some thoughts on emily brontë's wuthering heights

Cover of 1943 Random House
edition with woodcut illustrations
Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights in 1847, under a pseudonym. Brontë died the following year, at age 30. It was the only book she would ever publish.

How did an isolated young woman, a parson's daughter from a remote area of Yorkshire, who never married, rarely left home, and hated travel, come to create this story of ferocious passion and violent revenge that would shock her contemporaries, and enthral audiences into its second century?

The existence of Wuthering Heights is one of the great arguments against that wrongheaded advice to writers: "write what you know". (Remember this the next time someone tells you that Shakespeare couldn't have written his plays, because he was working-class, and had never been to Italy.) How did Brontë create it? With her talent and her imagination.

* * * *

Wuthering Heights is one of my most beloved novels; sometimes I think it is my favourite book of all time. I've just finished watching the 2009 adaptation from PBS's Masterpiece Classic, and it's my pick for best "Wuthering Heights" film.

I know the original 1939 film, with Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the lead roles, backward and forwards; I'd seen it several times before I ever read the book. I love that movie like an old friend, and it's a decent rendition of the novel in many ways. It is Olivier, after all. But it's greatly limited by the Hollywood standards of its era.

There's been a slew of film adaptations through the years. A 1992 version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche had me diving for the remote, but most I haven't bothered with. On this page, the keeper of the Wuthering Heights flame online reviews several with her own specific standards. For me, this 2009 two-parter was the best. I don't need to see another.

* * * *

To say Wuthering Heights was scandalous in its day is an understatement. It was shocking. People detested it; at least one critic called for it to be burned. When the writer's identity was revealed (posthumously), the firestorm only grew. This was written by a woman?? The book became one of the most shocking pieces of English literature of all time.

Emily Brontë hadn't created a proper Victorian heroine who would select her proper gentleman. No Jane Austen here. Brontë created one of the great anti-heroes of all time, the passionate, jealous, bitter Heathcliff, dark both in features and demeanour, driven by passion and revenge. In Catherine, Brontë created a strange wild-child of a heroine, a woman whose attempts to shoehorn herself into social conventions would lead to hatred and despair, trapping multiple generations in Heathcliff's powerful vengeance.

Title page of same edition.
I found this (and a similar
Jane Eyre) in London, in 1985.
Victorian audiences were shocked by the depictions of sexual love and of vicious cruelty. But the true scandal was that Brontë's work challenged classism and racism, the subjugation of women, religious hypocrisy, and the entire moral structure of its times.

In one sense, Wuthering Heights is West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet: why is this love forbidden? And because society says it is, terrible things happen.

But those terrible things happen because Heathcliff won't accept his fate, and bends his entire life to a single-minded pursuit. Wuthering Heights is about forbidden, cross-class love, about thwarted passion, but above all, it is a story of revenge.

* * * *

Nineteenth Century British literature was my thing in university, and along with Bleak HouseWuthering Heights was for me the best of the best. I remember to this day a lecture in which my favourite professor, Elaine Scarry, presented the structure of Wuthering Heights as a mandala: concentric circles that take the reader closer and closer to the centre, preparing you for communion with the godhead, then gradually take you out again, releasing you step by step from the spell. The godhead, in this case, is the passion of Heathcliff and Catherine. If you diagram the novel, you may be surprised to learn how little you actually see the lovers together. It's as if their passion can only be looked at indirectly, and for short periods of time. The reader will be blinded by the light, or scorched by the heat.


James Redekop said...

Whenever someone says "Wuthering Heights", this starts up in my head.

laura k said...

I don't even have to click: I've been singing it in my head all day. It's hypnotic.

Selena said...

Wow, I didn't know about the PBS version of Wuthering Heights, but I just had to put aside all my work and watch it. It was awesome. And now I feel a bit dead inside.

laura k said...

So glad you loved it, too! I was crushed. I could hardly bring myself to watch certain parts, knowing what was coming. So wonderful to feel that way.

Amy said...

This is another book I read when I was too young. My mother recommended it, but I think she didn't realize how innocent I really was at 11 or 12. It sort of creeped me out! I really need to go back and read it with older, wiser eyes. Maybe I won't find Heathcliff quite so frightening. Or maybe I will!

laura k said...

Wuthering Heights is absolutely creepy, and Heathcliff is meant to be frightening - although many people find him a mixture of attractive and frightening. You have gotten it more than you realize.

I wonder if you'd like it now. The writing is so differnt than we are used to reading. I find that even as a big fan of the 19th C novel, when I pick one up these days, it takes some getting used to.

Amy said...

Maybe that's another reason to read it again---to be reminded of how much literature has changed---and how much we have changed, both individually and as a culture.

I hate that I find that my attention span is not what it used to be. I realize some of that is age, but some of it is also a consequence of the constant distractions that technology has provided. I seem to find a need to check my email after I finish a chapter of a book or a newspaper story? WTF??

laura k said...

I can relate, big time. I have huge struggles with low concentration. In addition to age and technology, fibromyalgia makes this an ongoing issue. It's really tough.

I've learned that frequent, short mini-breaks help. Better to work (or read, or anything) in small discrete chunks of time with tiny break-ettes in between than not at all.

laura k said...

But if you do re-read WH, I hope it will because it's a great book and you want to see if you like it, not for any kind of cognitive or sociological experiment!

Amy said...

Well, of course not! I am done with teaching in less than three weeks, and after I finish grading exams, I hope that I will never read anything again that I don't WANT to read. It's one of the things I am most looking forward to in retirement, reading just for pleasure and not for work.

laura k said...

It's the best part of being out of school - reading what I want!