Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

(most probably) Emily Brontë by her brother, Branwell

Wuthering Heights (1847) is the subject of my favourite book review ever, in a letter from Pre-Raphaelite artist & poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Irish poet William Allingham, in September 1854:

“…it is a fiend of a book — an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from [poet] Mrs Browning to [murderer] Mrs Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell, — only it seems places and people have English names there.”

My first attempt at scaling Wuthering Heights was when I was trying to work through all the books in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. I was perhaps feeling a little jaded by that book’s eccentricities by that point, as I’d read Moby Dick thanks to their recommendation, and couldn’t quite see the relevance to fantasy. (I can perhaps see their point a bit better now, and mean to reread Moby Dick at some point, free of false preconceptions — which is the best way to enjoy a classic novel.) A little way into Wuthering Heights, I began to feel it was going to be another of Cawthorn & Moorcock’s more eccentric inclusions, and gave up on it. (I really wonder if I’d have been able to appreciate it properly anyway, back then.) On recently learning that David Lindsay thought highly of it, though, I decided to give it another go, and am glad I did.

Wuthering Heights has had a long association with the more subtler and supernaturally-tinged fantastic. As Julia Briggs says in her study of the English ghost story, Night Visitors (1977):

“…the whole tenor of the book… implies a coherent universe wherein man, nature and spirit interact closely, and where the cruel and uncompromising power of love is more ruthless and compelling even than death.”

Most surprisingly of all, considering its reputation as perhaps the most darkly romantic of all love stories, H P Lovecraft liked the book — Lovecraft, who reacted so strongly to a “few touches of commonplace sentimentality” in William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” he says:

“Though primarily a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, its epically cosmic setting affords room for horror of the most spiritual sort… Miss Brontë’s eerie terror is no mere Gothic echo, but a tense expression of man’s shuddering reaction to the unknown.”

Both of these quotes make it clear it’s the atmosphere of the book that speaks of the supernatural and fantastic, rather than the details (though there is, of course, ghostly Cathy’s “ice-cold hand” through the window one night, which may be a dream, but nevertheless imparts some details the narrator couldn’t at that point know). In fact, a lot of the power of the book comes from its narration being so low-key and realistic, thanks to the down-to-earth servant’s-eye-view of Nelly Dean, whose general lack of judgement only makes all the violence and brutality centred around Heathcliff seem that much more violent and brutal, lacking as it does the narrative cushioning of explanations, justifications, and condemnations.

Faber and Faber cover

It’s around Heathcliff this dark air of the supernatural accumulates, from the moment he first appears in the story, a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” with an oddly old-looking face. Mr Earnshaw, who brings this child back the 60-miles walk from Liverpool, names it after a dead child of his own, adding to the feeling it may be a fairy changeling or a soul retrieved from hell. Like one of Le Fanu’s supernatural companions, it sucks the life out of those around it, as both Mrs (who most dislikes it) and then Mr Earnshaw (who most likes it) fade away and die after it’s brought into the home. (And the detail that, as well as presenting this unwanted child to his family, Mr Earnshaw discovers that the gifts he was asked to bring have either been lost or broken seems almost Aickmanesque. Did Earnshaw have to struggle to bring the child along with him? Or, did the child’s mere presence supernaturally spoil all attempts at affection, however minor, from that point on? The weird creeps in where the explanations are lacking.)

By name and nature, Heathcliff is more a landscape than a person — or, perhaps, a Gothic castle in human form, bleak, forbidding, oppressive, imperturbable, dark and haunted, monomaniacal. He feels like a character from a different mode of fiction altogether, a blood-soaked Webster tragedy, perhaps, or one of the wilder folk ballads. Placed in an otherwise respectable early-Victorian novel, he becomes a sort of black hole, pulling everyone in his orbit down into the dark pit of his loveless world.

Puffin cover

And that’s the thing that most struck me about this novel. By reputation, Wuthering Heights is a love story, but it seems to me the whole point about Heathcliff and his world is it (and he) cannot express, or even understand, love. Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy, for instance (who’s too infantilely self-absorbed to express love herself: “I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me…”). Their relationship seems more about possessiveness than love, but a possessiveness so deep that Cathy feels it as identification (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”). So, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t marry Heathcliff, because she and he are already one. Heathcliff himself seems only able to express anger, resentment, and a dark joy in revenge. He teaches the young Hareton Earnshaw, who lives with him at Wuthering Heights, “to scorn everything extra-animal as silly and weak.” When Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, and lives with him at the Heights, she’s forced to ask, of the affable narrator Nelly Dean:

“How did you contrive to preserve the common sympathies of human nature when you resided here? I cannot recognise any sentiment which those around share with me.”

I still find it hard to express what I felt as I read Wuthering Heights for the first time. It was like a constant series of affronts, as Nelly Dean’s calm and seemingly level-headed narrative was peppered with acts of sudden anger and violence, some of which didn’t serve the plot, but just added to the air of devastation. The way five-year-old Hareton, for instance, reacts to the woman who, till six months before, had been all but mother to him: he throws a heavy flint at her head, and not out of anger at her, but more a sort of feral rejection of all human beings. There’s something about the way these brutal emotions swamp out the more human ones that recalls, to me, the way the children in The Turn of the Screw have been in some undefined way defiled by the depredations of Peter Quint, at the other end of the 19th century.

Wordsworth cover

And I think Wuthering Heights has more in common with The Turn of the Screw and those great horror stories of the end of the 19th century than that. Just as the ghost story at that time made the transition from pure fright-tale to a new and deeper exploration of human psychology, so Wuthering Heights’ power derives, in large part, from its presenting the sort of tumultuous passions brewed up in those earlier Gothic novels in a more realistic — and so, undeniably recognisable — way. It makes the novel’s characters and story that much more believable, and its horror all the more horrific — and so, I’d say, the psychology all the more insightful. This is, it feels, an authentic layer of human experience that no amount of civilised society can do away with.

It’s Heathcliff who’s haunted in Emily Brontë’s novel — “The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!” — but the result is itself a haunting narrative, still shockingly powerful and weirdly irresolvable.

And you can’t talk about Wuthering Heights without mentioning Kate Bush. Her song, I think, stands alongside Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” as rare examples of songs inspired by other works of art that equal them in artistic power.