Wuthering Heights: Wild and Wonderful

Reviewed by Tom Frenkl

Five years ago I tried to read Wuthering Heights, and about halfway through I was ready to give up. I thought it was a book for teen-agers! With the help of some supportive email from the LITERARY email group [Note 1], I managed to finish it, and even enjoy it. Recently, I had the compulsion to read it again (not sure why), and now I can’t even think of why I found some of it tedious the first time. I now believe it is one of the finest novels ever written, and it goes without saying that I recommend it to all.

The book was published in 1847, and was not well received at the time. While sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was immediately acclaimed, critics had little use for Emily’s book. They thought that Heathcliff and Cathy were too “pagan” to appeal to the the British reader. Well, they are pagan, and so is the book as a whole. Established religion, in WH, is reduced to the rantings of a demented preacher in a dream, and the interminable rattlings-on of an old servant. The book is dominated by ghosts, wildness, violence, and (yes!) the darkest side of the human soul.

It starts tamely enough, though. Mr. Lockwood, your typical vacationer, comes to the country looking for a bit of quiet and removal from the bustle of life. He meets his new landlord Heathcliff, and is immersed, at Wuthering Heights, in a world where he is, at first, totally lost — as are we. (It is like Melville’s great novella Benito Cereno, in the sense that a naive outsider is faced with a situation where the degree of evil is totally beyond his understanding.) I wonder how well Lewis Carroll knew WH, for its early scenes remind me of nothing less than Alice in Wonderland. There is a “mad tea party” where Lockwood is treated with amazing rudeness. Later on (Chap. 9) there is even what seems like very Carollian nonsense verse (though I suppose it may have a meaning if one can plumb the depths of the dialect):

It was far in the night, and the bairnies grat,

The mither beneath the mools heard that …

Lockwood is forced to stay the night at Wuthering Heights, and here occurs what might be the greatest single scene in WH: the visiting of Lockwood by Catherine’s ghost. Like many other points later in the book, this is a scene of violence and blood. Lockwood’s curiosity is (most understandably) aroused; and when he gets back to his rented house, Thrushcross Grange, he begins to hear the story of the past twenty-or-so years from Nelly, the housekeeper. Nelly’s narration provides the “meat” of the book.

Wuthering Heights was written by Emily Brontë, who for virtually all her short life (she died at the age of 30) lived in Haworth, a small town in northern England. This is very much a book of the North country. Brontë is adept in the use of the region’s dialects to differentiate characters. Hareton’s lack of proper upbringing (enforced by Heathcliff as part of his revenge) shows in his language; and the speech of Joseph (the religious servant) is almost unintelligible (and very funny). As for the environment: the Northern landscape of the moors pervades the book. As with Thomas Hardy’s novels later on, the story is so intertwined with the landscape that one could hardly imagine the plot happening anywhere else.

Wuthering Heights is, of course, a love story; but it is just as much a saga of Revenge. This is why the second half of the book is so important. The love and the revenge are both rendered with great intensity. It has been argued (even by me at an earlier point) that Heathcliff’s character might be too extreme in its evil nature. In an abstract sense, perhaps this is true; but in the context of the novel it doesn’t seem so. As the Foreward to my edition (Signet paperback) points out, WH is a poetic novel (as, e.g. Moby Dick would be later), and not one that can be taken in the literal sense of a book by, say, Jane Austen. (But WH certainly has more than enough realism to counterbalance its poetic side.)

One of my biggest pleasures with WH is the one I find the hardest to define: the style in which the book is written. The prose is limpid and flowing, and never draws undue attention to itself. It is never “purple” (despite the subject matter), and it never seems old-fashioned at all. It’s very hard to believe that the book was written more than 150 years ago.

If anyone is so eager to try out Wuthering Heights that they just can’t wait to get to the library or bookstore: You can get the complete text online (free!) via one of my favorite Web sites, the On-Line Books Page (where you’ll also find about 8,999 other public-domain works):

http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/

One point of vocabulary: I had thought that the word “immolation” meant “sacrifice”, and that the common usage as “burning” was wrong, and a modern corruption. (The OED doesn’t even include the “burning” definition.) But EB seems to use it to mean “burning” too (Chap. 21). So if this is a mis-usage, it’s a mis-usage that goes back a long way….

To those who know more about Wuthering Heights, I’d like to put the question: Are there any real antecedents to this novel? What sources did Emily Brontë draw from? [Note 2] I know of no other book before this one (or after it, for that matter) that is anything like it. And: could someone recommend a good biography of the Brontës in general, or of Emily in particular?

Finally: Even though EB reportedly led a very sheltered life, where sexuality was concerned, there is at least one point in the text where the sexual symbolism seems to get very blatant indeed. But I’ll not give this away; I’ll keep you hanging till you read the book. 🙂
NOTES

[1] LITERARY email group: http://lists.topica.com/lists/Literary

[2] Sources of WH: After writing the present review, I read Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), which has some plot elements seemingly drawn upon by EB. See my Rob Roy review: http://home.roadrunner.com/~frethoa/robroy.txt

Tom Frenkel

30 Jun 1999

Revised 17 Aug 2010

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