Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Book review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (Wordsworth Classics, 2000 [1847])

wutheringheights1847Wuthering Heights is the wild, passionate story of intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father. After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and, wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries.

The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

The story is depressing and confusing, if you are to believe the adaptations. If you are to believe the 1978 one, also tremendously long-winded and boring. The book, however, is not long-winded and it’s not confusing either. It’s got decent pacing, good characters (even though there are a number of DSM-IV labels that can be distributed liberally amongst the characters) and passion. Lots and lots of passion. Not necessarily of the bodice-ripping kind, but passion and fury. Especially the latter.

Problem is, as much as I enjoyed reading the book and Emily Brontë’s writing, which is a lot more succinct than her sister Charlotte’s, I don’t like any of the characters and I have no sympathy for any of them, save for narrator Nelly/Ellen, because they’re all a bunch of bastards who deserve a good slap! I know, I know, it was written a long time ago, but I get the feeling that Emily didn’t particularly like the people she wrote about either. They’re either violent, drunkards, narcissists or just plain emo. But yes, aside from wanting to give the majority of the cast a good shake and yell “wake up and smell the coffee!” at them, it’s still a good read. Yes, even though it’s a little bit depressing and everyone hates each other and people die. Some people you’re quite relieved to see the end of.

The edition I have (Wordsworth Classics – gotta love ’em, they’re only £1.99) comes with a glossary to be able to interpret ye olde English. Some of the words feel a bit unnecessary, because they’re either fairly common knowledge or you can grasp the meaning by the context, whereas others… well, any time poor old Joseph opens his mouth, you need a translator:

Nelly, we’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ’em’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’ other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlf. That’s maister, yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’ grand ‘sizes.

Come again? He goes on for much longer, but there’s just so much of that I can copy before going insane, and besides, you get the idea. Yorkshire dialect. 18th/19th century to boot. English isn’t even my first language, so it was a tad bit difficult to read. The rest of the book wasn’t a problem, just the bits in dialect.

The book is actually a lot better than any of the adaptations I’ve seen. I enjoyed the most recent one, sure, but it strayed very far from the book. The 1998 one… still ventured off the page, but kept to it better than the 2009 one… and the 1978 version was a lot like the book, except slow and “you know what? I’ll have it on in the background while I scrub out the kitchen cupboards or else I fear I might die of boredom”.

Emily’s prose is atmospheric and timeless. Some of her words keep being repeated in the adaptations because, well, they’re worth it. Notably this one, which is very passionate:

My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

See, that’s goosebumps right there. How profound, how passionate, how… obsessive and bordering on deranged! But that’s what I like about it. It tells a compelling (and rather violent) story of a couple of star-crossed lovers who live miserable ever after. What would it have been like if Cathy and Heathcliff had decided to get married? That’s what I’d like to know. Oh, and the corpse-snogging… I didn’t even see that in the book. There was talk of opening caskets and being buried next to and that sort of thing, but I don’t think it actually had Heathcliff half-turning to necrophilia, like some adaptations would have us believe.

Anyway, it’s a book that exceeded my expectations. I thought it’d just be weird and confusing like the adaptations, but no, it was actually pretty good. It was well written, and to think all of that came out of a parson’s daughter living a fairly sheltered life in a small Yorkshire town. Just shows how good her imagination was, and her skill with a pen.

Still, it’s a 3 out of 5, because killing puppies and raping your wife is not cool, no matter how skillfully it was penned.

Next book on the Brontë Challenge pile: Charlotte’s The Professor. Mainly because of the title, and the fact that it’s nice and thin, which is nice when you’re buried up to your neck in heavy course books. 🙂

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