Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer as the young Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights.Out on the wily windy moors we’d roll in falling green; you had a temper, like my jealousy, too hot, too greedy!
YOU didn’t have to catch every word of Kate Bush’s 1978 hit Wuthering Heights to feel the yearning of thwarted passion she had distilled from Emily Bronte’s novel; as she ran across the moors in the video accompanying the song, her voice something between a choirgirl and a keening banshee, you readied yourself for that anguished chorus. ”Heathcliff, it’s me, it’s Cathy come home! I’m so cold, let me in your window …” It was weird, but not an incongruous fit. Wuthering Heights may be a school curriculum classic, but it lives and breathes with the immediacy of any pop song.
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 when Emily Bronte was 29. She died the following year of tuberculosis, probably hastened by a self-imposed regime of fasting and purging that was viewed at the time as asceticism, but would now be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa.
The story was set in 1801, when a gentleman named Lockwood comes to Yorkshire to rent a house called Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff, who lives across the moor at Wuthering Heights. When Lockwood tramps over to see his landlord, he takes Heathcliff to be ”a gentleman” but with the vulgar manners of something else entirely; his household is odd, too, seemingly consisting of a teenage girl, her sickly young husband, Linton, and another fellow, a kind of lumbering Caliban. This is Hareton, the youngest scion of the perilously declined Earnshaw family who once owned the farm.
Gradually, Lockwood is told a story going back 30 years. Heathcliff was a swarthy foundling brought home by old Mr Earnshaw. Hindley Earnshaw, his son, was consumed with jealousy of the newcomer; daughter Catherine becomes his constant companion and soul mate. This unconsummated devotion will outlast his humiliation by Hindley – who, after Earnshaw dies, casts Heathcliff from the family to become a farmyard skivvy – and subsequent years of separation, their respective marriages to the Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, and death itself.
Catherine dies giving birth to young Cathy, the girl Lockwood meets in the story’s prologue, but Heathcliff digs up her body and finds her intact, seemingly waiting for him. Meanwhile, he spends the rest of his life exacting revenge on the alcoholic Hindley, the widowed Edgar Linton and their various children, engineering and rejoicing in the degradation of each in turn.
There is an ocean of online mulling over ways one can interpret and understand Wuthering Heights, ranging from Marxist fundamentalist readings that see it as a rendering of shifting class conflicts during the Industrial Revolution, to Freudian analysis – Heathcliff is the id, Catherine the ego, Edgar the superego – right through the various literary comparisons to earlier Gothic novels and Byronic poetry. There are the modern blogging readers, some of whom are fastidiously troubled by a book in which the characters are – and they’re right about this – not very nice.
Equally, there are the modern (male) critics distracted by the famous couple’s failure to have sex. A relationship where Cathy can declare to Nelly that ”I am Heathcliff … he is more myself than I am” is ”scarcely a relationship at all”, in the words of notable critic Terry Eagleton, ”since there is no question of otherness involved”. But the fact the book has no actual sex in it does not make it asexual.
What these critics fail to notice is that zillions of teenage girls – and many others of both genders, but teen girls in particular – who continue to read Wuthering Heights as a rite of passage dream of exactly this kind of spiritual union, with sex as a desirable but hazy, ethereal and distant culmination. For Simone de Beauvoir, Cathy’s declaration was ”the cry of every woman in love”.
But it isn’t hard to wring sentiment out of it. Wuthering Heights is a tragedy of human regression: the thread running through it is the psychologically acute portrait of a man driven to monstrosity by bitterness. Its comic leitmotif, however, has become the cinematic trope in which Cathy and Heathcliff (as played by Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, most likely, though cinema and TV have given us many starry pairings, notably Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche) run to each other through the harebells, calling the other’s name.
The real Wuthering Heights resists adaptation. It is too raw for TV, too long and complicated for cinema – film adaptations tend to stop when Catherine dies, about halfway through the novel – and nobody is ever satisfied with the casting or script, even in a version such as Robert Fuest’s 1970 film, which was, from memory, largely a cut-and-paste assemblage of Bronte’s own dialogue. Everything and everyone is far too clean and rather too prosperous.
Wuthering Heights, as Eagleton has said, reeks of the ”hungry ’40s”, even though it is set somewhat earlier; Liverpool, where Mr Earnshaw finds the child Heathcliff, was full of desperate Irish refugees from the potato famine.
A new version of Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank), is much dirtier and bleaker than its predecessors; she also pursued verisimilitude by recruiting a young, black Heathcliff – James Howson – from a job centre. ”There are five or six clear descriptions of him in the novel,” Arnold says. ”He gets called ‘a little Lascar’, which meant an Indian seaman, and there’s a reference to Chinese-Indian parentage. He also gets called a Gypsy. In the end, I decided that what I wanted to honour was his difference.”
However, she, too, only shoots half of the story, leaving Heathcliff in the first throes of grief on the moors. ”It’s such a complex book that I just had to pick out the things that had resonance to me while still honouring the work as a whole,” Arnold says. ”The childhood is so important in the book that, without it, the adulthood wouldn’t make sense. They’re yearning for what they had as kids. I do feel sad about it. The story isn’t complete without Heathcliff really getting his revenge, then dying and being next to her. It’s not a comfortable feeling.”
Interestingly, she also feels that if she had more time she would have researched Emily Bronte more closely; it was Bronte herself, she suspects, who felt she was Heathcliff. Less of the critical mulling that one might expect is devoted to Emily herself. A cult figure at the end of the 19th century, described by poet Robert Bridges as possessing ”all passion’s splendour”, she has seemingly withdrawn from view, rather as she did in life. Which is not to deny the Brontes are one of Britain’s plethora of heritage industries: Haworth, the village where the Bronte sisters and brother Branwell grew up, is a huge tourist draw.
When I visited (many years ago now) on a winter weekend, the narrow main street was jammed with tourists moving in an almost ecclesiastical processional from one purveyor of souvenir tea towels to the next. Some visited the excellent museum housed in the Brontes’ parsonage home, while the Black Bull pub where Branwell drank himself into a stupor daily offered a seat on the chair from where his father would bring him home to Emily, the only family member strong enough to haul him to bed. However, when I walked up to Top Withins – supposedly the ruins of the model for Wuthering Heights – I met only a man and his dog. Wild, windy moors? We’d rather not, thanks.
Yet, as Charlotte Bronte noted in her introduction to Wuthering Heights’ 1850 edition, the book seemingly sprang from the earth it was conceived in: ”Ellis Bell [Emily’s nom de plume] did not describe as one whose eye and taste alone found pleasure in the prospect; her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle; they were what she lived in, and by, as much as the wild birds, their tenants, or as the heather, their produce.”
Charlotte also recognised the violence swirling just below the novel’s surface and the romance at its centre as ”sentiment fierce and inhuman: a passion such as might boil and glow in the bad essence of some evil genius”. Walking there above the hubbub, it felt as if Kate Bush caught it best: ”I’m coming back love, cruel Heathcliff; my one dream, my only master.” So much feeling. Like the West Riding wind, it never fails to rattle the rafters.
■Wuthering Heights opens on Thursday.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.