I promised myself that I wouldn’t let this one suck me in, but when I spotted a copy in the library as I was dashing in to renew my books, I found myself drawn like a moth to a flame – or more correctly, like a literary masochist to a book about which she has low expectations. And believe me, my expectations were low. Since the publication of Longbourn, it seems as though every fictional servant from literature is being hauled out from below stairs and forced to sing their song. While Jo Baker managed to expose the cruelty of the class system in Pride and Prejudice through telling the story of the Bennet family servants, Jane Stubbs’ Thornfield was lacklustre at best and in the case of Wuthering Heights, I was particularly unsure because – as frequently discussed here – I wouldn’t trust Nelly Dean as far as I could throw her. To my mind she is the true villain of the book and author of all the distress for Earnshaw, Heathcliff and Linton families. She’s the Devil. In my opinion. But not that of Alison Case.
To be fair, Case is a writer who more than knows her stuff – she’s an actual Victorian literature professor, and not even an honorary one. She’s no mere Bronte fan, she’s an actual expert. Also (, and I am fully aware that this may seem patronising and for that I apologise), for an American writer, she captured the Yorkshire cadence of Nelly’s voice flawlessly. Too often I’ve read novels by American writers trying to be British and it does get a bit obvious – either the Americanisms peek through or the writer gets a bit too keen throwing about the ‘bloody hells’ in a desperate attempt to sound native.
As fictional servants go, Nelly is better situated to create a good story than Mrs Fairfax of Thornfield Hall ever was – it is the testimony of Nelly upon which Wuthering Heights depends and it is all too easy to forget that we only ever see through her eyes and that none of the other characters ever confirm any of the finer details. It is not a surprise to discover via Alison Case’s novel that she has been holding out on us.
While the modern reader of Wuthering Heights may wonder why on earth a man would write hundreds of pages recording the story that his housekeeper told him when he was bored one day, Case is much clearer that the ‘letter’ will never be sent. Mr Lockwood is Nelly’s Mr Lockheart, Mr Knockwood – she needs to tell someone the secrets she has guarded all her life. It is a clever structure in many ways, since this there is no need to retread the old ground – the events of Wuthering Heights are referred to but never analysed in detail. Case acknowledges that Nelly is at least partly culpable by having her admit that she made mistakes and that she left some windows open that should have been closed and closed some windows that ought to have been open. Still, Case has sympathy for Nelly and she clearly feels that she has been more sinned against than sinning.
Literary theorists have postulated down the years that Nelly was in love with Hindley; she cried when he died, she had played with him as a child, she had sorrowed over his downfall. My own opinion was that she seemed more into Edgar Linton but Case weaves a story around Nelly and Hindley which takes in elements of Yorkshire folklore and country tradition to create a surprisingly beguiling narrative. While the components of Nelly’s true story may appear at one remove to be predicatable, Case sidesteps the trap of cliché by pointing out that although the tale may be as old as the hills, it does not make it any less painful.
My main source of distrust for Nelly Dean comes from the fact that I just do not buy her love for Hareton – Hindley perhaps, but the fact that Hareton failed to remember her makes her whole story seem very unlikely. I remember who were the major players of my life when I was four years old (Mummy, the grandparents, childminder #5 etc) and when one of them dropped out of the circuit (my mother’s boyfriend from the early 1990s), I asked questions about where he’d gone for years. Hareton may have been uneducated but he wasn’t stupid. But that is perhaps a natural plothole in Wuthering Heights born from the fact that Emily Bronte never had (or indeed took any interest in) children. She was no Anne Bronte (Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is adorable) and Emily’s characterisation of the young lacks any real depth.
A plothole that was more the fault of this book though came through the Big Reveal which for me failed to convince. We never really understand what exactly possessed Mr Earnshaw to pick an orphaned child from the streets of Liverpool and bring him home. Furthermore, as Nelly Dean’s own mother points out, why on earth had he gone all that way in the first place? There were other places he could have gone to do business which were far closer. It is a loose thread which niggles and threatens to make the whole story fray.
Still, the story which Case has constructed is compelling on its own merits. I certainly learnt more about breast-feeding than I ever had before – what indeed would one do for a baby whose mother had died and who failed to thrive on cow’s milk? It raises interesting questions about the foundlings of Victorian fiction, of which there are many. There are moments of contrivance, such as the character of Bodkin, long-term local doctor; he is very lovely but is rather a deus ex machina.
Despite this though, I actually enjoyed Case’s story – this book was a far better read than I was expecting. I liked the way that Case look the legend of the farmer who mistreated the brownie, which then called down the darkest desires of his heart; for a down-trodden servant who then watches as all close to her meets miserable ends, would it not make one wonder if one’s ill-wishing had unleashed something terrible?
I hope that Case writes another novel, she is obviously extremely talented. Still, I do hope that she steers away from spin-offs and that her next offering is her own complete creation. The problem with building on the ideas of others is that you then have to fight to make your own perspective credible. This was a well-written book but I felt that I read it standing on the sidelines while giving its heroine the stink-eye. Come on Nelly, convince me you’re not evil. Perhaps Case’s main achievement is that she very nearly did. But not quite. Because Nelly Dean is the Devil.
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Published by HarperCollins UK on August 13th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Family Life
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