Timelines in Emily Brontë’s «Wuthering Heights»

by Michael Weber (Author)
©2020 Monographs 208 Pages


The temporal structure of Wuthering Heights has long been regarded as opaque or even flawed. This is explained by the fact that the years 1778, 1801 and 1802 do not entirely cohere with the numerous relative time references in the novel if, as scholarship contends, the years 1801 and 1802 refer to Ellen Dean’s narration of the story. By means of mathematically precise calculations and a grammatical analysis of the text, this critical new approach argues that the time frame of Wuthering Heights is sound if the years 1801 and 1802 date the writing of Mr. Lockwood’s diary. The crucial differentiation between the recording of Mr. Lockwood’s diary and the narration of Ellen Dean’s story leads to a deeper understanding of the intentions of the two narrators and the behaviour of the protagonists.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preliminary Notes
  • I. Questions and Contradictions
  • II. The Temporal Structure of the Novel
  • The Report and the Story – Formal and Functional Narrative Aspects
  • Dating Methodology
  • The Time Scheme of Mr. Lockwood’s Report
  • Mr. Lockwood the diarist
  • Mr. Lockwood the clairvoyant
  • Mr. Lockwood the patient
  • Mr. Lockwood the contemporary witness
  • Mr. Lockwood the tourist
  • The Time Scheme of Ellen Dean’s Story
  • Time references based on textual content (internal evidence)
  • Time references based on numerical data (external evidence)
  • Time references based on misleading ages
  • The misleading ages – background and consequences
  • The Time Scheme of Wuthering Heights
  • The Report and the Story – Temporal and Chronological Aspects
  • III. The Chronologies
  • The Definitive Chronology
  • The Traditional Chronologies
  • Sanger’s chronology (1926)
  • Clay’s commentary on the chronology (1952)
  • Goodridge’s time structure (1964)
  • Power’s commentary (1972)
  • Daley’s almanacs (1974)
  • Daley’s revision of Sanger’s chronology (1995 and 2003)
  • IV. A Practical Chronology
  • Mr. Earnshaw (c. 1712–1775)
  • Mrs. Earnshaw (?–1772)
  • Heathcliff Earnshaw (?)
  • Ellen (Nell, Nelly) Dean (1754–)
  • Hindley Earnshaw (1756–1783)
  • Frances Earnshaw (c. 1757–1778)
  • Edgar Linton (1761–1800)
  • Mr. Heathcliff (probably 1763–April 1801)
  • Isabella Linton (1764–July 1796)
  • Catherine (Cathy) Earnshaw (1765–20/3/1783)
  • Hareton Earnshaw (June 1778–)
  • Mr. Lockwood (probably 1778–)
  • Catherine (Cathy) Linton (20/3/1783–)
  • Linton Heathcliff (1783–1801)
  • V. The Ghost
  • VI. The Genealogies of the Earnshaw and Linton Families
  • The Critical Genealogy
  • The Alternative Genealogies
  • The Traditional Genealogies
  • VII. The Chronology as Practical Narratology
  • Playing with Two Eyewitnesses
  • Playing with the Temporal Structure
  • Playing with Time
  • VIII. Answers and Solutions
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

Preliminary Notes


Quotations are taken from Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights, The World’s Classics 10, Oxford University Press, London, 1972 (abbreviated ‘WH’). The chronologically relevant time references and grammatical tenses of this edition are identical to those of the two critical editions, that is the 1976 Clarendon Edition edited by Hilda Marsden and Ian Jack (Clarendon Press, Oxford), and the 2003 Fourth Edition of the Norton Critical Edition edited by Richard J. Dunn (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London), as well as the English and North American First Editions (Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell, Thomas Cautley Newby Publishers, London, 1847, and Wuthering Heights by the Author of “Jane Eyre”, New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 82 Cliff Street, 1848). The 2009 Oxford University Press Edition of Wuthering Heights has not been used because, according to the editor, “some […] minor typographical errors in Clarendon have been silently amended” (Small, p. XXIV). These modifications include the length of the dashes on the first page of the novel.

Chapter references:

References to chapters in Wuthering Heights are written in Arabic numerals (e.g. Chapter 32); references to chapters in this book are written in Roman numerals (e.g. Chapter II).

