About the Book

Book Protagonist: Heathcliff
Publication Date: 1847
Genre: Romance

Historical Context

Wuthering Heights

By Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ has an undercurrent historical background tracing back to the 1770s, when slavery in the United Kingdom was abolished by Lord Mansfield’s verdict.

Even so, there are other influencing historical factors in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – such as the Brontë family tradition, as well as the established church. All these factors add up to what is regarded today as the backstory to Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights.’ 

Lord Mansfield’s Verdict on Slavery

The judgment of Lord Mansfield proved a very important event in history that aided the abolition of slavery globally. Yet even though readers don’t get to see such a great event play out within the chapters of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ its influence on the atmosphere and characters of the book is evident.

While Lord Mansfield’s judgment on slavery came in 1772, a year after Mr. Earnshaw brought Heathcliff home to Yorkshire from Liverpool, the event did trigger the start of a general acceptance of all African Americans in the United Kingdom as free people and to live freely and given equal rights while on UK soil. 

This acceptance is seen playing out in the book, and even though the idea proves novel and unfamiliar to the society in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ a few families, including the Lintons and the Brontës, exhibited having an open mind towards a member of the black race. Heathcliff, although, gets the treatment from his adopted family – starting with the moment he’s introduced by Mr. Earnshaw to his wife. Mr. Earnshaw’s description of the homeless child proves too sharp and straight to be considered non-racist as we can see below. 

…a gift from God, though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil.

Even though there’s no denying the fact that young Heathcliff is genuinely loved by Mr. Earnshaw and taken in as his child (adopted), it still doesn’t stop him from singling out the child’s skin and comparing drawing comparisons with the devil. Throughout the book, instances abound such as this, and readers get to see other characters speak to or treat Heathcliff a certain way based on this. 

Although these treatments can partly be blamed as the reason the protagonist turns from sweet boy to sour man through the pages of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ there’s no doubt Lord Mansfield’s submission acts as an important softener to the harsh treatment of people of color, both in the 18th century English reality and in the reality of Emily Brontë’s book.

The Brontë’s Family History

The Brontë family heritage and way of living can be seen as another background factor that influences the way that ‘Wuthering Heights’ turns out as a book. Just in a similar way the Brontë siblings bonded and played together – building stories, writing poems and creating imaginary characters, and making a belief world, so is the feeling and atmosphere of the Earnshaws – particularly with Heathcliff and Catherine.

Another aspect that shapes Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the theme of death and how it sweeps in, rather untimely, to have its way on several characters of the book. From the perspective of a reader who may know a thing or two about the author’s personal life and how she’d suffered through several tragedies of losing her loved ones, it may be safe to see these themes as a reflection of her very own life experiences, both of good times and tragedies. 

The Established Church

The 18th century oversaw an evangelical movement that not only sweeps through England but also to other parts of the world. This event was such an important one in English history as it was for the world because it dislodged the then-status quo and impacted many families, influencing their ways of life. Such event indirectly takes a toll on the plot setting and lives of the characters in Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ with Lockwood’s dream about Jabes Branderham, and the church situated at Gimmerton being two such instances portraying evangelical revival as being part of the book’s historical context.


What is a major historical context of ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë?

Lord Mansfield’s judgment comes up as being the frontal historical context of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ although other contexts – such as Christian movements – come up top as well.

Why is ‘Wuthering Heights’ perceived today as being racist but not so much back in the day?

The reason for that is because during the early days of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ around the late 1840s, the subject of race that was making the news then was slavery and the end of it, not racism or being racially insulted. 

Is ‘Wuthering Heights’ a true account of the author?

No. ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë is a fictional book drawn from similar experiences of the author over the cause of her life.

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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