At a recent lunch with a friend who is a fellow-reader, I invited her to join in the readalong and she shuddered in horror, having ditched it as a teenager when she had been supposedly studying it for a Drama GCSE. Discussing it with friends over New Year, one remarked that it was a strange book given that there are no characters who you can actually like. In the Thursday Next Chronicles, Thursday and Miss Havisham have to lead an Anger Management workshop for the cast. For me though, the fact that the characters detested each other was part of the reason why I liked it – at thirteen, I was vehemently against romance and so heartily approved of a book where even the characters who were in love seemed to hate each other. Plus, I lived in Yorkshire until I was ten so was always inclined to enjoy a book that was basically about a bunch of people going mad on the moors.
This time around though I saw the book completely differently – indeed, the plot seemed almost secondary to what was actually going on. There is this huge abundance of narrators. We are reading a book which has been written by a foppish idiot who took it into his head to rent Thrushcross Grange but then found himself obsessed by his landlord’s home Wuthering Heights. Lockwood is always the first character to be off-loaded in an adaptation but yet he is the prism through which the story is revealed to us. Why on earth is he writing all of this down? It makes even less sense than the structure of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which takes a similar ‘lots of narrators’ approach but those at least appear reliable.
Emily Bronte never expects us to trust Lockwood; her contempt for him shines through his grandious comparisons between himself and King Lear. Lockwood frets that the younger Catherine will ‘regret’ her marital choice having feasted her eyes on his countenance and the reader (at least the female reader) snorts in disgust. Lockwood is repulsed by Hareton the noble savage yet we can tell very clearly which one Emily finds attractive. No woman in her right mind would pick Lockwood. He is an outsider, a wannabe extra who has no place in the story. He ponders on loving Catherine, considers how it would be a fairy story but he has not the stomach for it. He cannot be the man to charge up and rescue the princess, he ought to fade from memory and yet he clings to the skirts of the narrative. Like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Lockwood cannot shake off the story he has heard – he will never be the same again.
|(c) Better Book Titles|
If Lockwood is the wedding guest, then the Ancient Mariner is Nelly herself. In my previous readings, I had blithely adored Nelly, imagining for her the characteristics of my favourite child-minder and generally considering her in much the same light as Juliet’s Nurse. A bystander, but an innocent one at that. This time, I couldn’t believe that I had been so blind. Why had I ever blamed Heathcliff for everything? Why had I taken Nelly at her word when it is repeatedly underlined that she has nobody to back up her story. The wonderful Better Book Titles site has a particularly witty alternative heading for Wuthering Heights but there is a certain level where this is the story of a not very sensible young man being told a tall tale by a Yorkshirewoman. She quotes the other characters at length, she even assumes the yokel Joseph’s heavy accent but these characters are her own constructions. One is tempted to also suspect Lockwood – is this a story dreamt up by a bored young man looking out the window? Still, Lockwood is the man who mistook a pile of dead rabbits for some kittens. It seems far more likely that Nelly is holding the reins here. You could imagine how a dark winter’s evening could be whiled away by winding up the new master from London with a shaggy dog story about how Grim things are in Yorkshire. You almost begin to wonder if this is the Victorian version of The Usual Suspects, with Nelly taking the Kevin Spacey role.
More pertinently, even if these events did approximately take place, other stories could be woven from these events that might shed quite a different light on Mrs Dean. I read one commentary which suggested that she was in love with Hindley, her erstwhile childhood companion. She certainly wept at his death and claimed to have adored young Hareton as a child. Still, I was suspicious when she carefully pointed out that Hareton would have no recollection of her given that she had had to leave him when he was five. I was around that age when my first stepfather disappeared from my life and I pestered my friends and family for months and months before I finally accepted that he was not coming back and more to the point, I still remember him fondly. If Hareton does not remember Nelly being kind to him as a child, then it seems far more likely that she is Making It Up.
|Nelly Dean as played by Sarah Lancashire|
Reading it this time, I began to see Nelly as the true author of this tale, not as Emily is or indeed Lockwood as she never puts pen to paper but rather as the driving force behind the drama. I hardly noticed it as a child but her narration is littered with excuses over why she did or did not intervene at crucial moments in the story. She claims not to have noticed that Heathcliff was in earshot when the older Catherine spoke of her plans to marry Linton, but this moment changes the whole course of the story. Later, a look from Heathcliff apparently prevents Nelly from assisting young Catherine in seizing the key when he first imprisons them, She claims that she was ready to unleash ‘a downright torrent of abuse’ on Heathcliff when a word from him silences her. Later she was ‘just about to help’ rescue young Catherine from being shaken by Heathcliff when Hareton steps in instead. We forget that Nelly and Heathcliff are fellow-changelings, adopted by old Mr Earnshaw and raised alongside his children. Who can say whether or not Nelly had an agenda of her own, certainly there is something almost occult about how she bewitches Lockwood, the narrative slipping between them – he cannot break away from her spell.
