Ellen Dean versus Aunt Penniman

         No matter what time period or family situation, no matter what kind of home, there is always someone around who thinks they can make the best decisions for everyone. There are some who offer advice, some who force opinions, and there are some who straight up meddle in other people's business. In both Wuthering Heights, written in 1847 by Emily Brontė and filmed in 1939 by William Wyler, and in Washington Square, written in 1880 by Henry James and filmed as The Heiress in 1949 by William Wyler, these people are women who are more interested in the lives of their mistresses and nieces, than in their own welfare. Both instigators are obsessed with the idea of love. Ellen Dean (Flora Robson) and Mrs. Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) go so far as to sneak around those they love to ultimately see their wishes become reality. Both communicate with people who are unwelcome in the family and both devise plans with that person against the family's wishes. Even though Mrs. Penniman is guilty of both of those things, Ellen Dean in the book but less so in the film is guilty of more. In fact it is so much more that one could question her loyalty to the family and so much more that her scheming far outweighs that of Mrs. Penniman.

         Even though some could argue that both of these women acted the way they did because they wanted what was best for both of the Catherines in the novels, there is evidence in both stories that there were other motives. It was no secret that Mrs. Penniman had her own feelings for Morris (Montgomery Clift). She was telling Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) how charming and handsome he was even before Catherine worked up enough nerve to decide she wanted him to court her. Mrs. Penniman was no dummy either. She knew that her chance to be close to Morris was to get her niece to date him. Even after her brother, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), told her to stop interfering she continued by meeting him in remote locations, including the seventh-avenue Oyster Saloon in the book but not in the movie. I argue that Mrs. Penniman wanted these interactions with Morris more than she wanted Catherine to marry him.

         As long as Catherine was forbidden to marry Morris, Mrs. Penniman could continue to plot. In the book by Henry James she comes up with fairytale-like scenarios for their meetings. She only wanted to meet him in front of a church that no one from her congregation attended and kept an eye out for "suspicious walkers" who might be on to them. He biggest flaw with offering advice to Morris was she could not decide which was more romantic, running away to get married or staying in love and waiting until they could be together. Either way, she wanted to be present and involved at all times.

         Mrs. Penniman went as far as entertaining Morris while Catherine and he father were in Europe, and I think that it was a perfect situation for her. She was allowed to spend time with Morris while she plotted romantic ideas in her head. In the end, Mrs. Penniman was disappointed that Catherine turned Morris down, but I would argue that it would only last a little while. I think she would continue to meet with Morris behind Catherine's back to continue her plotting. Out of all of the parties involved in Washington Square and The Heiress, Mrs. Penniman was probably the least unhappy because, as long as there was a perceived love, even if it was imaginary, she would be there to try and encourage it to thrive.

         Ellen Dean had imaginary and preconceived ideas about who should be in love with whom in Wuthering Heights, but she went so far as to actually following through with plans and hurting those she supposedly loved. Even though she hurt many of the characters in the novel and even some in the movie, it is most apparent with her interactions with Catherine (Merle Oberson); Catherine's husband, Edgar (David Niven); and Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). The moment, I would argue, which started the ball rolling occurred when Ellen knew Heathcliff was listening to her and Catherine talk. She directed the conversation so Catherine began talking about her relationship with Heathcliff. Once Catherine said it would be a disgrace for her to marry him, he left and Ellen was aware. She even more aware what was coming next and that was Catherine's true feelings for Heathcliff. This is a pivotal moment because she could have very easily told Heathcliff what came afterwards and reconciled the love birds, but she remains quiet and continues her plot to have Catherine marry the wealthy Edgar.

         Ellen's "virtuous" silence is eventually what kills her mistress. In the book, when Catherine throws another one of her infamous fits and locks herself in her room, Ellen goes too far. She does not tell Catherine that Edgar is very upset and boarding himself up in the library. Instead, she tells her that he is simply in the library. Because with Catherine, much of her disease and distress is in her mind, this makes her condition worsen. And because she does not tell Edgar how Catherine is not eating and getting worse, he continues to worry in the library. It is not until Catherine is on her death bed does she finally let him in on what is really happening. In fact, she plots with Heathcliff and lets him see her before she sees her own husband. Her deception to both Catherine and Edgar actually kills Catherine which is way worse than anything Mrs. Penniman could dream up. In the book, Ellen is far less culpable and more sympathetic, although she does help Heathcliff to come and see Cathy so that she can die in his arms while looking at Penistone Crag.

         In conclusion, both Ellen Dean and Mrs. Penniman were wrong in their stories. They both communicated with those who were forbidden from the family and in the end hurt those they loved. Although Mrs. Penniman hurt Catherine by putting love stories in her head, she could never do anything that caused physical harm to her. Ellen Dean, on the other hand, could learn a lesson or two from Mrs. Penniman about staying in her place.

Elizabeth Fields

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