The term ‘time reference’:

The term ‘time reference’ is used to refer to all expressions of time, both concrete and relative, and include references to days, months, years, dates, ages, time spans, festive occasions, seasons and weather connected to those seasons.

Character names:

Because several characters have the same name, certain precautions must be taken to avoid any confusion. What is more, it should be noted that certain names are liable to sway value judgements, and this applies not least to their use by the narrators in the novel itself. To avoid these problems, the following neutral names are used.

Heathcliff: He has no surname. From the year 1782, after his return to Wuthering Heights, Ellen Dean addresses him as Mr. Heathcliff, though she continues to call him Heathcliff when narrating the story. In order to counteract the widespread though unjustified disdain for his person, her example is not followed ←11 | 12→here, even if this deviates from philological practice. From 1782 he is called Mr. Heathcliff, and indeed Mr. Lockwood only ever speaks of him in this way.

Catherine Linton: Edgar Linton always calls his daughter Cathy and his wife Catherine. By doing so, he not only distinguishes between mother and daughter, he avoids calling his wife by the name that Mr. Heathcliff has used for her since their childhood together: Cathy (WH, 228). Catherine Linton (the daughter), however, is frequently called Catherine, not Cathy, by others. In order to distinguish between mother and daughter and to avoid misunderstandings, here the daughter is called Cathy – as Daley suggests (1974, p. 340). Stevenson (1985, p. 165) does the opposite, even though it is more plausible to refer to the daughter by the name usually used to address her. Mr. Heathcliff calls Catherine Linton “Miss Linton” or “Catherine Linton”. After he marries her to Linton Heathcliff, he either calls her Catherine or he uses insults. Unlike Edgar Linton, he never calls her “Cathy”, the name he called her mother.

All other main characters: As children and youngsters, they are called by their first names only, as adults by their first names and surnames.

Married female characters: After marriage, their maiden names continue to be used to aid identification and to avoid the use of double surnames.

Textual style:

Book and journal titles, technical and literary terms and terms defined in the text are in italics. Emphasis, especially chronologically important information, is letterspaced. Direct quotations are in double quotation marks.

I. Questions and Contradictions

When reading Wuthering Heights, sooner or later – and always when it is too late to orientate oneself chronologically – the question arises as to the timing of events at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The reason for this is the legendary “confusion of minds” which inevitably sets in during reading.1 This confusion is due to the year 1801 given at the beginning of the novel, which suggests that events can be dated from this point on, and that Mr. Lockwood arrives at Thrushcross Grange in the winter towards the end of 1801 when Ellen Dean then begins her story. After this, the novel is filled with an abundance of time spans with reference to the second absolute year named in the text, 1778, the year of Hareton Earnshaw’s birth (Chapters 7 and 8). Confusing forward and backward references also appear, along with a plethora of indefinite time expressions. The third and last absolute year named in the text, 1802, appears surprisingly late towards the end of the novel at the beginning of Chapter 32.

Based on these time references, literary criticism has contended, for example, that the wedding of Catherine Earnshaw and Edgar Linton takes place three years after the death of Edgar’s father when Hareton is nearly five years old, and that Cathy is eighteen and Hareton twenty-three when they become lovers. These claims suggest that the major episode – the short, highly dramatic period with the near-fatal fall of Hareton, the disappearance of Heathcliff and the illness of Catherine Earnshaw – takes place in the year 1780, the wedding in 1783, the death of Catherine Earnshaw in 1784, and that the relationship between Cathy and Hareton begins in 1802, the same year in which Mr. Heathcliff dies. However, there is another indirect time reference to the birth of Hareton Earnshaw, namely that Cathy is thirteen and Hareton eighteen when they meet for the first time. This places their rendezvous in 1796, Cathy’s birth in 1783 and the wedding of Catherine Earnshaw and Edgar Linton in 1782. These dates are corroborated by Ellen Dean’s statement that her story begins almost twenty-three years after the birth of Hareton, that is in 1800, not in 1801.

In light of these contradictions, the general reader resolves to re-read the novel at some point and to pay closer attention to all the time expressions in order not to lose track of time again. This resolution either remains just that, due to insufficient interest in fictional numbers, or it ends unsuccessfully: even re-readers will still not know exactly how long Catherine is engaged, how old she is when she ←13 | 14→dies, how long Mr. Heathcliff lives after her death and how old he is when he dies, or how long after Edgar Linton’s funeral Mr. Lockwood appears at Wuthering Heights, to name just a few examples. The general reader will also not recognise in the Cathy of Ellen Dean’s account the Cathy of Mr. Lockwood’s and will gradually even mix up the two Catherines, losing all feeling for the intervals of time between events, eventually realising that “a powerful and accurate memory” is needed to understand Wuthering Heights.2

If readers turn to academic criticism for help, they will find only divergent and unconvincing opinions on the – for a classic novel like Wuthering Heights – unusually extensive and complicated references to time and their relevance. This will confirm the old observation that literature on Wuthering Heights is “abundant and its incoherence striking”.3 There are in fact only four chronological studies that are sufficiently detailed and that present distinct versions of the novel’s chronology, namely those by Charles Sanger (1926), Charles Clay (1952), S. A. Power (1972) and Stuart Daley (1974). All these authors assume that the year 1801 mentioned at the beginning of the novel is the crucial date for determining the novel’s chronology, taking this date as the basis for their calculations without questioning it. In his analysis of the internal structure of the novel, by which he clearly means the time frame or temporal structure, Sanger establishes a time scheme for the plot which is not always accurate. He also works out the first and only comprehensive chronology and genealogy of the Earnshaw and Linton families, though without going into much detail, arguably due to lack of space. He recommends further study on the question of whether Emily Brontë worked with a calendar, something that he himself does not believe (Sanger, pp. 11, 19). Clay, in his commentary on the chronology of Wuthering Heights, also constructs a genealogy, which he explains in more detail than Sanger, though without referencing Sanger’s research. He believes, like Sanger, that he is able to detect errors in the time structure of the novel, tangling himself up in contradictions in the process (Clay, p. 100). Power points out individual discrepancies in Clay’s research and finds contradictions in the work of Sanger as well. Nevertheless, like Sanger, he assumes that Wuthering Heights is not based on a real calendar. Lastly, Daley (1974, p. 337), adopting and modifying Sanger’s chronology, assumes there to be a “precise […] timing of events”, a time scheme based on historical almanacs, though it is not entirely decipherable and contains errors.4

←14 | 15→

Besides these four authors, a few other critics have looked at the chronology of Wuthering Heights: Inga-Stina Ewbank (1976) recaps Daley’s dates, making only one change. Her research cannot therefore be counted as an independent chronology. The same applies to Masao Miyoshi’s “internal chronology”, first published in 1989 without commentary and then re-published unchanged in 1994. Miyoshi splits Sanger’s chronology in two, shortens it, reformulates it in places and makes only one change – that of the date of Mr. Heathcliff’s death. Moreover, he adds inaccurate information regarding the dates on which, in his opinion, Ellen Dean tells Mr. Lockwood about the Earnshaw and Linton families. In his monograph A Chronology of the Process of Writing Wuthering Heights, Edward Chitham (1998) uses data from the works of Sanger, Clay, Power, Daley and Ewbank.5 He does not undertake any of his own research into the internal chronology of Wuthering Heights, and his remarks concerning the chronology of the novel are ambivalent. On the one hand, he speaks of an “intellectual control of the material”, a “careful chronological framework” and a “tight chronological control”, undertaken only secondarily by Emily Brontë after 1845 for various reasons. On the other hand, he alleges that the “arithmetic [of the chronology] simply does not add up”, that there are “inconsistencies”, that the novel is a “chronological muddle” (an expression that Sanger uses before him) and that Emily Brontë made errors of calculation in her chronology. Chitham asserts that, because of this, the chronology is not perfect and sometimes appears “intractable”. He puts this down to the fact that Emily Brontë failed to correct some of these errors, possibly because it was more important to her to keep the temporal references to her own life than to have a consistent chronology.6 Moreover, Chitham (1998, p. 5) believes that Wuthering Heights “only gave up its chronological framework in the 1920s”, clearly thinking of Sanger’s publication of 1926, though Sanger himself never made such a claim. Like Chitham, Christopher Heywood (2004, pp. 433f.) tries to get to grips with the arithmetic of the chronology by using real data, albeit with data from local events from the history of Yorkshire rather than with data from Emily Brontë’s biography. To do so, he makes use of some of Sanger’s data, without adopting Sanger’s formulation of the text passages and “actions” that he uses – although he doubts that Sanger’s chronology is correct. He therefore does not create a distinct, consistent chronological study, either.

