Friday, 3 July 2009

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

Read: May 2009

I seem to spend a lot of my time praising novels for aspects like their ingenuity, their intelligence, their sheer descriptive prowess. And these are all important qualities in a book. But what I like best is a good story. A good story which surrounds me so completely that the action becomes more vivid than the physical world around me. I like to be inundated by the words in such an immediate sense that I feel their breeze against my skin and believe that I am an unseen ghostly presence hovering somewhere between the full stop and the start of the next sentence.

What I like about each of the Bronte novels I have read so far – Jane Eyre and now Wuthering Heights – is that they are just this: stories. And proper thick as warm porridge drenched in honey stories too. Stories to listen to enraptured around a camp fire, stories to read huddled with a torch under the duvet at 3am because you cannot sleep for thinking about what is going to happen next. Everything that is great about each of them lies in the quality of the story, in the beguiling narrative and engaging characters. It seems to me that cut off as they were from the literary milieu of London the Bronte's wrote stories to entertain themselves rather than demonstrate their worth as writers, wild flights of fancy as adventurous and exciting as any Don Quixote type epic adventure could ever be.

Wuthering Heights is the story of two deeply flawed individuals, Catherine and Heathcliff, of their mutual obsession and the destruction it wreaks upon all who know them. I don't know who it was that first advanced the idea of theirs being a great love story but I doubt they had ever actually read the book. And if they had, and this is their idea of love, then I am glad I wasn't anywhere near them. The story of Catherine and Heathcliff is one of two wilful people who seem unable either to live either with or without each other. As Cathy explains early on, "...he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same...I AM Heathcliff." They love and hate each other as they do themselves. At times they can barely stand to be together and at others they claw and scratch at each other as though trying to find a way to actually open up their bodies and climb inside each other. I think Kate Bush captures this odd relationship best:

“Out on the wily, windy moors
Wed roll and fall in green.
You had a temper like my jealousy:
Too hot, too greedy.
How could you leave me,
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you. I loved you, too.”

Wuthering Heights is a brooding psychological obsession/revenge/ghost story set against the domineering backdrop of the North York Moors. Plot, setting, and characters all have a sense of windswept wilderness to them. Heathcliff is the sort of libertine-esque highwayman who does what he likes in life knowing that no-one is going to stop him. The cold and calculating manner in which he enacts his vengeance makes for disturbing and uncomfortable reading. He is the bad man who gets away with it without remorse or shame. This lack of moral ambiguity makes him an enthralling character. And in her own histrionic, selfish, and spoiled way Catherine is just as bad. Wuthering Heights is the book I always wanted to read as a child, where roles are reversed and events don't follow the usual pattern of stories. The baddies not only capture the hero, but hang him mercilessly before escaping to hatch their next dastardly plan.

Emily Bronte doesn't care whether the reader likes her characters or not, makes no effort to justify or smooth their actions. The tale is merely placed on paper and left for the reader to make of it what they will. It is a masterpiece of controlled atmospheric storytelling and caustic characterisation. It is a wonderful read which I highly recommend to everyone.

9 out of 10

(There are many great reviews of Wuthering Heights out there. One of my favourites can be found here.)

No comments: