Sunday 15 November 2015


Wuthering Heights feels like a much darker book now than the one I read at university. Then, it was rich pickings for a cynical student looking for decent marks - one could pick out its psychoanalytic aspects to please a Freud obsessed lecturer, scribbling reams of half-baked thoughts about Penistone Crag and the fairy cave beneath, or about virginity myths and menstruation taboos when the Linton's dog bites Catherine's ankle, about Heathcliff being Catherine's id and Edgar Linton her super-ego. I wrote yet another essay about ghosts, doubling and the Untheimlich (the uncanny) for a professor whose special focus was The Gothic, and another which took a structuralist approach for a third lecturer whose obsession was Derrida (though rereading it, I've no idea how I pulled that off).

Cafe Colbert, Sloane Square. Warm and civilised, unlike Wuthering Heights.
Narratives are never fixed. The plot stays the same yet the reader's perspective is all - what you bring to a book changes it, you inscribe yourself on a novel. My Wuthering Heights was different every time I read it, either in harness to my degree, or because Kate Bush was a powerful cultural influence (not joking - I'd never have come across Bronte, Delius, Hammer Horror, or Kierkegaard if Kate hadn't sung about them and made them sound sexy and mysterious), or because, like now, I'm reading it because Jason Hewitt chose it as one of his 'Books That Built Me', so yet again the story is filtered through a new lens. This time, I'm reading it to locate how Bronte builds the dark, unsettling, claustrophobic texture of the novel - like the moors, Catherine and Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights are savage and uncivilisable - they are part of it, unlike the Thrushcross Grange, Lintons and Lockwood. In death, it's as if the moor reclaims her; Catherine is buried in a corner of the graveyard where 'the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor; and peat mould almost buries it'. This sense of a power struggle between the passionate wildness of nature and the controlled, civilising effects of man is also in the house itself - Isabella arrives at Wuthering Heights after marrying Heathcliff to find once expensive furniture thick with dust, once bright pewter dark with tarnish, rich curtains in tatters, torn from their fastenings.
In Hewitt's Dynamite Room and Devastation Road you can see traces of this - part of the success of his writing is that he inscribes the powerless of the individual by embuing a house, a road, a river, an empty field with a dark sense of menace.

 I like Wuthering Heights less and less every time I read it - it feels overwrought, self-absorbed, childish now; perhaps I've had a surfeit of it. The fault is in me, of course, because it's one of the Great Books, but four essays and two Books That Built Me later, I can't say I haven't mined its depths. For me, civilisation has triumphed over savagery, and I'm glad to be here in Cafe Colbert, the Thrushcross Grange of the Corbin and King empire, drinking a decent capuccino, surrounded by efficient, unobtrusive and beautifully courteous service, a world away from the belligerent, pious slovenliness of Joseph, amongst ladies waiting politely for Peter Jones to open.


Mac n' Janet said...

I've never cared for Wuthering Heights which I read first as a teenager and then reread as an adult. I always figured I was missing something because everyone else raved about it.

donna baker said...

Watch Wuthering Heights with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes. One of the most beautifully filmed movies I've seen. The soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto will never leave you.