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September 30, 2011 / Rachel Bednarski

Review: Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’

Perhaps somewhat ignorantly, I have always held the view that classic romance novel of the Austen and Bronte variety are really just nineteenth-century equivalents of today’s stilleto-and-shopping-bag embellished ‘chick lit’. That is, essentially unliterary pulp fictions which adhere to their readers’ stock responses through the drafting of swooning women displaying suitable degrees of sensibility at the hands of tediously and handsome and initially unavailable men. Perhaps I am (regretably) too well aquainted with East Lynne and the like. Perhaps as I have only ever casually perused such works as part of required reading on university modules, and I must admit that it was only in anticipation of the upcoming Wuthering Heights film adaptation that I decided to take up the novel again for a reread, I fully expected a distinctly unimpressivly comfortable and predictable read. Emily Bronte’s novel, however, does not pander to the expectations of lazy readers. It has an edge.

The narrative is fraught with abhorrent and pitiable anti-heroes who, unwilling to break the constraints of the repressive nineteenth-century patriarchal and class systems become complicit in their own tragic miseries. Through the inability of its characters to ever find contentment, the novel is a document of the destructive influences of patriarchal and class-dominated society. Everyone is destroyed and everyone destroys. There are many ways in which to read Wuthering Heights, I saw it primarily as a criticism of the unnaturalness of Victorian class systems, a depiction of corrupted convention which is represented through the heathen Heathcliff’s inability to ever fully integrate into the lives of his adopted family, even after he has accumulated wealth and transformed himself into a fully fledged capitalist. The novel’s 1801 setting provides a backdrop of the changing economy and class structure at the hands of industrialisation and the families present a microcosm of Victorian class society; the traditional and powerful gentry, the Lintons, weild power over the new capitalists, Heathcliff. In a classic Victorian exploration of nature versus society, the unnatural structure of society is juxtaposed with the wild moors and natural unprejudiced tendencies of love. The oppresseive interior of Thrushcross Grange, of course, represents the confinement of Victorian class structure and the wild moors and Wuthering Heights, aligned with Heathcliff, stand for the inability of love to pertain to such socially constructed rigidity.

Despite it’s passion, there is a lot wrong with the novel. Bronte’s use of Nelly the housekeeper as a device through which to relate Catherine and Heathcliff’s story is rather convoluted and merely provides yet another character for the reader to dislike and through her, the novel is a quintessential example of unreliable narration. And I really cannot work out the point in Mr Lockwood. As far as I can tell, other than adding another unnecessary layer to the narrative, and perhaps serving as a model of normality against which to recall the tumultuous events of Wuthering Heights, he has no discernable purpose. Enough with the narrative acrobatics Bronte! Also, it may just be the result of a short attention span on my part, but I found I spent far too much of my time with the novel mentally retracing the Linton and Earnshaw family trees in an attempt to remember how each of the characters are related to each other and why they all hate one another. Which is made all the more difficult by the fact that their names all sound alike. Much of the narrative is over long and dull and seemingly perfunctionary (it is Victorian after all), but when Emily Bronte gets it right with the intensity of her dialogues and monologues, she really does get it right.
I’m aware that I’m supposed to dislike the Byronic Heathcliff, but I don’t. Despite his jealousy and frustrating ability to stubbornly hold a grudge for far too long (and the occasional dog hanging, which I shall just skip over), I love him. He places Catherine on a pedestal and makes her his lifetime’s obsession because he had nothing else to love and is loved by no-one else. He is lost in a chasm of unidentifiable class position and that is why his love for Catherine is so possessive.

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!

Through a juxtoposition of the Gothic, flawed romance, tragedy and realism, Bronte exposes the flaws at the heart of nineteenth-century societal values and drafts the devastating, rather than the liberating, nature of tragic, jealous, inconvenient, obsessive love. The novel undermines conventional notions of gender and propriety and presents an exploration of class conflict, of power and of patriarchy. Most significantly, Catherine and Heathcliff’s love remains vengeful and unresolved and it is with this that Bronte eschews the tropes of other satisfyingly ending romantic fictions. I still maintain that, generally speaking, Austen, the Brontes, et al, are the Helen Fieldings and Davis Nicholls’s of their time, but that does not detract from the indisputable fact that Wuthering Heights is a great love story, and it is quite often love stories that are the greatest stories of all. And therein lies it’s power.

I gave him my heart, and he took and pinched it to death; and flung it back to me. People feel with their hearts, Ellen, and since he has destroyed mine, I have not power to feel for him.

I thought I hated the novel whilst I was reading it but when I’d finished I was left with an urge to read it again. I adored Wuthering Heights for its imagination as opposed to the droll realism of Austen and I now realise that it really isn’t practical for the two to be grouped together. I didn’t think I was really one for nineteenth-century Anglo-Gothic romantic fiction. But apparently I am.

Note – The above is not a picture of my edition of the novel. I really wish it was.

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