I don’t know how many times I have read Wuthering Heights, but it’s been a few. More than three at least. I’m a fanboy.
I read it again on Monday as my way of celebrating Emily Brontë’s 200th birthday. I honestly thought there would be more hoopla; maybe a public read-a-loud somewhere. But if it was going to be just me, then I’d do it up the right way. A comfortable chair and a copy of her one novel. Read it all in a day was my goal. I finished it up on Wednesday.
Wuthering Heights holds up quite well.
This time through one thing I noticed was just how much Heathcliff has in common with Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham from his novel Great Expectations. Miss Havisham was famously jilted at the altar on her wedding day. She freezes her home as it was at that moment–leaves the wedding cake and the place settings set on the dining room table, never wears anything but her wedding dress, locks up her grand house to all but a handful of visitors. All this while she plots her personal revenge on the male sex by raising the beautiful Estella to become a heartless young woman who will wreck any man who falls in love with her.
Heathcliff essentially shares this plot line, though he has the luxury of proximity which makes it possible for him to exact revenge on specific people, namely Edgar Linton, the man who married Catherine, the woman Heathcliff loved and Hindley Earnshaw the man who made Heathcliff’s childhood so difficult and who drove Catherine away from him and into the arms of Edgar Linton.
Heathcliff gets his revenge through the two boys he raises, much like Miss Havisham did through Estella. Heathcliff raises Hindley Earnshaw’s son Hareton to become a coarse, uneducated young man who owes his livelihood to Heathcliff. Hareton does not even know that his father was once lord over Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff ensures that Hareton has neither position nor potential. He gets a much darker revenge on Edgar Linton buy taking his own son, Linton, and using him as a means to steal the Linton family home, Thrushcross Grange, along with Edgar’s daughter Cathy.
Heathcliff is, in a sense, frozen in time much like Miss Havisham is. He is essentially alone at Wuthering Heights; he has no real companionship in spite of living with a handful of servants and “sons.” Wuthering Heights has an overall atmosphere of decay much like Stasis House where Miss Havisham lives. One images the same set could have been used, at least for the exterior shots, in the black and white movie versions of each story. The two characters share the same outlook on life and on love. Each clings to the ghosts of what might have been.
I’m not suggesting Charles Dickens found a direct inspiration for Miss Havisham in Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff. Though I’m certain he would have read Wuthering Heights, I’ve no knowledge of a direct inspiration. But something may have been percolating in Dickens imagination over the many years between the publication of Wuthering Heights and the writing of Great Expectations. There are some interesting parallels in any case.
And there is much more to enjoy in Wuthering Heights. It has been many years since I last read the novel, not enough to make this like reading it for the first time, but the book has not lost its power.
The first half tells the story of Heathcliff and Catherine–their childhood together and their eventual failed romance. What a mess they were, but what a powerful mess. Catherine confession of her love for Heathcliff which she gives to the horrified Nelly Dean remains one of most passionate pieces of writing I’ve ever read. “He is more myself than I am.” That’s just the feeling Andre Aciman was trying to get at in Call Me by Your Name. Mr. Aciman gets there, certainly, but he takes most of the novel to make the journey. Emily Brontë does it in this single speech.
That feeling, intense as it is, is not enough. It doesn’t work out in either novel. In each case the lovers end up with other people once they “age out” of the relationship, though every reader who encounters them believes they should have stayed together, wishes that they did.
I’ve heard that there’s going to be a sequel to the film version of Call Me By Your Name, I’ve no idea if there will be a book version first. There is a sequel to Wuthering Heights already, the second half of the book. The first half features the doomed love story, the second half tells what happens afterwards. This has long been problematic for fans of the story, what to do when a romance features a heroine who dies halfway through.
Spoiler alert. The second verse is just like the first. In a way.
Part two of Wuthering Heights is the story of everyone’s children. Catherine’s daughter Cathy is so much her mother’s daughter that Wuthering Heights can be read as a sort of experiment with character. What happens when this girl grows up in the uncivilized, unsupervised wilds of Wuthering Heights? What does she become? What happens to essentially the same girl when she grows up educated under the very watchful eye of a loving father in the very cultivated world of Thrushcross Grange? In part one, Catherine leaves Wuthering Heights for Thrushcross Grange. Her daughter makes the reverse journey in the second part. Both are changed by the experience. Both end up forced, in a way, into marriage with the lord of the neighboring manor as a result.
In a way, Catherine/Cathy end up marrying different versions of the same man. Catherine marries the admirable Edgar Linton who does his best for her, though she is still in love with Heathcliff. In part two Cathy is force to marry Linton Earnshaw. This time I saw Linton as a negative caricuture of his uncle Edgar. Linton is weak, silly, the product of a privileged mother who spoiled him beyond saving.. He is the living embodiment of how Heathcliff sees Edgar. In part one Catherine married one version of this man while in part two Cathy was forced to wed the parody result of Heathcliff’s influence.
There’s so much more I could talk about but I will stop here and go make today’s pot of coffee.. Wuthering Heights remains one of my favorite books. It’s one of the best books there is.
Happy 200th Emily Brontë.