There are few stories as pervasive in pop culture as that of Cathy and Heathcliff, and we can see its retelling everywhere. It has had the expected television treatment, with Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley starring in an ITV made-for-TV movie in 2009, but it has also inspired more transformative and strange works also.
Kate Bush wrote a tremendous song by the same name.
Cliff Richard, perhaps less memorably, self-commissioned a musical titled Heathcliff.
And then there is Wuthering High – which transported the tale of possessed love away from the Yorkshire moors to sun-soaked Malibu. James Caan is in it, miraculously, but I will not pretend to have endured the film beyond the trailer.
I suppose this makes Wuthering Heights the perfect candidate for Classically Lacking. The story is generally well-known, and so often repeated in more contemporary, more digestible format, that to actually go back and read the original novel may seem like un-necessary effort. As it was a product of the 19th century, it would not be completely unfair to assume that reading it may be a bit of a slog, or that the so-called-controversial content of the book will have been lessened by the passage of time and the decreasing sensitivity of audiences throughout the years.
In some ways that is true. It is unlikely that you will see the pages fall away in rapid style, such as if you were reading the latest Lee Child or peak Stephen King, but overall it must be said that Bronte’s prose has a timeless quality, and despite being written so long ago it retains a feeling of modernity. It is no wonder it continues to be adapted, in comparison to other novels of a similar age, even by classic writers like Jane Austen, it is a comfortable, relatively easy reading experience.
The language used to convey love, violence, and cruelty, which was once considered controversial on release, generates an unrestrained quality in the prose. Without the verbose inuendo writers contemporary to the era used to skirt taboo subject matter, Bronte takes the modern reader right to the heart of the matter, and the profound love, and the outstanding hate, that the characters feel for each other becomes pronounced and tangible.
If you do not already know, Wuthering Heights is the story of Heathcliff, a waif taken in by the master of the titular estate (Mr Earnshaw), and that master’s daughter, Catherine. Their story is being heard, after the fact, by Mr Lockwood – the narrator of the story – who moves into Thrushcross Grange, a neighbouring house to the Heights. He visits the Heights to pay his respects to his landlord, Heathcliff, and finds him there with a gruff young man (Hareton) and a handsome young woman (Catherine Linton). They treat him strangely, and without much respect, and seem to have a difficult relationship with each other. Lockwood is snowed in and stays the night but is haunted by a nightmare inspired by graffiti and books left by another Catherine (Earnshaw). He screams and awakes Heathcliff, who stands and howls at the moors to Catherine, praying for her to return to him.
Most of the story plays out in the words of Ellen Dean, housekeeper of the Grange, who tells the complex story to the curious and bed-ridden Lockwood. The tale results in the strange shared occupancy of the Heights, and revolves around the difficult love of Heathcliff and the long-passed Catherine Earnshaw.
I had some difficulty at first with the framing of the story, as once into the depths of the narrative it plays out as if Ellen Dean was in fact the narrator of the novel, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the framing device was absolutely necessary. If the majority of the story is written from her perspective, why bother with the conceit of the new tenant and his desire to hear the tale? Yet the opening sequence of Lockwood being haunted by the spectre of Catherine Earnshaw, and Heathcliff’s pained cries to the moors, sets the tone perfectly for the remainder of the book. Furthermore, Lockwood becomes the reader; he is on the outside of this difficult but fascinating story and has a great desire to get in and hear as much detail as possible. I grew to find this perspective key to the charm of the novel.
The reason Lockwood finds the story so compelling is reflected in an aspect of storytelling which remains popular today, particularly in film and TV. The central cast of characters to the story are not just flawed, they are straight unlikeable at times. They are selfish, and some, particularly Heathcliff, are vindictive and cruel. But that is not to say they are not entirely un-sympathetic, and they are always interesting as a minimum.
It is in the descriptions of the fouler traits that Emily Bronte’s writing really stands out from other contemporary works, and it is these descriptions which made the book controversial at the time of its original publication. Much of the harshness is developed from within the mouths of the characters themselves, Heathcliff, for example, has a particularly cruel tongue. On being asked to leave Catherine’s side after a heated argument with Edgar Linton – Catherine’s husband and the third in the love triangle which prevents the central pair from being together – he replies:
‘By hell no! I’ll crush his ribs in like a rotten hazelnut, before I cross the threshold! If I don’t floor him now, I shall murder him some time; so, as you value his existence, let me get at him!’
