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.
Instead 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.
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.