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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Thomas does a book review

Is it tragically romantic or are these people just mentally ill? That, for me, is the central question of Wuthering Heights, as my cynical and pragmatic near-40-year-old self wrestled with the yearning teenage goth I once was.

Don’t worry, I don’t plan to make a habit of literary musings on this blog and only thought this worthwhile ‘cos the Emily Bronte novel is such a well-known part of popular culture – and to my own surprise, what started as a whim of idle curiosity ended up with the novel engaging me in a way a book hasn’t for some time. And it’s all down to the psychology.

Fascinating is the word. It starts with a lurking sense of f***ed-up-ness, drawing you in with morbid curiosity in the manner of a HP Lovecraft short ­– with the discovery of an oddball pseudo-family who all hate each other, a ghost, and a gruff hard-man who cries. In fact the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are more like an MR James ghost story than anything, and it goes on to be as much stomach-clenching gothic thriller as romance.

It’s a Godawful family affair

The novel has a rep ­– it’s that one about the breathless, swoonsome, turbulent love-that-cannot-be between the fierce but flakey Cathy and the rugged-as-granite Heathcliff, on the spooky, windswept Yorkshire moors, isn’t it? A kind of dark and dour Romeo and Juliet?

That’s not the half it. Literally, the latter half the story is usually skimmed over by the films of it, and the deeply strange non-romance of Heathcliff and Cathy is only part of the slow-burning horror of Heathcliff’s revenge on everyone around him, which is what it’s really about.

The narration is split between the out-of-town gentleman Mr Lockwood, who stumbles upon the godawful family situation, and the life-long housekeeper Nelly, who fills in the history to him. Both are kind, sympathetic, intelligent and perceptive and both find the Heathcliff and Cathy business exasperating, frightening, sad and downright unhealthy – and it is clear this is to some extent also the author’s take. But it’s also clear Bronte has some empathy with the ferocity of the doomed pair's feelings, as they're so vividly drawn and explored. There is something seductive, alluring, even sweet, about their bond, which leaves you questioning what you actually feel about it – is it the one admirable saving grace of the awful pair? Or is it just bullshit?

My mother, who read The Heights in school, put it this way: You read it when you’re young and it’s so tragic and romantic; you read it when you’re older and you just want to shake everyone for being so daft, ugly and selfish. I think this puzzling contrast is precisely why I enjoyed it so much, because I can see both coming to it now, as a man whose world view has migrated very far from my teen and twenty-something self – I was that intense, sullen loner who listened to Nine Inch Nails and struck the tragic romantic martyr pose. The strength of the book is that it is ambiguous and multi-faceted enough to encourage such questioning, and I suspect that’s exactly how it was intended – not as an endorsement of any one take, but as an exploration of the baffling excesses of human nature.

Heathcliff and Cathy are never lovers

Of course a novel of this time is not going to have overt sexy sex in it; but beyond that Heathcliff and Cathy are simply not together, in a romantic way, at all as adults, despite the artistic licence of various film adaptations. I actually think this is utterly key to their strange relationship – they are more like siblings than they are lovers – at ease in each other’s company in a way they aren’t with other people, but also encouraged to cruel sniping and childishness – and their bond makes more sense seen with their early “terrible twins” relationship in mind. There is tenderness and kissing and hand-holding and bashful amorous looking in the book – but for the most part that's between other characters, not them, apart perhaps from their very final meeting when it’s all far too late.

No – what Heathcliff and Cathy are is two free-spirited adoptive siblings, set together against the world at an early age (and remember their “world” is only their family and servants). All their happy times together are as children, running away from the unhappy household, made bored and sad when forced apart from their playmate. This is why it makes sense that they hold onto this feeling that there is no one else in the world who could ever understand them like each other. But by the time they are in their mid teens, it’s like Hot Chocolate’s It Started With A Kiss – Cathy has already discovered other people (the Lintons) and that drives a wedge between them.

For the rest of the book their “romance” is a fantasy in each other’s respective heads, fuelled by not being together – in reality when they do fleetingly meet they are often arguing, misunderstanding and hurting each other, yet both grip, like a comfort blanket, to the idea they are somehow linked by the soul and cannot be happy without each other, even while doing this.

