Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

About Damned Time
No, there is no connection between a company that installs home security alarm systems and Wuthering Heights.  The logo is my embarrassed admission that I am a wee bit tardy in reading this classic for the first time. There are a great many books in my About Damned Time list, so this logo will be a handy short-cut in future posts for more verbose acknowledgements that I'm a literary late bloomer.

My parents had a gorgeous, boxed, hard-cover set of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, illustrated with dour engravings.  Did I ever do more than leaf through them?  Oh, no. I waited 40-odd more years and then read them on an [expletives deleted] Kindle.

My version of the e-book includes a brief biography of Emily Bronte and the introduction to a later edition written by elder sister Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre.  Charlotte noted that Wuthering Heights did not enjoy the critical success of her own novel.  Many contemporary critics wrote scathing reviews, suggesting that the novel was too coarse or vulgar to be tolerated. Yet we keep reading it and writing about it -- mountains of books, theses, term papers and articles about intolerable Wuthering Heights.  Of the classic English novels, after Pride and Prejudice, it's the second-most adapted to film.  (Haven't seen any of them yet, either.)

When I read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence years ago, I remember setting the book down and realising with a shock how violent it is. There's not a speck of physical violence, nor even a raised voice, (heaven forbid!) but the sly, ruthless and repressive upper-class culture of New York at that time left the characters emotionally eviscerated.

Heathcliff is overtly savage; his rage is not bottled up like that of Wharton's characters, but that degree of ferocity must have shocked readers expecting a much more genteel novel from the daughter of a stern Yorkshire clergyman. Almost none of the characters in Wuthering Heights is thoroughly likable except, perhaps, the narrating housekeeper and a few of the dogs. Cathy is capricious, her brother is a spoilt sot, most of the Lintons are foppish and weak. Although I may not have liked or admired any of them, I empathised with nearly all at one time or another. Heathcliff's like a wolf with his paw in a trap. I don't want to go anywhere near him, but the sight of his agony just devastates me. It strikes me that these confusing and flawed and ambiguous characters are a testament to Emily Bronte's craft. And perhaps to her own pent-up and frustrated emotions.

That leads me to wonder about the two older Bronte sisters (and now I suppose I have to read Agnes Grey  by youngest sister Anne).  It's nearly impossible to avoid comparisons between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, even if they don't sit on the shelf in one box.  Jane: self-sufficient, sensible, meek but strong. Rochester: Sombre, brooding, solid.  Cathy: Willful and fiery. Heathcliff: Obsessed, vengeful, vicious. Cathy and Heathcliff are the wild people of the moors; Jane and Rochester are much more domesticated. It seems clear from reading the novels that Emily Bronte's emotions ran much hotter than Charlotte's, and I wonder if writing the characters was her only release valve. This question obviously occurred to everyone else who's read Wuthering Heights, since the stack of Bronte biographies is as dense as the literary critiques.  (Sure, go ahead -- tack a few of those onto my reading list, too.)

I was nearly discouraged by my edition's introduction, which went on at great length about the negative reviews Wuthering Heights received. I picked it up while visiting Budapest, and my traveling companion there said that she hadn't been able to keep the Catherines and the Earnshaws straight and had found the plot a tangled mess; she much preferred Jane Eyre.  I almost tossed the book down before even starting it. After each day of sight-seeing or thermal bathing, however, I was eager to pour a glass of chilled Hungarian riesling and open the Kindle to see what Heathcliff and Cathy were up to. I just couldn't wait to read a few more pages. So often we read classics because someone else tells us that we should or that we must, but I don't have professors or parents devising my reading lists anymore. After the first few pages, I was reading Wuthering Heights for pure joy, and I'm sure that's what Emily Bronte had hoped for when she was writing it. I wonder what she would think of her wild novel turning into assigned reading for every English Lit student, fodder for countless dissertations...  Would she be pleased that her work had finally achieved the status of classic masterpiece, or would she walk out into the moors and scream?

1 comment:

  1. We're on the same wavelength! I too am feeling the need to stop Agatha Christie & read some classics! I read Wuthering Heights ages ago & Eddy has watched Jane Austen. We were comparing notes. Now I feel the need to read both!

    Not forgetting Pride & Prejudice, then Pride & Prejudice & Zombies! And Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters!


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