Sunday, 31 August 2014

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

"... beware the fascination that lurks in Catherine Heathcliff's brilliant eyes."

The 1840s saw the publications of Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, A Christmas Carol, and Agnes Grey. Then, in 1847, along came Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, writing under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell. What a shocker of a book it must have been then, yet today it is generally acknowledged to be one of the finest books ever written. Unlike many of our much loved English classics, this is not based in London or the south of England but in the north: the West-Riding of Yorkshire. It portrays a romance of the most brutal, violent, and unwholesome kind between two fascinating characters, at once magnetic and repulsive. Charlotte Brontë wrote, in a preface to the new edition (I'm not sure of the exact date),
To all such [who are unfamiliar with the West-Riding of Yorkshire] 'Wuthering Heights' must appear a rude and strange production. The wild moors of the north of England can for them have no interest; the language, the manners, the very dwellings and household customs of the scattered inhabitants of those districts, must be to such readers in great measure unintelligible, and - where intelligible - repulsive. Men and women who are, perhaps, naturally very calm, and with feelings moderate in degree, and little marked in kind, have been trained from their cradle to observe the utmost evenness of manner and guardedness of language, will hardly know what to make of the rough, strong utterance, the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled aversions, and headlong partialities of unlettered moorland hinds and rugged moorland squires, who have grown up untaught and unchecked, except by mentors as harsh as themselves.
"Harsh" is indeed the word for this novel, everything about it is harsh. The love, the landscape, the characters, their conversations, and even the cursed house, Wuthering Heights itself. Everything is amplified, it is not merely grim, it is violently so. It is not "wild", as Charlotte Brontë wrote later in the preface, but almost bestial. It is a natural horror, with or without its supernatural element, and the moors, the wild and windy moors are a character too, untamed and inhuman. 

Charlotte went on to write, "Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is". He is seen as a great romantic character of literature, whose love was strong and unchanging even in the face of her death.
"May she wake in torment!" he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. "Why, she's a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there - not in heaven - not perished - where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings - Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you - haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe - I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!"
Earlier in the novel, Catherine says, in the much-quoted passage of Volume I Chapter IX,
"... he's more of myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mind are the same, and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire."
And at the beginning of this speech of hers, she says she dreamt she went to heaven, and "heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke up sobbing for joy." To call Catherine and Heathcliff "unchristian" is the very mildest criticism of their character. 

Their love, on the face of it, seems to be the very height of romantic, however their love is destructive: it destroys each other and everything and everyone else in its wake. It is a selfish and possessive love that turns Heathcliff bitter, cruel, sadistic, and inhuman. It twists him, and everything he does not have is all he can see, and he violently punishes those around him for his misfortune. I cannot imagine a less desirable lover for anyone, so how he has become a great romantic hero is anybody's guess. It is, for that reason, often misunderstood, and furthermore, it is a novel in two parts: so often in adaptations the second volume, the story after Cathy and Heathcliff, is forgotten. For all it is loved, the entire story is not quite as well known as it ought to be.

Ghosts and devils lurk within Wuthering Heights. It's a frightening book with so much energy in its pages that can scarcely be contained. It is the wind, the moors, and everything that is wild. And because Brontë was so familiar with the landscape she captured she knew better than to make it a beautiful romance, and, with regard to Cathy and Heathcliff, I think remembering it as such does Brontë a disservice. What it is exactly, I do not know. But it is compulsive reading: it draws you in and secures you in the nightmare, and even after reading it for what is now a third time, I cannot look away. The more I read it the more I love it.

So, finally, to conclude, here are some photographs accompanying the 1911 edition Thornton edition:


  1. Nice post. I agree with most of what you wrote above, especially "I cannot imagine a less desirable lover for anyone, so how he has become a great romantic hero is anybody's guess." and "And because Brontë was so familiar with the landscape she captured she knew better than to make it a beautiful romance, and, with regard to Cathy and Heathcliff, I think remembering it as such does Brontë a disservice."
    Stephenie Meyer is, I think, 1 of those people who see it as a beautiful romance.

    1. Really? I haven't read any Stephanie Meyer. I feel that I ought to, but I just don't think I'd enjoy them. I've not even seen the films!

  2. I agree with what you say too, but I just couldn't enjoy it as much as you did. "Selfish & possessive love" is an oxymoron and I just can understand how anyone could see their relationship as love, just like you mentioned. I also couldn't get over the dramatics (I don't mind drama but I thought there was over-drama) and how the characters were manipulated to get out of them what was wanted to move the story along. I think because I read it as a classic, I was more critical. If I had just read it as an old gothic thriller, I probably would have enjoyed it more. That said, I can see why other people like it, so there is hope for me after all! ;-)

    1. It was indeed intensely dramatic. I was absolutely enthralled by it, but I can very easily see how it might be a rather tiring experience, and not in a good way :)

  3. I am so glad you put those pictures up. It might jolt some Brontë Romantics into realizing that the Brontës did not live out on the moors, but in town. Kind of on the edge, actually.

    Your guess about how Heathcliff became a romantic hero is correct - the movies did it, beginning with the Olivier version of the character, and they did it by omitting huge chunks of the novel. Has there ever been a film version that includes the Reverend Jabe Branderham? Has there ever even been one that includes the part where Heathcliff hangs his wife's dog?

    The real puzzle is how so many readers of the actual text itself are unable to shake off the effects of the movies, unable to read the book in front of their eyes.

    1. Tom, I know it's a very long time since you commented but I'm afraid I've just seen it now!

      I always thought the Brontës lived out in the moors - and such was the power of the myth I believed it until relatively recently despite actually going there when I was 10! But it's always good to remember the facts about the Brontës, however compelling and beautiful the myth is, it is simply a myth.

      There *is* a film that shows Heathcliff hanging the dog, but from what I remember it's unclear whether the dog is left there. It's a brief moment and it's in the Kaya Scodelario version (2011). Have you seen that since commenting?

      Again, sorry for the year long delay in replying!

  4. What a gorgeous post. Every time I reread Wuthering Heights I'm filled with all this power - power that infuses the novel to the point that it can't be contained so it leaps at the person who's turning its pages. It's harsh and it's brutal, and it is unforgettable and so intensely alive that it sucks me in every time. The second part of the novel is indeed wildly ignored by readers at large and that's such a shame, because the balancing of forces at the end is what makes this story a complete journey. Cathy and Hareton are SO underrated, even though they serve as counterparts to Heathcliff and Catherine.

    (The fact that Heathcliff has become a desirable romantic hero in the eyes of so many people is endlessly baffling to me, and I'm sure it would frustrate Emily Brontë to no end.)

    1. Hello Caro! Does this comment signify a return to the blogging world? :)

      I agree - Emily would not be impressed by the romanticising of Heathcliff. How annoying it must be to have had this happen!

      Love Wuthering Heights... Need a re-read! :)


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