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The Reader's Guide to Wuthering Heights

Ellen “Nelly” Dean

Ellen, or Nelly Dean, is the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange as the novel begins and is the servant of both Catherines. Intelligent and compassionate, she is often more of a friend or relative to the characters in the book than a servant. Consequently, she knows more of the story than anyone else so is able to fill Mr Lockwood in on events.

Flora Robson as Ellen Dean
Flora Robson from the 1939 film
Judy Cornwell as Ellen Dean
Judy Cornwell from the 1970 film
Pat Heywood as Ellen Dean
Pat Heywood from the 1978 TV drama
Janet McTeer as Ellen Dean
Janet McTeer from the 1992 film
Polly Hemingway as Ellen Dean
Polly Hemingway from the 1998 TV drama
Sarah Lancashire as Ellen Dean
Sarah Lancashire from the 2009 TV drama
Simone Jackson as Ellen Dean
Simone Jackson from the 2011 film

Vital Data
Parents: few details. Her mother had nursed Hindley and lived to eighty Siblings: unknown
Date of birth: 1757 Place of birth: unknown
Married: unknown. Lockwood refers to her as "Mrs Dean" in 1801 but there is no other mention of a husband. It is probably a polite term applied to all housekeepers.
Physical description: stout when older, short of breath
Occupation: when young, her mother was nurse to Hindley so Ellen acted as a servant-cum-companion to Hindley and Catherine, playing with them and running errands. Considered herself a foster-sister to Hindley and Catherine.
Came to Thrushcross Grange in 1783 to act as Catherine's maid. Stayed on after her death as a housekeeper.
Notes: her first name may have come from Ellen Nussey, a close friend of the Brontës.

Quotes

(Childhood) … I was almost always at Wuthering Heights; because my mother had nursed Mr. Hindley Earnshaw … and I got used to playing with the children: I ran errands too, and helped to make hay, and hung about the farm ready for anything that anybody would set me to.

(1801, aged 43) At this diabolical violence I [Ellen] rushed on him furiously. 'You villain!' I began to cry, 'you villain!' A touch on the chest silenced me: I am stout, and soon put out of breath; and, what with that and the rage, I staggered dizzily back and felt ready to suffocate, or to burst a blood-vessel.

(1801, aged 44) ' … you [Ellen], my good friend, are a striking evidence against that assertion. Excepting a few provincialisms of slight consequence, you have no marks of the manners which I am habituated to consider as peculiar to your class. I am sure you have thought a great deal more than the generality of servants think. You have been compelled to cultivate your reflective faculties for want of occasions for frittering your life away in silly trifles.'

' … but I [said Ellen] have undergone sharp discipline, which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy, Mr. Lockwood. You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also …'


Wuthering Heights Housekeepers

Time Housekeeper Event Notes
Aug. 1771 Mrs Earnshaw Heathcliff arrives  
May 1773 Ellen Dean Mrs Earnshaw dies Ellen takes over, aged 15
Mar. 1783 None Catherine and Edgar marry Ellen moves to Thrushcross Grange soon after the marriage. No replacement as Hindley does not want any women in the house.
Oct. 1784 Name unknown Hindley dies Joined after the death of Hindley (chapter 18)
July 1799 Zillah Housekeeper leaves Previous housekeeper left two years after Linton arrived
Nov. 1801 Zillah Lockwood's first visit Zillah had been there "a year or two"
Jan. 1802 Ellen Dean Zillah leaves