Thursday, August 12, 2010
Book Review: Wuthering Heights
(Among others) Barnes & Noble Books (New York), 2004
Because at Adorable Trivialities we pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge of culture, here for your entertainment is a review of Emily Brontë's 19th century mega-hit, Wuthering Heights.
What is a confirmed Austenite to do with the Brontës? For those of us who appreciate the sanity and moral clarity and balanced worldview of our keen-eyed genius, the Brontës are simply fetid waters — teeming with diseased and damaged characters, implausible plot twists, and a dark murkiness that oppresses and fatigues. That is not to say that they are not interesting. They surely are. But, so is Pompeii. Would you wish to have dwelt in the shadow of Vesuvius on August 24, 79?
I thoroughly enjoyed Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre as a teenager. Much like Ayn Rand's novels, it is the sort of book that will always draw in the young and inexperienced. I have not revisited it in years, but, I suspect, that I would find the same sort of disappointment that I found in 2005 when I tried to re-read The Fountainhead. I remember briefly attempting Villette in college; other than that, until last week, Jane Eyre was the only Brontë exposure my literary life had experienced.
So, now I have read Wuthering Heights.
Let me digress for a moment to note that I read The Turn of the Screw recently, after Jane's Fame by Claire Harman assured me that Henry James was Jane Austen's literary heir. Oh God, how I hated that book! I went through the slim volume gnashing my teeth and wailing to Jason that I loathed the governess heroine beyond reason, and I wished upon her all manner of suffering and despair at the hands of her demonic charges.
Well, I hated Catherine and Heathcliff even more thoroughly and with far more cause. In fact, I despised every character in that foul tome — from insipid Lockwood through to that lummox Hareton. You know what I mean, right? Or, have you the pleasure and privilege of never having cracked the covers of Wuthering Heights?
"Wuthering" is a North England word that means "having blustery, roaring winds." Well, in this book, they are ill winds, indeed, because they blow nobody — including the reader — any good. Everyone in this novel operates within the confines of severe dysfunction, with everyone possessing a violent sort of loathing for everyone else. Wuthering Heights is based upon the Jerry Springer Principle: that human train wrecks are entertainment. And the novel is compelling.
The feckless Lockwood falls into this disenchanting web when he rents lodging from a Mr. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. He gets stuck at that disreputable residence overnight, when weather prevents his returning to his rented quarters a small distance off. Everyone is queer and everyone is hostile, and, while he spends a little time trying to figure out the strange dynamics, he readily consigns them all to unfathomability and goes to his provided room to sleep. In the night, he is visited by a dream, a vision, a spirit from beyond, and — in his panic — he arouses the attention of the somber and repulsive Heathcliff. Heathcliff does not seem surprised by this witching hours visitant; rather, he seems envious of Mr. Lockwood's experience. Heathcliff then proceeds to while the rest of the night in lamentations and despairing exhortations to "Catherine." Mr. Lockwood escapes home to the other rented property the next day — catching, for his troubles, a nasty cold.
Consigned to his bed, he entreats his housekeeper, one Ellen Dean, to tell him the story of all he observed at Wuthering Heights. The rest of the novel is a series of flashbacks, as recalled by this domestic servant — the only somewhat rational voice in the entire book.
The former proprietor of Wuthering Heights, Mr. Earnshaw, brought back with him from a business trip an orphaned waif of no-repute or relation to live in his home. He calls the boy "Heathcliff," and the child receives no other name. Mr. Earnshaw's two children, Hindley and Catherine, at first scorn the boy; then, Catherine forms a passionate bond with him. Abused by Hindley, adored by Catherine, Heathcliff grows up into a twisted and cruel man, whose only anchor to rationality is his devotion to "Cathy." Long story short, Cathy marries a neighbor boy, Edgar Linton, instead of the degraded Heathcliff. Heathcliff runs off for a few years. In the meantime, Cathy gets pregnant. Then, Heathcliff returns — remade and with some money — and proceeds to hang about the Lintons' home, making Edgar very nervous. Cathy dies after childbirth, and Edgar's sister, Isabella, runs off with Heathcliff. Heathcliff, in the meantime, has won through gambling the title of Wuthering Heights from drunken and debased Hindley. When he returns with his hated bride, Heathcliff goes on to make everyone about him completely miserable for the rest of the novel, until he mercifully dies. The second half of the novel is all about the story of Catherine's daughter, also named Catherine, Heathcliff's son with Isabella, named Linton, and Hindley's son, named Hareton. Everyone behaves poorly to each other. No one is likable. And, satisfactorily for this reader, in the end, almost all of them are dead.
Was I glad to have finished this book! And yet, I have to admit, it was page-turner.
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. Jane Austen died in 1817, before she had attained the age 42. I imagine that, had she lived another thirty years, in her seventies, Jane Austen would have eagerly picked up the new novel from upstart author Ellis Bell. And she would have laughed and laughed and laughed. Then, she would have picked up her pen and written a brilliant parody of it, sent it to Cassandra, and given it nary another thought. Miss Austen's sensibilities are not those of the Misses Brontë; and, I fear, mine are not, as well. Overblown emotionalism; passions unchecked by reason or humor; sledge-hammerly subtle symbolism — oh, you Brontës need to get over yourselves!