←15 | 16→

Some years before Heywood, Ulrich C. Knoepflmacher (1994, p. 50) writes of several “competing chronologies” in Wuthering Heights, which Emily Brontë “mixes” in order to depict the conflict between the novel’s “temporal progressions” and its “timelessness”, probably alluding to Miyoshi’s above-mentioned chronology, which Knoepflmacher published. In his own publication, Miyoshi detects two “time-schemes” in Wuthering Heights, the “straight chronological” and “ordinary time” of Mr. Lockwood and the “mythical time” of the “Heathcliff-Cathy generation”, coming to the conclusion that “[a];t the end of the story myth is swallowed up in time” (1969, p. 217). Alison Booth is clearly referring to this when she deems the chronology to be “[a]t once mythic and calendrically precise” (2009, p. xxx). Heywood (2004, p. 433) also mentions two such timelines, which he calls the “1778 and 1779 series (numerical series)”, without citing the studies by Knoepflmacher or Miyoshi. Heywood is not able to resolve the discrepancy of the timelines. He is so convinced that 1801, the starting point of his “1779 series”, dates the year of Mr. Lockwood’s first visit to Wuthering Heights that he even considers that Hareton Earnshaw could in fact have been born in 1779, rather than in 1778, even though 1778 is the only absolute year named by Ellen Dean and refers unambiguously to Hareton’s birth. Conal Boyce (2013) reflects on Catherine Earnshaw’s date of birth and draws six chronological conclusions. Otherwise he adopts, but only in part, Sanger’s chronology and the “traditional dates” derived from it, considering the dates to be “generally accepted nowadays uncritically” (2013, pp. 100, 101). What is more, he admits that his revision could be “myopic” and “simply erroneous”.

Hardly a treatise exists on Wuthering Heights that does not assert that the plot of the novel is told in an unchronological fashion by Ellen Dean and Mr. Lockwood. Gerda Stedman (2015, pp. 80–83) even employs the semantically rather unclear term “achronological”, though it is debatable whether this means here that the chronological order of events is not adhered to or that the novel does not have a (rigorous) chronology. H. W. Garrod (1930, p. xii) remarks that Wuthering Heights, according to some, is “careless in its indications of date”. Again and again, Ellen Dean is accused of not always being accurate in her chronology; of being an unreliable, untrustworthy narrator just like Mr. Lockwood.7 W. Somerset Maugham counts Wuthering Heights amongst the ten greatest ←16 | 17→novels in world literature and pays Emily Brontë unparalleled compliments, but at the same time he considers the novel “very clumsily constructed […] very imperfect” (1948, pp. 130, 132, 133). Unsurprisingly, he was severely rebuked (cf. Weir, p. 414). Robert Gleckner (1959, p. 330) is of the opinion that the novel does not report so much “an orderly progression in chronological time of separated, discontinuous events” but that the narrative structure conveys “a kind of all-pervading present, of which the past and the future are integral parts”, with past episodes appearing like flashbacks. Walter Kluge (1972, p. 1238) claims that the novel is not chronological, not “linear”. Carol Louise West (1981, pp. i–ii) also believes there to be “nonlinear representations of time” in Wuthering Heights, and that monthly “cyclical recurrences” represent the “ordering principle” of the novel, by which she probably means the plot. She considers the studies by Sanger and his successors to be “very technical” (which Sanger presciently feared, and which could explain their wide acceptance, though seemingly paradoxically at first), and the philosophically-oriented studies on temporality to be “very general”.8 West supposes that Emily Brontë is concerned with more than just “conventional distinctions between past, present, and future” (ibid., p. iv).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
Romananalyse viktorianische Literatur narrative Struktur Narratologie Literatur und Medizin Literaturgeschichte
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 208 pp., 12 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Michael Weber (Author)

Michael Weber was Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Freiburg, Germany. As a scientist, he is fascinated by the temporal structure of Wuthering Heights and has extensively explored literary paradoxes in medicine and literature.


Title: Timelines in Emily Brontë’s «Wuthering Heights»