The idea of the unreliable narrator is a fascinating one but I wondered whether this was an example of a flaw in the novel rather than a deliberate act by Emily herself. I call her Emily not because we are friends but because using the surname is confusing given the circumstances. Perhaps Nelly holds back because Emily wanted to draw her out of the main action of the story. Perhaps she glorified her own part because she was trying to impress Lockwood. But why, if Nelly is to be deemed an innocent, why would she admit wishing the elder Catherine dead, thinking it better than ‘lingering a burden and misery-maker to all about her’. She confesses to being generally happy in the chamber of death. Cover your eyes and keep a tight hold on your children, Ellen Dean is the Devil.
I found myself considering too the things which are left unspoken in Wuthering Heights. The younger Catherine is born to an unconscious mother in a terrible phoenix-like regeneration, yet aside from one sentence the pregnancy had not been mentioned before. Did Heathcliff have no thoughts about it? How on earth was the child delivered if Catherine was truly ‘insensible’? Similarly, Isabella Linton escapes Heathcliff and is delivered of her son some months later – she has run across the moors while pregnant yet Nelly never refers to it. Emily was ignorant of such matters, it never feels as though she is implying or letting us fill in the blanks, she is simply unaware.
I did think though of the author Lynn Shepherd who writes her self-described ‘literary mysteries’ which basically involves her recycling the plot of a well-known book, adding in some rather macabre descriptions of violence and sexual exploitation and then expecting people to pay good money for it and throwing a temper tantrum when they choose not to. She would surely have made more fuss over Heathcliff and Isabella’s nightmarish marriage but for Emily it is a mere sub-plot. Wuthering Heights is a direct successor to the imaginary world of Gondal created by Emily and Anne and the figure of Heathcliff clearly belongs to that kingdom. Somehow Heathcliff’s oppression of Isabella remains sexless and somehow sterile – by the definition of having married her, we are aware that the marriage must have been consummated but everything else is a blank. He expresses a dark desire to paint black and blue on Isabella’s face but Emily’s thoughts do not seem to have wandered any further. Similarly, Linton complains that the younger Catherine has been waking him up with her crying after their forced marriage. This is all we know about their marital relations, although admittedly in this case given Linton’s poor health it is entirely possible that the marriage went unconsummated. The younger Catherine has clearly discovered physical desire in her new relationship with Hareton and the scene where Lockwood comes across them kissing is probably the brightest in the whole book. Rather than her feigned love for Linton, Catherine is choosing what she really wants.
There are so many set-pieces which burn in the memory in Wuthering Heights. Isabella’s dog left hanging after her elopement, Hareton destroying puppies off the the chair – much of darkness, but also of light with young Catherine putting primroses in Hareton’s porridge. I studied the book in my first term of university for a module called Ghosts and Doubles and it is hard to think of a book which fit more perfectly into that category than Wuthering Heights. Hindley, Heathcliff and Hareton are all three overlapping characters and then the two Catherines. There is a sense of history coming a full circle as the novel ends, that this Catherine is making the right choice. I felt really strongly though that there is far more to this novel than simply the plot itself. My vintage copy of this book was published in the 1930s and features a foreword from the author Rose Macaulay, who ponders how on earth Emily Bronte could have dreamt up characters such as Nelly and Joseph given her sheltered life in the Parsonage. Yet this struck me as a strange question; Emily grew up in a Yorkshire town and hated being away from it, her family adored their servant Tabitha, she grew up on fireside tales from the women of her family circle and in many ways Wuthering Heights is an homage to the act of story-telling itself.
Lockwood represents us, our proxy in the novel, he sits and listens on our behalf and reports back meaning that the marvel of the Nelly’s tale is being shared with us by Bronte via Lockwood. Yet still, she finishes with Lockwood looking at the graves of Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff and wondering how anyone could imagine for them ‘unquiet slumbers’ – he has been made uneasy by a mere story and he realises at the end that that is all it is. The truth of it all is in many ways unimportant, what matters is that we have been drawn in by the tale. I fell in love with this book all over again during the re-read and I realised yet again why Wuthering Heights will always win out for me over Jane Eyre! One reads Wuthering Heights and you can feel the wind howling over you, the rattle of the window-panes and the squelch of the bog underfoot. This is a classic Gothic novel done Yorkshire and it remains luminescent over one hundred and fifty years on. A true delight.
Other readalong posts include:
Kirsty from Literary Sisters
This was a book from my Classics Club reading list – for the full list, click here!
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Genres: 19th Century, Classics, Family, Fiction, General, Literary
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