This semester, I have a cours on the Early and Mid-Victorian Novel; the very first read on my syllabus is a book I’ve long tip-toed around, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Now that I’ve gone through it, I have to wonder, why did I hesitate to read it for so long? My attention span, perhaps, which until recently stilted much of the enjoyment that the age’s literature offers; or else a certain childish shying away from what I must have perceived, as a teen, a romantic sort of book. At any rate, I have several years’ worth of reading to thank for the enjoyment I drew from Emily Bronte’s novel, as well as two people in the main: my course professor, a specialist in the Victorian novel whose passion is contagious; and my partner, whose resounding love for Wuthering Heights since her earliest teenage years convinced me to look at the task of reading this as a joy to look forward to and not an obligation to bear with uncharacteristic stoicism.
I doubt I’ll tell you much you don’t know already but I’ll try. Wuthering Heights is the sole work of this particular Bronte sister, taken from her family by tuberculosis far too early; it tells the story of a foundling, Heathcliff, whose adoption in a gentleman farmer’s family leads to a depth of love and suffering for all involved. Like so many Victorian novels, it makes use of a number of embedded narratives, a smorgasbord of subjective points of view recounting events temporally near and far. The framing of the story takes place some time after the events between Catherine and Heathcliff, the Lintons, and their charmingly in-bred family have taken place. The speaker here is one Mr. Lockwood, tenant to Heathcliff, whose circumstances over one winter evening imbue him with curiosity as regards to his landlord’s peculiar living arrangements.
Thus is opened a lengthy story told Lockwood by his housekeeper, one Mrs. Ellen “Nelly” Dean, a proficient storyteller whose honest and friendly regard towards the tenant shows us how much of a stiff Victorian gentleman Lockwood is, occasionally–but that’s Victorian England, still a very rigid society, class-wise. The story Nelly tells paints of Heathcliff a complex picture, and it is this picture that interests me most–his love for his adopted sister Catherine is beyond question, yet the depth of vindictiveness he pursues towards those who represent his wrongdoers, the children of men and women long dead by the latter part of the novel, paints a horrific villain indeed. The text doesn’t make matters any easier: questions are left unanswered, the subjective view of Nelly is against Heathcliff, yet his own speech occasionally hints at signs of redemption; other times, still, the same speech paints him more diabolical still. I could take a dozen textual references and have a field day with every last one of them, and I soon will — for class.
It’s a tragedy of misunderstanding in a way even more bitter than Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, which I read last semester. Words spoken are overheard and reacted to before the whole meaning of a character’s soliloquy is made clear; and the bitter consequences of these words are nothing less than calamitous. The characters, whom I cared for deeply, will suffer; a misery that goes beyond the single generation but drags the next–and as to whether that will manage to save itself, I’ll leave to you to say. Beauty pervades each page, and my pencil often underlined line after line of Emily Bronte’s prose. Don’t do as I did; take the plunge, you will find so much of value to learn and to experience here.
The next Victorian novel I’ll be reading is Dickens’ David Copperfield – if you’re looking forward to that review or any of the SFF and non-fiction content I usually post…don’t forget to follow me, here and on social media!