It’s more Greek tragedy than Shakespearian

Much can be made of the star-crossed lovers thing, as Heathcliff is socially out-of-bounds for Cathy, being adopted, of uncertain race, and degraded to the role of a semi-literate servant by the time they are coming of age. But this is not Romeo and Juliet. The pair may be sympathetic as children, but as adults they heap suffering on themselves through their own character flaws. In Greek tragedy that was a big thing – the protagonist is always some frightful Gawd-‘elp-us, with extreme pride, obsession, ideology, stubbornness or anger issues that you can see leading to trouble a mile off, and half the appeal is the anticipation of their inevitable gory demise because of it. This is basically the template of The Heights.

Young Cathy is certainly free-spirited enough to ignore the judgement of her family and elope with Heathcliff – she isn’t coerced to marry Edgar Linton instead, she actually wants to because she fancies him and is enamoured with the idea of being the local lady of the manor. She wants to have her cake and eat it, somehow thinking Heathcliff can come with her and will be fine with this. We know this will go tits-up from the moment she says it.

Heathcliff for his part royally screws any chance of being reconciled with Cathy later because, just as things seem to have found an uneasy balance where everyone can see each other and get along, he deliberately exploits and elopes with Edgar’s sister Isabella because he’s so obsessed with getting his revenge on the Lintons – without a thought for how that will also hurt Cathy. So much for romance. From that point on he’s a happiness-sucking black-hole bogey-man who spreads a thick blanket of shit over everything he comes within 10 paces of. He lives in self-imposed exile from any chance of contentment due to his own pointless revenge obsession.

Catherine is silly, insensitive, selfish and full-of-herself; Heathcliff is cruel, obsessive, greedy and empathy-deficient. It’s not a case of whether Heathcliff and Cathy would have been happy if it wasn’t for society’s rules, man – they bring their misery on themselves, by being themselves.

There are unwitting descriptions of clear mental health issues

A shocking total of 11 characters ­– more than two thirds of the “cast” – die from "illness" during the roughly 30 years covered. And no wonder the death toll is like a 1980s slasher flick when their grip on medical matters is so sketchy – “consumption” is mentioned once, "fever" a couple of times but generally people just die of being "ill", which seems to cover everything from having a cold to childbirth, as well as being in low spirits or having been out in the rain.

But the psychological observations are rather more ahead of their time. Every character has a set of well-drawn and unique dispositions, drives and demons, and how characters can be transformed by what happens (or doesn’t happen) to them is a common theme. On top of that, Catherine and Heathcliff both exhibit clear mental health issues that are not so fanciful as they might first appear.

Cathy has "fits" that may or may not be for show, but are certainly self-induced, and goes out of her way to punish herself, lock herself away, disappear into reveries, self harm and refuse to eat. In the context of a 19th century romantic novel this might look melodramatic, until you realise that people actually do exhibit such behaviours when in crisis; and one wonders if Bronte had come across such rather than just making it up. In that light the standard response of "oh she's just after attention" or "she's just trying to get her way" looks shockingly inadequate.

Meanwhile Heathcliff shows cripplingly obsessive behaviour all round, not just in his feelings for Cathy. He gives his entire adult life over to the task of plotting to possess and ruin everything that belongs to the only two families he's ever known along with, of course, thinking 24/7 about Cathy – and continues both obsessions even 20 years after she, and later everyone who actually wronged him, is dead. No man was ever more in need of a distracting hobby. I mean sheesh, Heathcliff, whittle some wooden sheep or take up yodeling or something. This may seem like his character is superficially drawn, but it isn't, the book is very much interested in what is going on in the head of that strange fish.

And the guy also has suspiciously sociopathic tendencies, in that he just doesn’t seem to be able to empathise with anyone at all, treating everyone bar Cathy as an object to play with or despise. It never occurs to him that could be the source of his continued tortured misery, not the solution. With that in mind, while his occasional exhibitions of passion can stir the heart, I was just as tempted call "bullshit" on them – for example when he bangs on about Edgar being unable to feel like he does (so wild and deep and overwhelming is his love blah blah). How the shit would he know? What shred of real insight into other people’s emotions has he ever shown?

