Clare B. Dunkle

Background material for The House of Dead Maids

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

topiary bushes in Arnhem, Netherlands

For those who wish to learn more about the background of The House of Dead Maids, I have written a number of web pages dealing with my research into the Brontë family and Wuthering Heights. You may reach all of those pages by clicking on this link.

Nelly & Joseph—Yorkshire Spirits

Joseph and Nelly Dean act as the frame within which the wild story of Wuthering Heights plays out, and they are every bit as immoveable and immutable as a good frame ought to be. From the first moment of the book, when Joseph is calling on the Lord's name with peevish displeasure, to its last paragraphs, when he is stooping to pick up a sovereign, he is exactly and completely himself. Nelly Dean is similarly unchanging: in Lockwood's first two mentions of her, he describes her as "a fixture taken along with the house" and "my human fixture." We find her even in these earliest and sketchiest of descriptions acting as she always seems to do: in the first instance, deliberately ignoring a command of her new master's (all the while appearing to obey him), and in the second instance, rushing to minister to a person who is on the verge of becoming very ill.

Critics puzzle over Joseph, often dismissing him as a caricature, but Meg Harris Williams sees him as a kind of local spirit or household god: "Joseph, like the gaunt thorns and gnarled currant bushes in the garden, is part of the architecture of the house, remaining there at the end when everyone else has left, and considering himself guardian of the ancient Earnshaw blood-stock. Perpetually old, and abhorring any development or change, he appears to be immune even to the transformation of death." (22)

This raises fruitful speculations about Nelly Dean's role in the story. Looking past her gloss of efficient service and bland, articulate speech, we find a surprisingly crucial character who plays equally with Joseph the role of a nature deity and guardian spirit: nurse to the heirs of the ancient family; protector and advisor of the young, the weak, and (like Lockwood) the foolhardy; yet a guardian who is surprisingly ready to allow danger to reach those who seem, in her opinion, to deserve it. She sends her charges out into the world when she judges it is time for them to grow up; Joseph gathers them in at the close of life.

Nelly Dean shares with Joseph the odd characteristic of not changing with the decades: whereas Joseph starts out old and never seems to grow older, Nelly starts out young but never behaves as if she is young, and when she reminisces about playing with Hindley as a child, we have a hard time believing her. In one of the earliest scenes of her story, Mr. Earnshaw sets her the task of washing the newly arrived boy Heathcliff and putting him to bed just as if she were thirty instead of thirteen, and she later advises Cathy on marriage as wisely as an old woman might, despite the fact that she is twenty-two and unmarried.

At one point, when Nelly and Cathy II are locked up at Wuthering Heights, Nelly reproaches herself for being the cause "from which ... all the misfortunes of my employers sprang." (Brontë, 220) She absolves herself in the next sentence, but as we review her history, we cannot help but marvel at just how large a part she plays in Heathcliff's triumphs. "Well, we MUST be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering," Nelly remarks in one of her most famous and bewildering speeches, and we find ourselves asking whose interests exactly Nelly Dean represents. (Brontë, 81)

In her delirium or haunting, Cathy assigns both Joseph and Nelly Dean preternatural roles. Joseph is the guardian of the house, "waiting till I come home [in death] that he may lock the gate," while Nelly is a withered hag, witch of the fabled Penistone Crags, gathering elf-bolts to hurt the family while pretending she is harmless. (Brontë, 108) Interestingly enough, those crags of Nelly's (which seem to partake of some sort of primitive fertility magic) feature in two pivotal scenes where Nelly appears to do a great deal of harm while pretending she is not to blame. Both scenes advance the story in crucial ways relating to the future marriages of the two main female characters—and thus, the futures of the two families themselves.

In the first, young Heathcliff hopes to spend time with Cathy because "Joseph is loading lime on the further side of Penistone Crags." (Brontë, 63) Instead, Edgar comes and asks Cathy to marry him. Later that afternoon, Nelly neglects to inform Cathy that Heathcliff can overhear her confidences about Edgar, and Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights with the intention of never returning, thus leaving the field clear for Edgar's marriage to take place. In the second, Nelly has told Cathy II about the Crags, and when her young mistress announces her intentions of visiting them, Nelly doesn't stop her. In this way, Cathy II escapes the confines of Thrushcross Grange, learns of the existence of Wuthering Heights, meets Heathcliff and her two future husbands, and forms a relationship with Linton which determines the course of the book.

By story's end, both Yorkshire nature spirits are ensconced comfortably by the kitchen hearth of Wuthering Heights, the altar of primitive religion. Both are voicing their archetypal attitudes and holding their attributes, Nelly Dean her sewing needle and Joseph his Bible. Is it significant that Nelly is singing about the fairies? Her songs, the powerful tool of the nursemaid, often appear to have an accidental meaning in relation to the circumstances of the story. Meanwhile, the two young charges these local spirits have fostered—the surviving heirs of the old families—have been restored to their rightful place and are about to marry and strengthen the ancient bloodlines once again. No household god could ask for more. The last thing Lockwood the outsider does before leaving their sphere of influence forever is to give each of the guardian spirits an offering.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights: An Authoritative Text with Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed. Edited by William M. Sale, Jr. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1972.

Williams, Meg Harris. A Strange Way of Killing: The Poetic Structure of Wuthering Heights. Strathtay, Scotland: Clunie Press, 1987.

"Nelly & Joseph—Yorkshire Spirits" copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.

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