Book review: Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights.Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Let me in (ah) your window (oh ho ho ho).

C’mon, you were thinking it. I know you were. I was, the whole way through. As the introduction indicates, it’s a rare text that can not only birth film adaptations but also pop chart-toppers. (And accompanying dance routines.)

(I must also point out that I’ve just discovered that Cliff Richard played Heathcliff in a musical named after the brooding galoot, and I can’t really wrap my brain around it and you probably can’t either. )

This is the second time I’ve read Wuthering Heights. The first time was as part of a university literature course, and I was breathlessly carried away by the book. This time around – some 20 years later – I wasn’t quite as enraptured, but I was more delighted at how perverse the text is. It’s bonkers, to be frank. It’s a book that’s popularly called a love story, but it’s really a rural gothic nightmare. Foremost it’s a revenge story, I suppose, but even that is too limiting for the weirdness Brontë spins.

To be honest, I hadn’t remembered much of the story, and what I did recall was coloured somewhat by the 1970 adaptation. (All surly Dalton and too-white clothes.) So it came as something of a surprise to me to (re)discover how much of the work is mired in death. There’s so much of the twilight world in this tale: Heathcliff is an adopted boy with no backstory who reinvents himself throughout the length of the work – a changeling, a kobold on human growth hormone. (Who just happens to be named after a dead infant.) People seem to have spiritual transplants, or long to share themselves with another in ways that seem … well, unwholesome. People die in childbirth, people die from willing themselves to, and people die inexplicably.

Actually, inexplicable is Wuthering Heights‘ main jam. The ending makes sense but also doesn’t, and the fug of enigma doesn’t lift. Hell, this is a book that ends with someone getting the fuck out of Dodge, pausing only to regard significant gravestones. It’s Don’t Look Now with consumption and more rain.

I’m uncertain how anyone can view this as a love story, though: a story of obsession and fixated power-playing? Sure. But petals-strewn love? Not at all. If there is love in here it’s black: the sort of love that consumes the individuals so that they cease being themselves, so that they’re blasted husks ever after. Certainly, there’s a disparagement of matrimony throughout: it’s used as a tool to enslave, to control and corral rather than some kind of hearts-entwined boon. Love here is either maternal in nature – that of a servant and her charges (or the idea of her charges) – or something like an emotional tar pit, from which no light nor goodness can escape. Everyone is awful. Everyone is flawed. There might be great passions, great obsessions here – but nobody in this book deserves love, either romantic or spiritual.

It’s bleak, but then its author did live in a house most likely converted with foul water flowing from a nearby graveyard, who only lived until 30 before being poleaxed by TB (like a bunch of her siblings) so you know, I don’t think cheeriness is really on the cards anywhere here.

The structure of the book didn’t seem to be quite as successful as the first time I read it: it seemed very much a contrivance to have the story told through recitation at an extended distance, but then to throw very specific dates into that mix to fix the narrative at particular points in time. But I suppose framing devices were much more of A Thing at that point, given the circuitous bullshit necessary in order to publish the Brontës’ work at all. It’s perhaps best labelled a Gothic cadenza, perhaps – taking bits and pieces of that genre but spinning it into something somehow a little more modern and a little more retrograde. With a whole lot of IT’S GRIM UP NORTH homespun curmudgeonliness thrown in for added benefit.

And still, five stars. I think it’s because in Wuthering Heights I find something magnetic. I kept thinking about it in the intervening years in the way I do very few books: it makes an impact that lingers beyond its first reading. It doesn’t really work – and indeed, really shouldn’t, given how it’s put together – but I still find it contains something few other books do. There’s a sense of oddity, of the uncanny that can’t be put down to any of the reasons – youth, lack of society experience – Brontë’s relatives would have you believe. There’s a proper perversity at work here, in this forest of unlikeable people. In increasingly ruinous houses, Bad Shit Happens and I – for whatever reason – find I can’t help but look on, enthralled. (And disgusted.)

So I guess that’s good? It’s unique, anyway. That’s enough for me.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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