Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wuthering Heights (1847)

I suppose I can't recommend entirely without reservation this stone classic of British literature—last time I went through turned out to be a bit of a slog. But I certainly think it's worth at least a dip for one and all. Emily Bronte's monumental first and only novel (she otherwise focused her literary energies on poetry and died at the age of 30, the year after this was published), Wuthering Heights came out the same year as her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre and her sister Anne's Agnes Grey. I don't know Agnes Grey, but of the other two, more famous works, I think Jane Eyre is both more effective as a novel and more conventional (and it's not that conventional). Wuthering Heights is the next-best thing to full-on raving ghost/monster story, wild and howling and weird, gothic on steroids, buckled together with leather strapping and paste. Class distinctions are rendered metaphorically as stark lines between humans and beasts, and the great Byronic hero of Wuthering Heights, the remarkable Heathcliff, is of course on the wrong side of that line. Heathcliff notably has powers to compel and bend his betters to his desires, after coming to live with them originally as an orphan found on the streets of London, adopted out of the soft heart of the family patriarch. The combination of Heathcliff's ruthlessness in pursuing his ends and the family's sheltered, well-mannered naivete is the recipe for the disaster imminent from the first page. The forbidden passion between Heathcliff and the scion's daughter Catherine provides much of the dramatic tension, as Heathcliff and his will to power rise to great heights, while the rest are humiliated and torn to pieces and put into the earth one way or another, against the backdrop of gray skies and lonely barren moors. "Atmospheric" does not begin to describe it; "deranged" is closer to it in many passages. It can be a wild ride. In many ways it walks and talks and bears the trappings of the standard 19th-century novel of manners, with gentle folk gathering for fine meals and social occasions, and love interests emerging by degree. But the like of Heathcliff had never appeared in one of these before. His sheer gravitational force subverts and distorts everything around him, making a real mockery of the genteel upper class and their ways and values. It was the first time I read Wuthering Heights that I got the most out of it, taken utterly by surprise by the stunts recorded herein. I'm not sure what made the more recent reading so hard—perhaps the language, which of course is antiquated and made further eccentric with thick dialect (toned down somewhat after Emily's death by sister Charlotte in a later edition ... I can only imagine the original)—perhaps the sideways manner it crabs in and around its narrative developments. But the good news, if you haven't read it, is that you could well be in for a big treat.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I stumbled on this post after having just finished the novel for the first time. It's one-of-a-kind, that's for sure. By any reasonable estimation, the principal characters (in fact everyone except the two who frame the tale) are self-absorbed and unlikeable, and yet they are so intense that we feel drawn into sympathy despite ourselves. If one knows the story from the old Hollywood movie, it's a surprise that the part everyone knows ends at about the midpoint of the book, and there's another half showing how it all plays out in a second generation.