Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I first read Wuthering Heights in 1964, when I was sixteen years old and it was required reading for the NSW Leaving Certificate exam. I did not re-read it between then and July 2009. I wondered how much I would recall of my experiences and reactions forty-five years ago. In fact, it seemed it was not very much. It is hard, moreover, to know how much of what I thought I remembered is genuine memory of my adolescent reading, and how much stems from the fact that Wuthering Heights is a part of the cultural heritage shared in the English-speaking world even by people who have never read the novel. Over the years I have seen comedy sketches in which the novel is swiftly evoked by a stormy moorland scene, a dark and sombre figure called Heathcliff, and a blond heroine called Cathy. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Haworth parsonage, home for most of their short lives of Emily and her sisters Charlotte and Anne (though plans to walk to 'Wuthering Heights' were thwarted by lack of time). The town of
Haworth lives as much by the Brontes as Stratford on Avon lives by Shakespeare.

I do recall being warned as a schoolboy that Wuthering Heights is not just the story of the passionate romance between Heathcliff and the elder Cathy, a mistaken view which the famous 1939 film, starring Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon, encourages, as it presents only the first half of the book, stopping soon after the elder Cathy's death. On rereading the book I in fact found this celebrated love affair a bit tedious and melodramatic. I appreciate that this is probably an heretical view, and may be in some eyes almost a sacrilegious one The introduction to the edition before me claims that 'There are few more convincing, less sentimental accounts of passionate love that Wuthering Height' and it is indeed true that the novel is no uncritical celebration of the love of the Heathcliff and Cathy. One sees clearly its limitations and its destructive power. But there is something very adolescent about it (as is realistic - the chronology of the novel reveals that the elder Cathy is not yet nineteen years old when she dies, and Heathcliff seems only slightly older). For this reader, at least, most of the other character interactions are more interesting. It is impressive how Emily Bronte makes convincing what is really a wildly improbable plot: two small households living a few miles apart are linked in a couple of generations by no fewer than four marriages.

A small world is brilliantly evoked. Though popular culture encourages us to think of the setting as bleak and stormy, summer and sunshine on the moors are presented no less vividly than winter. Even relatively minor characters emerge vividly: Lockwood, the narrator who purportedly is writing the book, is an amusingly self-obsessed and emotionally limited representative of the 'outside' world who briefly finds his way into the Wuthering Heights world, and Nelly Dean, who tells most of the story to entertain Lockwood while he is unwell, clearly has her own quirks and prejudices. Even Joseph, the sanctimonious servant, emerges as a distinctive figure, comic in his hypocrisy (though he is not always easy to understand!).

The 1939 film ended, basically, and controversially, with the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy united and wandering the moors. The novel has a more life-affirming conclusion, with the prospect of happier times emerging from the union of the younger Cathy and Hareton. But perhaps more memorable at the end is the description of the last days of Heathcliff, in which the monster (for so he is, in most respects) wins a measure of our sympathy that most of his career does little to evoke.

Wuthering Heights is a novel of its times and of the circumstances in which it was created. It is frequently melodramatic and improbable. But it is beautifully written, magnificently plotted, and possesses an archetypal power which helps explains why it enjoys a place in our culture matched by only a handful of novels .


Faye said...

I appreciate your comments on Wuthering Heights very much - very enjoyable. I read Wuthering Heights just about a year ago and was stunned by the different way i felt about it. i read it with another book group at the time - all women of a certain age who had all read it when much younger . To a woman we all found it a different experience than what we had remembered - especially re Heathcliffe . Some had the very distinct memory that he was an exciting romantic handsome character . And we all thought on this second reading he was quite contrary to that.

I see it as a powerful novel as you do - I think your summary paragraph is very good and I agree with it. I would however add one thought - I think Emily's depiction of Heathcliffe - melodramatic and all - is a brilliant piece of characterisation . He had a dreadful childhood and that is shown to have made him monster he became . I loved that in a 19th c novel by a very young woman. It certainly added to the enjoyment of the work for me.
Again, thanks for your great comments.

John Kennedy said...

I am interested to hear that your group found Heathcliff a less attractive figure on re-reading the novel later in life, Faye. I think I was surprised myself that he is as thoroughly unpleasant in most respects as he is.

But I think you are quite right in drawing attention to the way in which Emily Bronte presents him as a product of his upbringing. Her contemporary Dickens, great though he was, and despite the advantage, one might have thought, of a much wider experience of people and circumstances, often seems remarkably unaware of any connection between background and character. The impossibly saintly heroines (Amy Dorrit, Esther Summerson (Bleak House) etc. are among the somewhat unfortunate consequences,