Everyone loves Wuthering Heights.
This sounds like a sweeping exaggeration – but, seriously, Virginia Woolf calls Cathy and her daughter ‘two of the most loveable women in literature’, and Heathcliff is the nation’s favourite rogue.
But despite loving Emily Brontë’s poetry (which is rich and spirited, but, comparatively, pretty tame), and Charlotte and Anne’s work, I didn’t enjoy this book. And so my challenge this summer: read it again, and figure out why.
Brontë writes as a poet, and I was knee-deep straight away in the gloomy vastness of the moors, entangled in the unique wildness, the tangible atmosphere, the lurking ghosts of Wuthering Heights. The narration comes mostly from the old servant Ellen Dean, but in certain places (crucially at the beginning) it is a stranger to the Heights, Mr Lockwood, who tells the story; this feels like Brontë boasting the intrigue and genius of her creation in its ability to interest this third-party.
It also seems to treat the tale with some caution, as if these one (Ellen) or two (Lockwood) removes from its protagonists are necessary to keep the reader sane. And so to my main problem with Wuthering Heights: it is only bearable to a point. Whilst I can endure the mutual torment which Cathy and Heathcliff put one another through, whilst I can watch with relative ease the decline of Heathcliff’s manners, or Edgar and Cathy’s hitherto happy marriage falling apart at his hands, Brontë takes her reader to the cliff edge, and actually lets them fall a few hundred feet before allowing them to catch at a foothold. She takes them to the point where all seem forsaken, where everyone (however good initially) who has anything to do with the Heights has not only become wretched and miserable, but conceited, petty and hateful.
I think she takes us too far.
I think by taking us to Wuthering Heights, where all seems doomed, rejected, desolate, where all are spirited beyond reason, passionate to the point of madness, and only become more so over the course of the novel, she shows us a vision of humanity which is too dire and bleak to contemplate. She shows us a setting and a group of minds cut off from civilisation and civility; their going to church is touched upon, often neglected, the doctor is rarely called, and the passing mention of a lawyer makes us feel the isolation of the place and the unhappy souls which have been drawn into its depression. More than showing the devil in us all, she shows stewing hatred and festering vengeance that become unendurable, without any touch of human kindness. The intermarriage between the Earnshaws, the Lintons, and the Heathcliffs, which comes just close enough to feeling incestuous, adds to the sense of wildness, fatedness, and the unbreakable ties of the chaotic place. The sheer violence of many of the characters, and use of physical force to restrain its females and threaten its males is disturbing.
The pair whose love story everyone admires are so wound up in one another that their love becomes painful, maddening, they are so roguish and free from any attempts at self-restraint that they end up tearing themselves apart, and blaming and corrupting the playthings who they draw into their devilish, cruel games with one another’s hearts.
And, yes, Brontë’s reconciliation is sweet. She takes our hands and helps us remount solid ground, soothes us while we shake from our fall. The hope promised by her ending, the little glow of satisfaction we get from it, is almost Austen-esque, but is too much tainted by the thought of the inhumanity and suffering which preceded to feel anything more than false and transient.
Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece, I can’t deny. But its very brilliance is that it exposes the dark side of human nature, and withholds from us its potential goodness until the very close. And, for me, having taken me so far towards despair, this final peep of light could offer little recompense.