Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Wuthering Heights (1847)

There are books which are so famous that their reputation and the preconceptions around them precede them. I think “Wuthering Heights” is one such a book – for years I avoided it based on the urban legend of what it really was: a heavily romantic story about Heathcliff’s obsessive love for Catherine.

Its authoress’ biography didn’t help. The Brontë mythology is a bit too much for me, designed as it was by Charlotte to highlight the sisters’ mystique, where the three of them have nearly become a whole rather than three separate entities. So after having it sitting on my shelf for over 18 months I finally decided (half heartily) to give it a go (and no, 18 months is not a terribly long time in my overcrowded shelves and my decreasing available reading time). “Jane Eyre” also suffered from similar prejudices, and despite the fact that I loved its first two thirds, it didn’t help Emily’s book. I still knew I wasn’t going to like it…

… And obviously I was blown away – it was nothing of what I expected. In all fairness, I didn’t really like the book. But I am still fascinated by it and I was endlessly drawn to it. Along with “Nineteen Eighty-four” it now belongs to a category of books I didn’t like but can’t help classify as masterpieces and wish someone would make them compulsory reading.

This is the story of two houses, or rather within two houses. Never does the action really leave them or the path between the two. To this self-contained environment only a few foreigners are allowed in – first Lockwood, to whom the story is narrated and who is clearly despised by his creator (the pomposity of his narration in the opening chapters of the book is so brilliantly ironic); then Heathcliff in the main story, and finally Hindley’s wife. And while the first and last are there to fulfil a function and then leave, Heathcliff’s arrival from nowhere is the catalyst of the novel and he is the main force behind the events of the novel.

This is also the story of two generations, where the actions of those in the first generation have a huge impact on the lives of their descendants. And in this world, with the possible exception of Ellen who narrates the story within the story and therefore is perhaps placing herself under a better light, all characters are unredeemable, from Heathcliff and Catherine, to Hindley and the Linton children in the first generation, to their three offspring in the second. Each character brings out the worst in the others and there is no escape except death.

To summarise the plot is to due a disservice to the novel, which is so much more than just that. It’s the darker side of humanity – revenge, obsession, necrophilia, incest (or large hints of it anyway). Is this what kept attracting me to the book? I don't know, but I would say it is likely. Whatever it was, it made me wish that Emily could have had finished and published her second novel, or if legend is true, that Charlotte hadn’t burnt it down. It might just about been even better…

I think I should probably thank R who almost forced me to buy it in the first place...

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