There is some cross-over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

But the suffering isn't all caused by Heathcliff. The story is a parable about the cycle of abuse passed down through generations. The Earnshaw dad treats his kids pretty shoddily towards the end of his life, especially Hindley; Hindley becomes master of the Heights, then treats his adopted brother Heathcliff, and later his own son Hareton, awfully; Heathcliff becomes master of the Heights and treats everybody who comes under that roof awfully. Nobody is ever happy for long in that accursed house, but Heathcliff shows no awareness his own project of nastiness is less a rebuttal and more an endorsement of the nastiness dished out to him. He's a hypocrite in that sense, and just not that self-aware, for all his Machiavellian manipulations.

There is also some cross over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here – in that you realise all of this is only happening because the Earnshaw family is so cut off, with only each other and the Lintons to obsess over and no outside influence to tell them this isn't normal and there are alternative ways of being. In that sense it stands in a long line of gothic horror that riffs on decadent, incestuous, mutated things-going-wrong due to prolonged rural isolation.

It’s the ghostly elements that validate the "romance" of it

Ultimately, it's the supernatural elements that provide the book's sucker punch (as well as making a lot more sense of some Kate Bush lyrics). Sure, Bronte leaves any ghostly goings-on ambiguous, pooh-poohed by the narrators as just dreams, superstitious imaginings, sickly hallucinations – but she wouldn't have included them if you weren't supposed to consider “but what if...”

And just as you've written off the whole sorry "love" affair as the delusional and destructive BS of a couple of dickheads, you realise their souls were in fact united after death; their love was such a juggernaut it survived the flesh; and they both chose to shun heaven to be forever tormented together on the desolate moors – and that Nine Inch Nails-listening goth kid in me resurfaces and swoons "Oh!"

For a few seconds. Then you recall they were both such silly, nasty gits that, well, good riddance to them and maybe they could have just f***ed off together in the first place and saved everyone else the grief. I know love can be thus, but their "romance" is just too tunnel-visioned, strangely joyless and downright odd to really be held up as an example for anyone to want to emulate in the final account, I think.

The real romance is not Catherine and Heathcliff

Now the real romance of the story is that between the younger Cathy (Catherine and Edgar's daughter) and Hareton. Because it happens against the odds by a mutual effort of forgiveness and understanding – and blissfully succeeds in finally dissipating the storm clouds of decades, transforming years of cyclical abuse into something happy and healthy (that is, ignoring the fact that they are close cousins, beggars can’t be choosers y'know)... but I've already gone on too long, so read it yourself.


  1. I've never read it, but will make it my next out of copyright ebook if I ever finish the interminable Daniel Deronda.

  2. Fascinating stuff - may book-on-tape it. Finding it harder to get into fiction as I get older. All about Robert Carl's Lyndon Johnson bio for me at the moment. Now that's interminable, but brilliant.

  3. That took me back Noise - haven't read that since the first year of uni. If I remember rightly, it was the subject of my first proper essay too. No doubt a cringe-worthy festival of pretension now - I might dig it out for giggles.

    Notably, Breton and the Surrealists held up Wuthering Heights as a key text - a perfect example of amour fou, which was one of the driving impulses of the movement. Bunuel actually made a film of it in the 50s - Abismos de Pasion. You might find it closer to capturing the psychological disturbance you detect in the book than most film versions, which usually miss the mark completely. I've got it on DVD actually; I'll have to sling it your way!

  4. Just finished it. Like you, I'm shocked that anyone can think it's a romantic (small r) novel. I was surprised at how relentless and general the emotional and physical abuse is. The scene where Heathcliff shoves a knife down Nelly's throat for example. All the incest and sharing of names made it hard to track wtf was going on at times. The gothicness of the setting was very good. Everyone always terrified of an open window. And it reminded me of Poe a bit in its portrayal of obsessive delusion.

    Gor bless poor Nelly though; it's amusing how she is constantly being persuaded or inveigled into doing things against her better judgment! The other comedy mostly comes from Joseph, surely one of the original curmudgeons of the canon, with his scripture and incomprehensible argot. Weedy Linton Jr is another fun archetype, like a kid from an Edward Gorey tale.

    Very glad I read it. 1000x better than Deronda.