Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stormy Weather

What does wuthering mean? I asked my co-workers and none of us knew. Of course it sounds a lot like weathering and we said that. But in my mind, I see weathering as water based - rain, seasonal wear, and rust - and wuthering as something blustery, a rough wind over thistles.

Perhaps it was the suggestion of the Yorkshire moors, a mysterious landscape I have never seen, which brings a steady list of associations: Mary Lennox at Misselthwaite Manor waiting for Dickon and his menage of animals; Frederica Potter scowling and naturalists watching snails; three sisters caged up in Haworth parsonage; the recently filmed Brit noir, the Red Riding trilogy. 'Moor' reminds one of the mysterious orient, the Muslims of Spain, inscrutable and dark.

Wuthering Heights, is another one of those books that many people - women especially - have read in high school or college. Though I've read Jane Eyre and all of Jane Austen I don't remember reading, or finishing anyways, Wuthering Heights. It always seemed too grim to me, too too. Too anguished, too blustery, too doomed.

In brief: a man takes a house on the Yorkshire moors and his host is Heathcliff, a grim, proud gentleman that the man likes less and less the more he talks to him. His house is in shambles, his family belligerent. The man's servant, Nelly Dean, tells him the story of the house and the family. Cathy and Heathcliff (a foundling)were childhood playmates, Heathcliff was badly treated and swore revenge, their twisted love and misunderstandings beget further twisted love, revenge, and misunderstandings upon their blighted children.

I would hate to credit Twilight with anything literary, and although the frequent mention of Wuthering Heights in Twilight is heavy-handed, Emily Brontë's poetry is too resonant not to stick in the mind. Phrases which are terribly embarrassing when about Bella and Edward -

"If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger."

become simple and undramatic when referring to the carnage that is Heathcliff and Cathy. We can understand why Bella is infatuated with Edward - it's his milky skin and his topaz eyes etc. etc. Why anyone would find Heathcliff a romantic Byronic figure is beyond me. He is a demon, wretched, ungrateful, snarling and unlovable. We can be fascinated that Cathy and Heathcliff are grafted together because their mutual obsession defies reason.

I picked up the beautiful Penguin Hardcover Edition, with its grey cover and light blue roses and thorns. This was a book I read at midnight, curled up on my favorite brown chair next to the light. I stayed up with a haggard, sick fascination. A frequent complaint of readers of Wuthering Heights (gathered on Goodreads at least) is the fact that the characters are despicable and even worse, unlikeable. I find that this is irrelevant because the characters are fascinating in all their sullen and vindictive squalor. Critics were baffled by the book, found it crude but powerful.

This is no love story. This is a vampiric tale of obsession and the satanic bond between Cathy and Heathcliff. It's a remarkably savage and psychological novel for an isolated woman doomed to her own premature death.

1 comment:

Vlad said...

I read "Wuthering Heights" when I was in high school--part of the English curriculum at an all boy's Catholic school. It's only many years later that I find it an interesting choice for such a school.
I was angered and inflamed by the romance; the characters frustrated me, and often I found myself privately swearing into the book in hopes that the characters would snap out of these destructive roles (I had the same reaction to "House of Mirth"). When I think of the book now, I do have a sense, like that image of the moors you posted, of the emotions I wrestled with while reading it.
Your comparison to "Twilight" is brilliant-- one of those 'of course!' moments for me, and the last paragraph in your post is superbly astute in describing why one should venture into Bronte's fearsome novel, when it might seem there's little reward (or joy).