The story of Wuthering Heights is told through flashbacks recorded in diary entries, and events are often presented out of chronological order—Lockwood’s narrative takes place after Nelly’s narrative, for instance, but is interspersed with Nelly’s story in his journal. Nevertheless, the novel contains enough clues to enable an approximate reconstruction of its chronology, which was elaborately designed by Emily Brontë. For instance, Lockwood’s diary entries are recorded in the late months of 1801 and in September 1802; in 1801, Nelly tells Lockwood that she has lived at Thrushcross Grange for eighteen years, since Catherine’s marriage to Edgar, which must then have occurred in 1783. We know that Catherine was engaged to Edgar for three years, and that Nelly was twenty-two when they were engaged, so the engagement must have taken place in 1780, and Nelly must have been born in 1758. Since Nelly is a few years older than Catherine, and since Lockwood comments that Heathcliff is about forty years old in 1801, it stands to reason that Heathcliff and Catherine were born around 1761, three years after Nelly. There are several other clues like this in the novel (such as Hareton’s birth, which occurs in June, 1778). The following chronology is based on those clues, and should closely approximate the timing of the novel’s important events. A “~” before a date indicates that it cannot be precisely determined from the evidence in the novel, but only closely estimated.
Any reader of Wuthering Heights should recognize immediately that it is not the sort of novel that a gently-bred Victorian lady would be expected to write. Emily Brontë sent it to publishers under the masculine name of Ellis Bell, but even so it took many tries and many months before it was finally accepted. Its reviews were almost entirely negative: reviewers implied that the author of such a novel must be insane, obsessed with cruelty, barbaric. Emily's sister Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre was much more successful. Emily was always eager to maintain the secrecy under which the novel was published, understandably. She died soon after the publication, and Charlotte felt obliged - now that secrecy was no longer necessary - to write a preface for the novel defending her sister's character. The preface also made it clear that Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were, in fact, different people: some readers had speculated that Wuthering Heights was an early work by the author of Jane Eyre . It appears that Charlotte herself was uncomfortable with the more disturbing aspects of her sister's masterpiece. She said that if Emily had lived, "her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree; loftier, straighter, wider-spreading, and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom." Her apology for Emily's work should be read with the realization that Charlotte's character was quite different from Emily's: her interpretation of Wuthering Heights should not necessarily be taken at face value.