“I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free.”

Happy 199th Birthday to Emily Bronte!
I remember when I first read Wuthering Heights. I was in high school. I had read (and loved) Jane Eyre the previous year. I figured that since the authors were sisters, and Wuthering Heights had a reputation as a love story, I would be in for a similar experience. But instead of moving through the narrative with a heroine I could root for, like I did with Jane Eyre, I found myself outside of the narrative, looking for a way in. My narrators were all outsiders. Nelly Dean, a housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, tells the story to Lockwood, a visitor. Those narrative frames made me feel like there was something I wasn’t seeing- some kernel of truth that was just outside my field of vision.

heathcliffInstead of a sweeping romance, I met two of the most selfish lovers in English literature. Heathcliff and Cathy’s love was on some level narcissistic. Look at the way they talk about one another :“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”  and  “I have not broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.”  Neither one has a sense of identity without the other, or rather each has a personal identity in the other. Instead of stopping the book when one of the lovers dies (which is when most film adaptations end) Bronte keeps the story going: we see the next generation that suffers for the sins of their parents before bringing everything full circle. I couldn’t understand why people referred to Heathcliff as a romantic hero. If anything, most of his actions were villainous. His love for Cathy was deeply disturbing. But if Wuthering Heights were the “tragic romance” that it’s often mistaken for, he would be the hero. So the reader is tempted to force him into a role that he doesn’t quite fit.

I can’t say that I enjoyed it the first time I read it, but I was sort of obsessed by it. I  was uncomfortable with the fact that I felt outside the story when all I wanted was to be in it. I read it again in college, and I felt like I was closer to finding a way in on my second read through. For my senior project in college I wrote my first novel. I imagined the life of Isabella Linton, a side character whom Heathcliff marries and torments as revenge against her brother. Isabella was the romance reader, who sees Heathcliff in the “romantic hero” role and she suffers for that mistake for the rest of her life. I made Isabella a stand in for my own reading experience. Like me she was just outside of events that she didn’t completely understand. Like me she had expectations of one thing, and was instead given a dark, twisted version of it. In retrospect, I don’t think that my novel was very good, but it gave me what I’d been looking for: a way into Wuthering Heights.

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Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, and the moors between them are sort of like an alternate universe. The reader can get a basic, “what happened next” idea of events by looking at them from the outside. But in order to get the full experience, the reader needs to live there for a while. To read and reread. To see that world through different eyes.

Emily Bronte died at the age of thirty, one year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. Aside from the novel, her only published writing  is poetry. She had begun a second novel, but no manuscript has ever been found. So we’re left with this book: brilliant, beautiful, confusing. It leaves more questions than answers about Emily Bronte, her mind, and the way she saw and experienced the world.

17 thoughts on ““I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free.”

  1. HBD Emily Bronte! I think Wuthering Heights is a fascinating, complex novel, but a love story it is not. I must admit that Emily is my least favorite Bronte sister, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate her. It’s a great tragedy she didn’t live long enough to write a second novel. I wonder what her future writing would have been like…

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    • I might call it a love story (albeit a very destructive, disturbing one) but definitely not a romance! I can see why people might characterize it that way, because if the plot were handled differently, it might fall into that category. But as it is, it sort of plays with our expectations of a romance without actually being one. I think that’s why a lot of people who dislike the book feel that way. It doesn’t fit any genre comfortably. The events and characters come close to several but it just plays with reader expectations somewhat. When we start to feel sympathy for one character he’ll do or say something vile and it’ll be gone. I think that complexity is part of what makes it beautiful. To me at least. But as I said, it took time to grow on me. Whereas I loved most of Charlotte and Anne’s work the first time I read it.

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  5. I just finished my reread of Wuthering Heights. I read it once years ago and remembered nothing about it except that I hated it. I think I appreciated it more this time, but the selfishness of the characters and the cruelty of many of them makes it hard for me to say I “enjoyed” the book.

    I did see someone tweet recently (since apparently Wuthering Heights is being bashed as “problematic”) that perhaps people are confusing “Romantic hero” with “romantic hero,” which I could see. I mean, Heathcliff is obviously a jerk. No one is suggesting you date someone like him. 😉

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    • I think it’s often misrepresented as a romantic love story so people kind of go into it with that expectation which is a problem. If it were a book that goes along what we expect from a “love story” Heathcliff would be the brooding, bad boy, hero who is eventually tamed by the love of a good woman. That’s the trap that Isabella Linton falls into. She romanticizes him, and she pays for it.

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      • Yes! I’ve seen people say it’s a love story and…I guess there are people in love, but I wouldn’t call it a love story personally! I can’t even tell if Heathcliff and Catherine even like each other. I like your point about Isabella thinking he can’t be that bad, can be changed, etc. though. I wonder if she read too many novels. :p

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      • I think that Heathcliff and Cathy are both very narcissistic people who see a lot of themselves in one another. So their “love” for each other is more of a selfish obsession.

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  6. While I loved the story, atmosphere and Mr Rochester 😉 in Jane Eyre, I actually found Jane herself rather annoying, with how self-deprecating she is and how I am told how intelligent she is and then she makes ridiculously stupid decisions like leaving with no money or place to go! 🤷‍♀️ I do agree that neither Cathy or Heathcliff are ‘likeable’ characters either, but they are unashamedly so and fascinating to read about!

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    • I never really considered Jane’s actions from a practical point of view. I always admired them from a “being true to yourself” perspective, but I suppose that practically speaking you’re right! I still love the book and the character though. I’m curious what you think of Lucy Snow in Villette.

      One thing I love about Wuthering Heights is that there aren’t really any “likeable” characters. There are bad characters, slightly less bad characters, and then incidental side characters that we don’t much care about. But in spite of that (or maybe because if it!) their whole world is so compelling!

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