About a month ago, there was a fiery Twitter thread that stemmed from this query by @ryanaboyd: Give me your spiciest, maddest, most sacrilegious Book Opinion? When @SquigglyRick replied: you don’t HAVE to read the classics. Many are “good” simply because we’ve been told they are, people had opinions.
Debates surrounding “the classics” and what should and shouldn’t be considered part of the literary canon circle around what is important, necessary, and relevant. But all of these terms are subjective. What is true about the books holding court on these lists is that their authors are often male, primarily white, and frequently (at least) middle class. And like so many other debates outside of literature that stem from long internalized beliefs established by wealthy white men, the dialogue surrounding the canon frequently becomes divisive.
In the Twitter conversation, they pushed Jane Austen under the bus first, and then they dragged Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights behind her. Female authors. “Girl books.”
Austen and Bronte’s books are considered classic, listed as part of the literary canon on Goodreads, and are often required reading in classrooms. So why were they so quickly trashed on Twitter? One clear answer lies in their femaleness. (And not just the femaleness of the authors, but the content. I don’t often see the worthiness of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein questioned, but the narrator there is male, the monster is, too, and the women in Shelley’s story die.) There must be more to this.
After reading the thread, I dug around and found my beat-up old copy of Wuthering Heights. It has split in half with age and it smells like a basement. Across the top of its worn purple cover is this proclamation: “The most haunting love story in the English Language.” For a moment I wondered if perhaps it is this misnomer that puts people off. It is haunting, sure, but the characters are abhorrent: selfish, childish, greedy, and shallow. Wuthering Heights is not a love story, but an exercise in digging into the rich difficulty of reading unlikable characters. Perhaps people’s disdain could be tempered if the description was reframed?
But the disdain for Wuthering Heights and the criticism of its place among classic literature goes beyond that. In fact, Wuthering Heights was never really well-received.The book has survived because of the ways it breaks from tradition—no one is likable, Byronic heroes are problematic, overwrought emotions are tiresome—but her descriptions of place, family, and greed are well-crafted and timeless. I would argue that the problem people have with this book is that it is mostly narrated by Ellen (Nelly) Dean, the housemaid. And Nelly’s perspective is the perspective of a gossip. And gossip is traditionally, negatively, female.
(Am I being a gossip here, in this post, as I write about stranger’s tweets?)
The word gossip was primarily used as a noun and stemmed from the word godsibb, meaning one’s child’s godfather or godmother. Further reading down the tiny type in the OED reveals that the definition of a gossip (one who gossips) moved from “friend and chum” to “female friends present during childbirth.”
This connection between gossip and birth inextricably links it to femaleness. And though he is certainly not the first to portray gossip negatively, Shakespeare, that old canonical fellow, may have helped perpetuate our adverse association with gossip. Much Ado About Nothing is all about gossip; we see gossip in Cymbeline as well as in Hamlet, where Polonius is a bit of a gossip; and in Romeo and Juliet, he connects gossip to femaleness when Capulet refers to the “gossip’s bowl,” which was a glass bowl used to hold an alcoholic beverage similar to eggnog and given to the new mother and the women present in the birthing room.
As Victoria Jackson mentions in the article linked above, “by referencing the gossip’s bowl, Capulet is referring to gossipy women who were thought to chatter excessively about trivial matters, as well as alluding to the fact that the Nurse attends to women.” Like their bodies, intimate conversations between women are policed, trivialized, and shamed. However, like any complicated social rule, gossip isn’t just tied to gender and sexuality. (When not used to describe women, gossips are often homosexual men). Gossip goes beyond gender. It is also about class.
Like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Nelly is a housemaid, a nurse, and a caretaker. She explains to Lockwood (and to her readers) that she grew up with Catherine and Heathcliff. They are close in age—contemporaries—but not really. Nelly occupies an interesting space, for she is both like and not like the rest of the characters in the story. And because of her status (or lack thereof) she is perpetually inside and outside of everyone’s most intimate actions.
Despite this movement, Nelly is also stuck. She is, in many ways, a fulcrum between Catherine and Heathcliff. Not just as facilitator to their meanings, but as an occupier of a middle place between their social statuses. Heathcliff is an outsider, a brute, unpredictable and cunning. Catherine is also wild but moves up the class ladder by marrying Edgar. Nelly, fair and female like Catherine, is bound to her role because of the status she was born into. Heathcliff, bullish and coarse, is bound to his status because of his beginnings, too.
Because of her position, Nelly moves inside the house as a spectator, collecting the bits of everyone’s comings and goings. No one pays her any mind until they need her. Gossips are privy to secrets but not part of them, free to share with others. And when she tells the story to Lockwood, she brings him into the folds of the drama.
We fault Nelly for gossiping, but it is Lockwood who asked for the story. For the first three chapters he is the narrator, but upon meeting her he thinks, “She is not a gossip, I feared, unless about her own affairs, and those could hardly interest me.” It is Lockwood who wanted the gossip. He actively sought her out and hoped that she would spill the beans without including too much about her own life. Yet no fault is laid on Lockwood, who eagerly listens and, we believe, writes the story down. There is no gossip without a listener, but gossip gets a bad reputation, especially because of its gendered and class distinctions. It goes against the grain of the canon—that is, wealthy and male.
But wait. Wuthering Heights, though criticized, is still considered canonical despite the gossip. Why? Because it’s not just about gender and class. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Are Watching God, and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place are all books missing from most lists of literary classics. All of them are written and by and about Black women. All of them contain characters we would classify as gossips.
So even though it is often tossed into the fire when debates arise about of what classics are “good,” Wuthering Heights hangs on. Is it its whiteness that keeps it on the list? Is Wuthering Heights, like Nelly Dean, both in and out of the conversation?
Gossip is a framing device, used to let readers see into the lives of characters from a point of view that is both intimate and distant. Gossip is powerful because it gives shape to narrative in a voice that does not come from an actor, but the spectator. And in many novels, the spectator is of a lower social standing.
However, the person doing the gossiping possesses a complicated type of influence. Though the gossipers come from lower social and economic classes, their ability to move so closely to those who have privilege gives makes them privy to secret information. The gossip they share wields immense power, and that is why those with the most authority want to squash it.
Maybe we need to rethink how we (de)value gossip. Or give it a new name. (If we call it “locker room talk,” will it be accepted?)
Or maybe instead of twining gossip to race, class, and gender roles too often ignored in conversations about classic literature, we can step back and think about how perhaps all novels are gossip. Nelly is a teller and Lockwood is her listener. Like gossip, stories need an audience. From a distance, it seems to me that what we love about gossip is that it brings us deep into the human condition, it lets us peer into lives of others in order for us to measure our own actions. And isn’t that what we love about novels, too?