Such fiery dialogue speaks of the unbridled nature of Heathcliff, but throughout the novel there is also an element of cheekiness, a slightly sarcastic, silly tone to his phrasing. Comparing Edgar to a rotten hazelnut is an off-the-wall simile that engages the imagination in a cinch, and helps pin down the charming, intelligent man that Catherine must see in him, despite what his outward appearance, and actions throughout the novel, suggests. I do not believe that we ever really see the best of Heathcliff, nor of Cathy, as we are never privy to the perspective of either. The story is told through Lockwood and Ellen, and as such we can only ever experience what they see and say. It speaks to the lonely nature of love as strong as that which is suggested to exist between the central pairing; only they truly know what the other is like, only they know what it is like to be forced apart from each other. Without this perspective it is easy enough to see only the bitter, cruel characteristics of the pair, as this is exactly what they show to the world when they are apart, and when they are together, they only have time to discuss what has driven them apart and resent it. Their time alone, the time in which they fell in love, is reserved to the private past, and Ellen, Lockwood, and the reader, are locked out of such insight.
The finale of the novel reflects the kind of relationship that cursed lovers had, and in what can hopefully be assumed to be less tumultuous circumstances. Hareton (who we learn is son of Catherine’s drunken brother, Hindley) and Catherine Linton (who we find to be daughter of Catherine and Edgar, thus making the young pair cousins – it was a different time) fall in love, slowly, and after Lockwood leaves the moors and returns to pay his due, he finds Heathcliff passed, and the now loving couple bound for marriage. Perhaps, with Cathy and Heathcliff united in death, this couple stands a greater chance of succeeding in love. Perhaps. Whispers abound about ghosts roaming the moors, the fated pair apparently roaming the night. A premonition, maybe? Can love ever endure in that hard, lonely place? We end, as is right, lingering on the tombs of the three lovers: Catherine, Heathcliff, and the unfortunate Edgar Linton.
It is a perfectly measured story, as it could have been told from any number of perspectives: from Heathcliff’s, Cathy’s, or either of the young lovers who we end upon, but no, we approach through the perspective of a complete outsider who hears the dramatic tale from a fly-on-the-wall, not a direct participant. I believe this prevents this novel, which is first and foremost a romance, from becoming slushy or sentimental, it is in fact hard, and brutal, and at times it is difficult to level with the actions of the central cast. Ellen can often not understand the actions that Heathcliff, Cathy, Edgar, or the children, make, but it is well described that these actions are always made for the purposes of love, and as such they don’t always make sense, and Bronte has no intention of making it seem as if that is so.
In lesser works love is sloppy notes and grand gestures. It is standing outside a window with a boombox, annoying your way into love.
Bronte has no boombox. Sloppy love notes are laughed at, and grand gestures are reserved for vengeful acts. Love makes the characters of Wuthering Heights blind, possessive, and yet, after it all, we are still shown hope in the young couple. That is why I say it is well measured. It is not just a fine story, it is told in the perfect tone, from the right perspective, to deliver a tale which is as heart-warming as it is wrenching. Had it been told from the eye of Heathcliff, it would have simply been a tragedy. From the view of Catherine Linton, a more typical romantic drama. From the combined view of Ellen and Lockwood we see a wider picture: superstition, tragedy, romance, interwoven. Which is perhaps why some adaptations, which have strayed from this narrative frame and perspective, have not been as successfully enduring as the original work (I’m looking at you Wuthering High).
When it comes down to recommending whether or not you should go back and read this book…
Well I believe this is a case of if you know, you know.
It is a 19th century gothic romance. It is not sentimental, or verbose, or tiresome in its prose (whereas I think some of the adapted modern material which has arisen from its ashes suggests it may be) but the subject matter will simply not be for all.
For literary completists however, I think it is deserving of its classic status, a must read, and an enjoyable one at that.