A Book Review
By Melissa Fortuin
Author: Emily Brontë
Year published: 1847
Genre: Gothic, bildungsroman, romance, tragedy
Let’s get into it.
Wuthering Heights is not for the faint of heart, and despite it being a romance it’s definitely not for revelers of your stereotypical vanilla swirl love affair enthusiasts. But upon hearing I would be revisiting this old classic for a review well I just couldn’t help myself! So I applied a fresh coat of glue to imaginary wig because I knew I was in for one helluva bumpy emotional ride.
The opus magnum standalone effort of Emily Brontë underwent a fresh coat of paint very recently on screen, the original page to movie adaptation having graced theatres in 1939. Spring is soon upon us (definitely on the release of this piece) and with it comes the associations of all things new, fresh beginnings, youth and budding romances. Unfortunately, I’m here to break that little bubble you possibly had going on in your head regarding sun-drenched fields of wheat, our little couple running hand in hand, or swooning old Hollywood actors locked in passionate kisses to replace it with a more… acquired and melodramatic taste. Swop out the bouquets for endless wind-beaten moors, complete with perpetually overcast skies and a gloomy cursed house that looms over all its inhabitants, peppered with that old Victorian case of spontaneous diseases and we’ve got our formula for the setting of a Brontë love story of note.
A quick synopsis (no spoiler alerts read on calmly) involves our narrator, Lockwood, arriving at the house Wuthering Heights in order to arrange the rental of a nearby property, Thrushcross Grange. He has to deal with frighteningly moody and uncouth owner Heathcliff who has no last name to achieve this. But temperamental English weather has other ideas and forces him to spend an unfortunate night. While there Lockwood experiences nightmares of a wailing ghost named Catherine Linton. Some violence ensues (and not your last dose of it) but the harrowing experience stays locked firmly in his memory. Once his affairs are settled he takes up residence and strikes up a conversation with the friendly housekeeper Ellen ‘Nelly’ Dean who enthusiastically regales him with the tragic tale of the Linton family, Earnshaw family, and the involvement of the Earnshaw family homes current inhabitant Heathcliff. What sets the story in motion is when little Catherine’s travelling father returns home one day with an orphaned swarthy gypsy youth and this is our Heathcliff. With strange mannerisms and an unpolished nature, the Earnshaw siblings find themselves with a new brother. Their father dotes on him much to Hindley’s (Catherine’s older brother) chagrin and he grows untrusting and distant, but an idyllic friendship is struck between Heathcliff and his reformed opposite Catherine.
What ensues over the next three generations and two families is a tale of immense almost bordering on insane love, loss, the reckless abandon of childhood abandon, tragedy and revenge that ensnares everyone connected to our young lovers. There is a lot of misogyny, religious hypocrisy, cruelty, blatant abuse and unstable family dynamics to grow around. In fact, one would struggle to believe this book was written in the mid-nineteenth century. The first time I read the novel I was in high school, and after revisiting it with much older eyes I’ve come to see it as a piece that undergoes a metamorphosis in meaning every time you decide to pick it up again. Every character transforms and it’s an unending “Emily wrote this in 1847! ” ride. Love it or hate it, you won’t struggle to find extremely polarized views of this controversial intense and dark classic.
One can only imagine the reactions to a novel like this written during an Era when so much as showing feminine ankles was considered utterly abhorrent. That being said I’d give my entire bottom row of teeth to climb into The Tardis and travel to the reading rooms of esteemed and wealthy Victorian gentlemen and dames to gleefully feed off their shell-shocked, pearl grabbing reactions. The darkness, the violence and the all-consuming passionate affair? What on Earth could Emily Brontë have been thinking?
I think this is why years later I remain hypnotized and intrigued by not just this novel, but by the persona behind this story. A woman who led a mostly quiet life and whose body of work is held in stark contrast against those of her other writer siblings Charlotte (who wrote another classic Jane Eyre) and her sister Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) who opted for slightly more pastoral and moralistic touch. Jane Austen fans beware, Heathcliff is not our Mr Darcy whom you disliked at first, then swooned about later. You may find yourself hating the leading man from beginning to end… In Fact, there’s a high likelihood you’d hate all the characters from beginning to end, even our sweet old housekeeper Nelly Dean may not be immune. There might be increased bewilderment when you stop yourself mid-sentence on several occasions to ask yourself, “…wait… Do I actually ‘ship’ this couple?” Yes, these were definitely not thoughts my young mind had in a time of wizardry budding romances and vampiric love stories appealing to angst-riddled teens. Adulthood brought a more critical lens.
But I’m going to play devil’s advocate as I usually do. There could be an excellent explanation and actual well thought intelligent intention behind the grotesqueness of certain elements in the novel. Emily was only born too soon. Nothing stops a current writer from thoroughly explaining themes to an audience that’s equally or plausibly, even more, darker than her. This book is not just about love as aforementioned, and also includes themes relevant to her time such as the progression of female inequality, church hypocrisy, the socio-economic divide of certain groups and the raw descriptions of violence was the tool used to demonstrate these issues. Emily wasn’t concerned with distaste but saying a thing like it is. And is a group of wholly unlikeable characters a basis to determine the quality of a novel? My response in short: no!
The author is not obligated to make people in their works “nice”. That goes against the entire point of storytelling, that’s like saying humans are infallible. As if two self-centred people have never fallen in love in the history of forever. And they have no story. This is the progression of a real-life possibility into art – no more no less. We weren’t owed stereotypes or clichés. Instead, she tests us to see if we are willing to enter her windowless mind. The childhood landscape she knew as home takes shape so beautifully merging flawlessly with the story and becoming almost another living breathing sentient being. The windswept desolate moors transform into something oddly breathtaking. The book is cinematic before a time of movies.
Dive into this definite read, but don’t forget to take in a deep breath before you do.