Wordsworth Classics (2000), originally published 1847 | 245 pages
I didn’t really want this to be my first proper book post on this blog. I had been hoping to start off with something more contemporary… and certainly something I ended up liking more. But this is just how it’s all turned out; and as strange as it sounds, this book just wants me to rant about it.
From the word “rant” you can probably tell that I don’t have the best opinion of this eccentric novel. Although I studied English Literature, I never really took to reading the classics – in fact, aside from a select few, I generally didn’t enjoy reading them when I actually did. Wuthering Heights has never been part of my studies, whether at school or university, and so reading it has been delayed out of sheer laziness; but also, out of an ignorant prejudice that has told me, ever since I first learned the differences between classic and contemporary literature*, that I simply wouldn’t like the thing. And, to be brutally honest – although I do admit it had its moments – that prophecy didn’t ring particularly false.
If you’ve had the pleasure of not coming across this novel before, let me give you a bit of a run-down: it’s a story of two households, told almost entirely through the eyes of one long-term servant (who instantly becomes the only likeable character). Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff’s relationship is at the centre of the plot, and everything that happens during Cathy’s lifetime, during the first third of the book, has repercussions on the next generation of characters: the misery poor foundling Heathcliff goes through provokes a deadly revenge, to which Cathy’s daughter and Heathcliff’s own son are soon victim to. All the characters are very isolated within an extremely bleak setting (the moors), and throughout the story you will find hatred, misery and vengeance. Hindley bullies Heathcliff to the point of desperation; Cathy and Heathcliff are forbidden to be together; Isabella is shackled and probably raped; and poor Linton, Heathcliff’s only and very sickly son, never has a visit from the doctor. This is not a pretty book.
Of course, in my ignorance, I always assumed that it would be a much more romantic novel than it actually is. I wasn’t entirely new to the idea of the book when I started reading it, thanks to the 2009 Tom Hardy adaptation ITV put on during my time at secondary school, but I still assumed it to be more about Heathcliff and Cathy than… Nelly, young Cathy and poor little Hareton. When the original “love story” section finished, and all sorts of new characters and the next generation started to seep their way into the main narrative, I found myself a bit confused and rather uninterested. I wanted more of the original Cathy story; I liked the idea of their brutal and obsessive relationship just continuing throughout the book, much to the angst and displeasure of everyone around them. But then the main plot ended, and suddenly all original ideas I had of this book evaporated. I couldn’t remember a thing about young Catherine from the television adaptation – for good reason, probably. And any enjoyment I felt while reading the book, particularly during Cathy and Heathcliff’s youth, soon evaporated. I don’t think I enjoyed a second of Heathcliff’s adulthood.
But you know what? I don’t think you’re meant to enjoy this book – and that’s fine. This book doesn’t like you either. I read a review from Goodreads that suggested Emily Bronte was tossing down the gauntlet with this book; challenging you to see just how much of it you’d read before throwing it across the room. The characters are tortured – Lockwood, the master narrator, enters into living hell when he knocks on the door of Wuthering Heights; Nelly herself, forever a servant but as big a part of the family as the family members themselves, is given so much information but no power to act on it; and the children, blamed for their parentage, are the most innocent yet suffer the most misery. And every single one of the characters is forced to live with the others, both physically and mentally trapped within the dark and gloomy moors. Young Cathy moves from being a Linton, to a Heathcliff, and back to an Earnshaw with no contact with potential husbands outside of the two estates. Only Isabella manages to escape the four walls with her son, but she soon meets a quick death; and poor Linton gets dragged, kicking and screaming, back to Heathcliff.
I am surprised, really, that I managed to stick with this all the way through. I admit that the last 20-or-so pages were the hardest, simply because of reading exhaustion. You know when a book just eats you up from the inside out? When the very act of reading it gives you enough fatigue to deal with a 9-hour nap? Saying that, I think this book is extremely clever. What Emily Bronte created is nothing short of barbaric, but it works. The story is compelling, although not particularly enjoyable; the characters are strong, although not particularly likeable. And Heathcliff, although nothing could justify forgiveness, could perhaps not be blamed for the bullying he received when younger. Because if Heathcliff is the devil, then Hindley – Catherine’s brother and the one who brings judgement down on Heathcliff himself – is his creator.
* Mainly the sentence lengths, costume periods and extremely mundane characters. Heh. And, of course, the fact that most classic authors died in some kind of tragic way, whereas what we would now call contemporary authors are largely still alive and not at all important. I mean, there’s just so many of them… but I digress.