Victorian Folklore, Fear, Ghosts and Old Wives’ Tales

Victorian Folklore, Fear, Ghosts and Old Wives’ Tales
© Photograph by Susan Coffey

Wuthering Heights is haunted, of course. But not only by the ghost of Catherine, who harries Heathcliff and terrifies Lockwood. Not only by the shades of Heathcliff and Catherine (or Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon) who set off toward Penistone Crag. The ghosts in ‘Wuthering Heights’ are not Gothic ghosts nor the ghosts from Victorian magazine ghost stories. They represent a different kind of haunting altogether — the haunting of the Victorian middle classes by fear of the people they designated as “the folk.”

The field of folklore studies was born in the Victorian period. Amateurs who had collected “antiquities” — customs, songs, stories — became, in the early years of Victoria’s reign, “folklorists,” with their own professional societies and publications. These early Victorian collectors of folklore were participating in a larger project to help cement an English national identity by establishing an Englishness that depended on the exclusion of certain cultural groups. Much work has been done on the importance of a colonial “Other” to a developing sense of Englishness in the Victorian era, and theories about race, ethnicity, and evolution certainly interacted with popular ideas about imperialism in the public imagination. But, as Nancy Armstrong has noted, the growth of Victorian folklore studies also helped to construct the “folk” — especially Celts and rural northerners — as Other. When folklorists and their readers in nineteenth-century in the United Kingdom excluded the folk from their category of Englishness, they did it by relegating the folk to the margins; the folk thus became at once the Other against which the middle-class English could be defined and a symbol of a cultural past that the English had transcended. British folklorists helped to create the folk as Other through a gendered trope: the image that recurs throughout folklore studies in this period, and indeed throughout popular understandings of folklore even today, is the trope of the male folklorist from the city (or university) drawing information from the folksy “old wife.”

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In 1846, antiquary William Thorns renamed himself and his fellow researchers; they were henceforth to be known as collectors not of “antiquities” but of “folklore.” This new label signalled a shift in the way such field researchers thought of their material. Antiquaries had considered the customs, traditions, songs, and superstitions they collected as holdovers from a more primitive age, the oral equivalent of the potsherd. However, once these customs and tales were categorised as folklore, they became associated more closely with the people from whom they were gathered. Folktales or songs or customs were valued not so much as independent items, like physical relics, but as revelations about the true natures of the “folk” — Celts, northerners, peasants, old wives.

In the seventeenth-century, antiquarian John Aubrey had described folklore as “Old Wives Tales” that had been displaced by increased literacy: “the poor people [now] understand letters; and many good Bookes […] have put all the old Fables out of doors: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away Robin-goodfellow and the Fayries.” Folklore, associated with women, is directly opposed to man-made products such as “Bookes” and gunpowder.

Evolution was already in the air in the United Kingdom in the 1840s, although ‘Origin of Species’ was not published until 1859. By 1852 Herbert Spencer was asserting in The Westminster Review that evolutionary struggle, by eliminating the impure specimens of a race, led to a continually improving racial “type.” With geology, biology, and anthropology arguing that the progress of humanity depended on some humans beating others in the struggle for survival, it was not surprising that arguments for evolution quickly overlapped with the political and imperial aims of the United Kingdom. If humanity itself moved forward when superior types defeated inferior types, indeed the United Kingdom conquest of other peoples could be seen as part of that struggle.

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By 1871, anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor’s ‘Primitive Culture’ had helped folklorists to see their work as part of a grand scheme to assemble from within contemporary cultures those folk traditions that were survivals from “primitive cultures,” evidence of the progress of civilisations. But the folk elements in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ most of which are associated with the “old wife” Nelly Dean, simply are not primitive. To examine the novel as if it “indicate that local cultures continued to govern personal life in many parts of England” is to make Emily Jane Brontë a folklorist. Not only was Emily Jane Brontë no folklorist, but she actually seems to work against the ideological assumptions of the new folklorists. ‘Wuthering Heights’ incorporates folk genres in a way that allows them a status and authority that they could never have had in the accounts recorded by Victorian folklorists, accounts in which narrators were always already discredited, old-fashioned, uneducated “old wives.”

In ‘Wuthering Heights,’ however, the folklorist is haunted by the folk. As we will see in the relationship between the folklorist figure of Lockwood and his informant, Nelly Dean, the relative positions of folklorist and folk are not easy to pin down. Nelly tells ghost stories and sings folk songs, but her place is never as clear as Lockwood initially thinks it is. Victorian folklorists saw folk custom and lore as survivals of earlier cultures, but folk elements in ‘Wuthering Heights’ carry no such connotations. They do not indicate the primitive or the rustic. Instead, in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ folklore functions like Sigmund Freud’s uncanny; in the novel’s folkloric references, as in the uncanny, a cultural past resurfaces in psyches in which the primitive had been deeply buried. Folklore in Emily Jane Brontë’s novel reveals middle-class English culture’s repressed, unwanted links with the cultures of those who were living artefacts of a British cultural past. In this sense, the relationship between Nelly Dean and Lockwood uses and then overturns the standard trope of the folklorist and the old wife.

‘Wuthering Heights’ ghost stories do not read like the popular literary ghost stories that boosted the sales of Victorian periodicals. Nor do they resemble the occult episodes in Gothic novels. Instead, the stories of encounters with ghosts in the novel read like those in nineteenth-century collections of folklore. They are folk memorats or first-person narratives of encounters with the supernatural. Emily Jane Brontë resists early Victorian folklorists’ nostalgia for their own culture’s past by making use of the substance of folkloric writing but embedding that material in fiction. In refusing to condescend to the folk about whom she writes, but also in refusing to be one of them, Emily Jane Brontë sets ‘Wuthering Heights’ in an ambiguous, liminal position in relation to both the early Victorian novel and the newly professionalized discipline of folklore studies. This liminality helps to explain the less-than-enthusiastic reception of ‘Wuthering Heights’ in an age during which the success of the novel had come to depend on an appeal to the English middle classes. While the novel was being established as high literature, Emily Jane Brontë was integrating folk forms into her novel in a less condescending way than did Walter Scott or any of her literary predecessors who laid claim to the culture of the folk.

The Cultural Supernatural In Mid-Victorian Britain

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