2005 and The Story of Heathcliff’s Journey Back to Wuthering Heights, 1995). She is also working more specifically on Harold Pinter’s adapted screenplays and filmic adaptations of novels, like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969, film 1981), L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953, film 1972) or Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (1981, film 1990), and wrote in 2011 Harold Pinter, la liberté artistique et ses limites. Approches des scénarios.

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