Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Published by: Modern Library
Publication Date: 1847
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
Mr. Lockwood has rented Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire as an escape from his hectic London life. Being an amiable man he is perplexed by his landlord, Heathcliff who is standoffish and lives a remote life with an odd household at Wuthering Heights. After being trapped the night at Wuthering Heights Lockwood beseeches his housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange, Nelly Dean, to tell him the tale of Heathcliff and the other residents of Wuthering Heights. Nelly agrees, because she remembers it all, starting thirty years earlier when Mr. Earnshaw lived at Wuthering Heights with his son Hindley and his daughter Catherine. After a trip to Liverpool he returned with Lockwood's landlord, Heathcliff, a foundling to incite the jealousy of Hindley and the love of Cathy. When Mr. Earnshaw finally died and Hindley returned home with his new wife it was time to enact his revenge on Heathcliff, banishing him to the stables as a lowly servant. Before Hindley's return Cathy thought that she and Heathcliff would never be parted, but soon she is betrothed to Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange claiming she could never marry Heathcliff because it would degrade her. Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights and only returns once he is a wealthy man and seduces Edgar's sister for revenge. Death soon claims Cathy and then Hindley and the feud goes to the next generation fueled by Heathcliff. But can love come back to a place where hate has flourished?
The problem with reading a book like Wuthering Heights is that this is a book that has been adapted to death, and I've watched them all. From the Laurence Olivier adaptation that eliminated the second generation for expediency and a stab at a happy ending, to the 1998 version solely watched for Matthew Macfadyen as Hereton Earnshaw, to the badly bewigged Tom Hardy in the only version I actually like. I've seen them all. Each one brought a new perspective and a twist with the interpretation of the text, so that going back to the source I found that nothing new was brought to the table. I'd seen it all and not to throw too much shade at Emily Brontë, but her framing device of narrators within narrators akin to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein feels a bit forced. But yet I needed to read it. The reason I finally decided to read Wuthering Heights was that I had been meaning to for so long it seemed like a glaring oversight and might be considered as the book in longest residence on my "to be read" pile. I had years earlier picked up the book and made it through a few chapters of Lockwood's overwrought rambling only to put it down and forget about it. In the intervening years I had read all of Anne Brontë's work, re-read Jane Eyre more times than I can count, and started viewing Anne as the most talented of the Brontës, but I couldn't secure her the title without finally giving in to a reading of Emily's one prose piece. PS, if the star rating didn't tip you off, Anne wins.
The main problem with Wuthering Heights is that you quite literally hate everyone. These are not nice people. I mean they are SERIOUSLY NOT NICE PEOPLE! They are threatening to murder each other daily and that's what, OK? Is that supposed to show the strength of their attachments? And that is somehow supposed to translate into one of the greatest love stories ever? Hell no. It's dysfunction city. There's a reason why when Thursday Next is assigned to help council the characters in Wuthering Heights in her third adventure, The Well of Lost Plots, that it is a comedic highlight, because these people SERIOUSLY need counseling. All books need you to have someone worth rooting for, and I can't think of a single character I would like to spend one minute with. Even the "nicer" characters at Thrushcross Grange are lured into Heathcliff's world of revenge and hate and tainted by association. The second generation doesn't get a pass either, they are so passive that by letting this happen they are continuing the cycle. Yes, with Heathcliff eventually gone there's a tiny little ray of hope at the end. But is it really hope? Hundreds of pages of hate and rage and passion, because I don't think we can call it love, and once the house has been exorcised of Heathcliffe everything can be fine? Nope. Burn that house to the ground and move far far away.
Yet there is a reason this is a classic. And no, I don't think it's because of anything to do with the characters or the plot. It might have to do with the passion, because it was rare for a book then to show such cruelity and be so harsh while in the throes of so-called love. But I think the only real reason it survives is two fold, one is the connection to this great literary dynasty that is the Brontës, but secondly, in among the dross, there are lines of sheer beauty. Emily was a poet, she was not a prose writer, so it makes sense that she can capture beauty and emotion in a single line that she couldn't accomplish with chapters and chapters of storytelling. In chapter nine is perhaps the best example of what Emily could do when giving full reign to her powers: "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire... I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being"
Though for all the beauty, all the evocation of emotions in this one section, easily the most quoted of all, there are pages and pages of limp prose. Just unintelligible horrible writing. In particular there is Joseph; an elderly servant who lacks all humanity and is therefore very religious. The problem with Joesph is his stupid dialect. Yes, dialect is important, it gives the reader a feeling for the time, the place, and the character. But bad dialect, or dialect used improperly can ruin a novel. Look to The Secret Garden, the children use the broad local dialect to mock the servants cruelly, yet for some bizarre reason we're supposed to view this as cute. I don't. It made me hate that book. Joseph's dialect is 100% unintelligible. I quite literally have no idea what he was saying. A dialect should be a compromise to some extent. You need to capture all that I said above, time, place, BUT you have to make it accessible to readers. If you've seen the Red Riding Trilogy you'll understand where I'm going here. Like Wuthering Heights, these are films set in Yorkshire. Now some of the actors went too far with their accents, making them too heavy and unintelligible, then there was Sean Bean, who knows the acting business and made a nice compromise between accent and accessibility. Look to Sean Bean! Because really, Joseph became a joke, like in Hot Fuzz where Karl Johnson as PC Bob Walker is pretty unintelligible and needs a translator, usually Nick Frost's Danny Butterman, but there's the one scene where Bob has to translate for David Bradley as a local farmer because even Danny can't understand him. That's what it felt like here! But it wasn't meant to be funny!
Yet even without all this, even if I hadn't watched all the adaptations and hadn't hated all the characters there is one thing the this book lacked, and that was the element of surprise. At the beginning of the book there is a family tree. This tree gives everyone's birth and death and a quick perusal shows you, wow, yes it shows you everything. All their kids and the marriages, everything. I'm like Patrick Stewart on Extras. Yes, genealogy is to me interesting in books, especially when you start going Game of Thrones epic, but here, with such a small cast of characters, the book is spoiled from page one. Which makes me wonder, was this in the first printing? Because this comes after Charlotte's introduction to the book, so did she maybe add it for spite? Everyone knows Charlotte wasn't a fan of Emily's writing, with rumors being that Emily actually had another finished manuscript that Charlotte burned... so was Charlotte trying to just alienate the readers? Or was it Emily who just felt like everything was a foregone conclusion and that we should know from the start we're in for death and misery... because that's what this book is, death and misery. It has become a classic just by proximity to other great works and really, classics do need to be challenged and re-evaluated, because a hundred plus years later I don't think this book has anything left to give us whereas Jane Eyre and even The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are constantly surprising.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë