Posts Tagged ‘emily bronte’

Christmas with Charlotte and Emily

There are certain works that are so very familiar that we tend to take them for granted: we think we know them even though, in many cases, we don’t. Jane Eyre is one such work. I read it when I was 13, and haven’t revisited it since – although that hasn’t stopped me from pontificating on it as and when the occasion has arisen. So I thought it might be pleasant to re-acquaint myself with this book, so that, at the very least, when I next pontificate on it, I know what the hell I’m talking about.

And the Christmas-New Year break seemed the ideal time. This is a time when one wants to read something if only to get away from what passes for festive cheer on television; and, while one doesn’t want to read tripe, neither does one necessarily want unduly to tax the intellect. Or, at least, I don’t: some people may positively welcome the idea of settling down after a heavy Christmas dinner with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, but, intellectual lightweight that I no doubt am, I am not amongst them. Not that Jane Eyre makes no demand on the intellect, I hasten to add: as with any book worth reading, the brain should be in at least some sort of working order if one is to take it in adequately. But, as in so many things, there are different shades of grey between absolute black and absolute white, and Jane Eyre, I imagined, occupied a position on this spectrum ideal for a good holiday read. And when that holiday is spent in the north of England, only some thirty or so miles from Haworth Moor; and when, in addition, a bitter and keening wind howling outside almost continuously places the Gothic firmly in one’s mind; then the Brontë sisters do seem ideal companions.

(In the event, I finished Jane Eyre more quickly that I thought I would, and decided to indulge myself somewhat – it was Christmas, after all – by reading also its sister novel, Wuthering Heights. Rarely are sisters so dissimilar from each other: but more of that later. Given my reading earlier last year of Sister Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 2013 has been a bit of a Year of the Brontës for me.)

***

It is hard to imagine a time when Jane Eyre will cease to be popular. No matter that the position of women within society is now quite different to that depicted in the novel; no matter that the moral imperatives that drive Jane’s actions have largely fallen by the wayside; the story itself hits upon a number of what one may call “archetypes”. It encompasses the archetypes of the Cinderella story (the wicked stepmother and the ugly stepsisters are easy to identify; a dissolute step-brother is thrown in also for good measure); and also of the Bluebeard story, with the inquisitive wife discovering her husband’s terrible secret behind a locked door in his castle. And many other myths too, I imagine.

Not surprisingly, a story that hits upon so many mythical elements is bound to spawn many others: a full list would be tiresome, and, since I am not well read in stories of romance, it would be beyond me to compile such a list in the first place; but, apart from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which is a conscious homage to the earlier novel, one may note works as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes story “The Copper Beeches”, which features a governess in a mysterious house and a terrible secret behind a locked door; and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, in which the governess, her unspoken love for her employer frustrated by the latter’s absence, finds instead, as a sort of diabolical compensation, spirits of the most unspeakable evil. And one may also cite in this context Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, which also features an outsider entering a house, displacing the mistress of the house, and winning the affections of the master. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work”, analysed the character of Rebecca West in this play, and identified this displacement as a powerful archetype; he may have added – although he didn’t – that this archetype had already appeared, very powerfully indeed, in Jane Eyre.

I’ll leave it to those more familiar than I am with the principles of psychoanalysis to carry out a Freudian analysis of Jane Eyre: I’m sure they’ll find rich material there. What interested me more was the moral framework of the novel. For Jane, despite her often overwhelmingly passionate nature, undertakes here a moral journey. In a sense, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress seems a sort of antecedent to this novel: it belongs to the same Puritan tradition. Jane’s painful travel to the Celestial City is punctuated by two great temptations, in each of which she has to pit her moral conscience against her own desires. The first of these temptations, of course, is the temptation to become Mr Rochester’s mistress when it becomes clear that she cannot marry him: while it is true that Jane doesn’t even pause to consider Mr Rochester’s offer, her intense passion for Mr Rochester, her hurried and secret escape from Thornfield Hall, and a state of mind so disturbed that she forgets to take anything with her that might have sustained her in the wilderness, all indicate that the decision to resist this temptation is not one easily made. But it is the second temptation that I find even more interesting: it is a subtler temptation than that of merely gratifying one’s desires – it is the temptation of sainthood.

Over the years, I have been in the habit of saying that Jane Eyre is let down by the final section; that, after Jane leaves Thornfield Hall, the novel slows down at the very point when it should have been accelerating towards the end. I think I said this because when I last read this, inexperienced as I was in reading serious novels, this part of the novel had bored me. And it may well have been that I had skipped some passages. Reading it now, some forty years later, it seems to me that Charlotte Brontë has superb control over the pacing; and that, furthermore, the entire sequence involving Jane and St John Rivers is a high point of the novelist’s art. For St John Rivers is more than merely a foil to Rochester: he is a fanatic. If Jane has sacrificed her desires for the sake of her moral code, we see St John Rivers doing the same – except in a more extreme, more fanatical manner: so single-minded is his moral purpose, that he does not allow his mind even to become perturbed by his rejection of Rosamond, to whom, it is made clear, he is attracted. And he tempts Jane: he tempts her not with desire, but with the opportunity to achieve sainthood by jettisoning the last remaining elements of her desire; to carry her own sense of moral purpose even further than she already has. He tempts her to renounce completely any earthy desire she may still have.

For St John’s fierce fanaticism cannot accept compromise on anything, either from himself, or from anyone else: it is, for him, all or nothing. He is, indeed, Ibsen’s Brand. There is, as many have commented, something a bit inhuman about sainthood – something cold and implacable about its absolute refusal to compromise with the fallen nature of our human selves.  To achieve sainthood, to follow St John in his missionary work, Jane would have to amputate away from herself earthly desires, just as St John himself has done. I think I failed to appreciate when I was thirteen that Jane resisting this temptation is, indeed, the climactic point of this novel, and that, far from this entire sequence being a boring irrelevance that served but to slow down the narrative, this is what the entire novel had been leading towards. After Jane’s rejection of the temptation of sainthood, St John leaves for India on his own to carry out his missionary work, that fanatic glint still in his eye. (The final paragraphs of the novel suggest that, in India, he becomes very ill, and is unlikely to survive. I couldn’t help looking beyond these final paragraphs and hoping that he would survive, and become caught up a few years later in the Indian Mutiny, in which all sorts of fanaticisms on all sides combined to produce one of the most appallingly blood-drenched episodes in human history. St John in the Indian Mutiny could potentially be a great novel: I’d write it myself if only I had a talent for that sort of thing.)

What we get after this climactic rejection scene is a sort of coda: Jane returns to Mr Rochester, and finds him to be the protagonist of Milton’s Samson Agonistes – blind, in despair, painfully aware of his own guilt and bewailing his hopelessness. He is given here some of the most tender of lines that recall another work of Milton’s:

…but I cannot be so blest, after all my misery. It is a dream; such dreams as I have had at night when I have clasped her once more to my heart, as I do now; and kissed her, as thus–and felt that she loved me, and trusted that she would not leave me … But I always woke and found it an empty mockery; and I was desolate and abandoned–my life dark, lonely, hopeless–my soul athirst and forbidden to drink–my heart famished and never to be fed.

Would I appear very sentimental if I were to say that I find these lines wonderfully moving? Very well – sentimentalist I am.

***

Unlike Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights has long been a great personal favourite of mine, and is a novel I have revisited frequently. The two are often mentioned alongside each other as if they were two of a kind, but they seem to me very different. A major theme in Jane Eyre is morality: in particular, it explores how moral integrity may be reconciled with our human needs and desires. But rarely if ever has there been a novel so devoid of a sense of morality as Wuthering Heights. It is not even that this novel takes a subversive delight in turning up-side-down conventional concepts of morality: rather, it refuses even to acknowledge the very existence of such a concept. Here, the id is set utterly free from all moral restraints, and the result is utterly demonic. It is a tremendously violent novel, but the violence isn’t merely physical: anyone can depict physical violence, after all. What this novel depicts, more disturbingly, is a sort of spiritual violence, a violence of the mind: it depicts a world where a state of extreme violence appears to be the natural condition of the human soul. “The action is laid in Hell,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti once famously said about it, “only it seems places and people have English names there.”

Repeated encounters with this book never diminish the sheer strangeness of it, nor mitigate its savagery. Yes, it is passionate, but where the passion of Jane or of Mr Rochester is often expressed in terms of tenderness, here, expressions of passion are more like howls of wild beasts. Here, for instance, is the famous depiction of Heathcliff mourning Cathy’s death:

He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears. I observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night. It hardly moved my compassion – it appalled me…

Could anything be further, I wonder, from the infinite melancholy of Mr Rochester’s longing for the lost Jane? Unlike Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights makes no appeal to our compassion: instead, it appalls. And it seems to me quite unique. That is an adjective we often apply to works that are merely distinctive, but here, I think this adjective is justified; for while, when thinking about Jane Eyre, all sorts of other works can come to mind, from Milton’s Samson Agonistes to Ibsen’s Brand, I cannot think of a single other work that sheds light on Wuthering Heights, either as a parallel or as a contrast. It is out on a limb, quite distant, as far as I can see, from any of the main trunks of literary traditions. Yes, it appalls, but so extraordinarily vivid is the imagination, and so brilliant its unorthodox craftsmanship, it also enthralls.

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I am usually uninterested in authors’ biographies: I do not believe they tell us more about any work than we need to know, and that, further, should we succumb to the temptation of allowing what we know of the author to influence what we think of the work, we are likely, I think, to be led astray. But it’s hard not to wonder what the personalities of these sisters may have been. Perhaps I should overcome my aversion to literary biographies and reach for Juliet Barker’s much acclaimed biography of the Brontës.

“The Bronte Sisters”, painted by Branwell Bronte
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

I don’t know to what extent the personalities of the sisters may be gauged from the portraits. In Branwell Brontë’s famous group painting of his sisters, Anne, on the left, strikes me as a bit querulous and restless, while Charlotte, on the right, is a stolid, matronly, and somewhat severe figure. But of Emily in the middle, I can make nothing at all. Rather surprisingly, given that Branwell was a professional portraitist, she doesn’t even seem very well drawn.

Charlotte Bronte, by George Richmond Cortesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Charlotte Bronte, by George Richmond
Cortesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

There is a later portrait of Charlotte by George Richmond, but it is clearly an idealised version: not a beautiful face, perhaps, but quite a pleasant one I think, and, though not quite as severe as she appears in Branwell’s group portrait, nonetheless giving the impression of someone with a considerable strength of character. But it’s hard to say much from so sanitised a portrait as this.

Emily bronte, painted by Branwell Bronte Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Emily bronte, painted by Branwell Bronte
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

There exists also another portrait by Branwell of Emily. Here, she is presented in profile, with no expression discernible in her features. As a consequence, she appears remote and distant, her personality inscrutable. Given how unsuccessful Branwell had been in capturing any kind of personality at all of Emily in the group portrait, this is possibly a sensible way of painting her; but what we have here is a sort of icon rather than the depiction of a personality. From the internal evidence of her only novel, all we can really infer is that hers must have been a strange personality indeed: perhaps that personality was too elusive for Branwell Brontë to capture.But whatever the personalities of the sisters, the last two weeks spent in their company have been quite fascinating. I must do this more often.

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“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

My rediscovery of Jane Austen continued with a reading of possibly the best loved of her novels – possibly, even, the best loved of all novels.

A rum lot, the British. They have built themselves a reputation for the stiff upper lip, for decorous emotional detachment; and yet, possibly the three most archetypal love stories – Romeo and Juliet, certainly, and also, I’d argue, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre – were all written by British writers. I’m not, admittedly, very well read in the area of romantic fiction (that’s “romantic” without a capital R) but I do get the impression that most romantic novels owe at least something to at least one or other of these three works. Or possibly even to all: those better versed in this area can correct me if I am wrong.

Not that everyone would agree that Austen was particularly romantic – with or without that capital R. The author of Jane Eyre was particularly severe, describing Austen’s novels as “bloodless”; and I, being by temperament more at home with the Gothic blood and thunder of the Brontës than with the cultivated elegance of Austen, was happy to agree, going so far as to say in an earlier post (to which, out of embarrassment, I will not link) that Austen had not a Romantic bone in her body. I am happy to admit I was wrong – very wrong: but at least, I console myself, I was in good company in being wrong.

For there is, indeed, much depth of feeling and of sensibility in Austen. It is true, I think, that Austen’s temperament was more Classical than Romantic: she tended, I think, to mistrust sensibility when not accompanied by at least some modicum of sense. But the fact of sense accompanying the sensibility does not in itself diminish the sensibility, and that’s the point. What Elizabeth and Darcy feel for each other is a passion, no less in intensity than the passion Jane Eyre and Rochester feel for each other; what is different is not the nature of the emotions, but their expression. In Jane Eyre, the passions are out in the open, and are set against a turbulent background of Gothic halls and of tempestuous skies; in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, we are in the world of elegant balls, and of well-maintained ornamental gardens. The emotions may not in this decorous environment be out in the open, but they are there nonetheless.

Of course, Austen was keenly aware, as ever, of social status, and of money matters. It is often pointed out triumphantly by those who refuse to see anything of the Romantic in Austen that Elizabeth, when asked by her sister Jane when she first realised that she loved Darcy, replies : “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” But of course,  Elizabeth is joking: like her father, she finds it hard to resist a good gag. And Jane knows this: she entreats her sister that “she should be serious”. However, we have to ask ourselves, I think, why Elizabeth should make this particular joke. We have to bring to bring to mind as well Elizabeth’s feelings when she first sees the grounds at Pemberley:

She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

This is not to say that Elizabeth is a vulgar mercenary: she had, after all, turned Darcy down knowing full well how wealthy he was; and even though she fantasises about being mistress of Pemberley, she does not at the time regret having turned down the opportunity to be so. But what her joke to her sister does indicate is that human motives are not always easy to disentangle; and that Elizabeth, intelligent and self-aware, is aware of this, and not entirely sure of the extent to which her love is properly disinterested. She makes this particular joke, I think, because she has at the back of her mind the worry that she may indeed be, at least in part, mercenary.

Such subtlety and intricacy place Pride and Prejudice in a very different psychological world from that of Jane Eyre, and certainly from that of Wuthering Heights – a novel in which the darkest and most intense of our desires are terrifyingly out in the open. Here, human minds are extremely complex things, and, unless one is an airhead such as Lydia or Mrs Bennet, there can be no feeling, no emotion, no sensibility, that can be so pure as to be unmixed with other matter. Not even love. This is not to deny the validity of love, or even of its overriding importance in our lives: indeed, so far is Austen from the hard-headed cynic she is often taken to be, Pride and Prejudice can easily be seen as a depiction of the transforming power of love. But it cannot override everything else: the world here is too complex for any one thing, even love, to override all other considerations. And if this means that a Heathcliff or a Captain Ahab is beyond Austen’s range, it may just as well be argued that Elizabeth and Darcy are similarly beyond the range of Emily Brontë or of Herman Melville: no work of art, no matter how vast in scope, can hope to encompass the whole truth about ourselves.

The principal plot, as is well-known, is, effectively, the story of Beatrice and Benedick: a young couple take a dislike to each other, and squabble and bicker; but even as they squabble and bicker, they are in love; and while, in terms merely of the events of the novel, misunderstandings are cleared up, at a deeper level, the characters come to discover themselves, learn to see with clearer eyes, and, finding themselves in love, find themselves ennobled by being so. As a summary, this is crude – far cruder than is warranted by the extreme elegance and subtlety of the writing; but it is easy to see why such a novel should be so well-liked: for it is hard to escape the conviction, or at least the hope, that human love has, at least, the capacity to ennoble; and never has the capacity of love to ennoble been presented with greater conviction than it is here.

But for Austen, sensibility has to be balanced with sense. As in her previous novels, this question of balance is rarely far from the centre of the work. Elizabeth’s airhead sister, Lydia, has not the slightest vestige of sense, and she is perhaps the only person in the entire novel (apart from her equally airheaded mother) who does not seem to realise that her unfortunate marriage to the rascally Wickham is bound to end in unhappiness. And Elizabeth’s beloved father had displayed more sensibility than sense in his own marriage, and is, as a consequence, desperately unhappy. He hides himself away in his library, and takes refuge in barbs of sarcasm; and, apart from his love for his two eldest daughters, he has, effectively, washed his hands of his family. As he himself concedes after Lydia’s elopement, he has been a failure as a father. Austen had a marvellous Mozartian facility of switching for the briefest but most poignant of moments from the major to the minor, and it is hard not to be affected by the lightning modulation into the minor when, in the midst of the celebrations following Elizabeth’s engagement to Darcy, Mr Bennet tells his daughter how important it is for one’s happiness to have a life-partner whom one can respect. The tonality immediately turns to the major again, but that single minor chord so deftly placed leaves behind the saddest of impressions.

And despite Elizabeth’s love for her father – or, rather, because of her love for him – she can find herself pained by his witticisms. Mr Bennet is a man so habituated to sarcasm that he finds it difficult to adopt any other tone; so when Mary is making a fool of herself in public by her singing, and Elizabeth indicates to her father that he should put a stop to it, he says in his accustomed manner “You have delighted us long enough”. Mary is, we are told, “disconcerted”, and Elizabeth is hurt that her sister, foolish though she is, should be so humiliated by her own father in public:

Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth was sorry for her, and sorry for her father’s speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good.

And later, when Mr Bennet reads Elizabeth the letter from Mr Collins speaking of rumours about Elizabeth and Darcy, and unthinkingly makes light of feelings that should be treated with greater respect, Elizabeth finds herself feeling that “never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her”; indeed, we are told a few paragraphs later, “her father had most cruelly mortified her”. (Memo to Charlotte  Brontë: could creatures who are “bloodless” really be mortified?) It is because she so loves her father that her feeling of mortification is so very strong.

There are other dark clouds as well in the novel. Sometimes, when reading certain works, I wonder whether one could write a different novel focussing on some characters who, in these particular works, are peripheral. I couldn’t help feeling this about Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent person, and not deficient in feeling, but who, for the sake of her future security, quite knowingly sacrifices herself by marrying a man she knows to be an idiot.  What’s her future? I couldn’t help wondering. Would a novel with Charlotte Lucas at the centre be another great 19th century novel of adultery? Or can she remain resigned to her fate and fade sadly into an unfulfilled old age? Either way, it is hard to envisage for her a happy ending.

But the tragic elements – or, rather, elements that have the potential to become tragic if further developed – are kept well in the periphery. For, as with Fielding’s Tom Jones – a very different work in virtually all other respects – this is the sunniest of novels. Indeed, Austen herself worried whether it was not too “light”. Generations of those who have been captivated and enchanted by this novel will hardly complain, but it is noticeable that in her very next novel, Mansfield Park, Austen produced her most sombre work, with a heroine as unlike Elizabeth Bennet as is possible to imagine. It is almost as if, having produced Pride and Prejudice, Austen wanted to explore perspectives as far removed from it as possible. (Similarly, I think, Fielding wrote the very dark Amelia immediately after Tom Jones almost as a direct counterpart to the earlier work.) In the three novels that followed Pride and Prejudice, Austen addressed moral ambiguities and psychological intricacies in comparison to which Pride and Prejudice seems, if not slight (I hesitate to describe as slight any work that treats seriously, without sentimentalising or deriding, the theme of human love), then, at least, straight-forward, and relatively uncluttered by the messiness of our human lives – “all mere complexities”, as Yeats put it. But of course, it is this uncluttered directness that makes Pride and Prejudice so well-loved a work. At its heart is the happiest of stories – the story of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. It is a story of two people who, at the start, do not really understand themselves, let alone each other: one is proud and the other prejudiced. However, unlike the two abstractions in the title of her previous novel, the pride and prejudice are not unmixed here in either character: the proud Darcy can also be prejudiced, and the prejudiced Elizabeth proud. But by the end, the two understand each other so well, that Mr Darcy does not even need formally to propose, nor Elizabeth formally to accept. The stages of this progress are depicted with the lightest, deftest, and most accomplished of touches.

It is not that all my own former prejudices against Austen have entirely dissipated: I still get the impression that, on the whole, Austen did not really like people very much. And it does still does worry me a bit that her laughs – for she is, indeed, a very funny writer – are always at someone’s expense: there is rarely an open, hearty laugh, as there is so frequently in Dickens. But whatever prejudice I may still harbour, I am not so proud that I can’t concede that, in view of the achievement, these reservations do not weigh anywhere near so heavily for me as they had formerly done. For all her often coruscating wit, Austen, unlike Mr Bennet, knew when not to exercise it. And so, by the end, does Elizabeth: she has at the tip of her tongue a waspish comment concerning Mr Bingley propensity to be easily led, but she bites that wicked tongue of hers:

Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself.

Sometimes, it is worthwhile suppressing even the most elegantly phrased of barbs for the sake of simple human kindness.

Was Heathcliff black?

The latest film adaptation of Wuthering Heights casts a black actor as Heathcliff, and I, for one, can’t help wondering why this hasn’t been tried out before.

In the novel, Heathcliff’s racial origins are not specified, but the indications that he is different, possibly racially different, can hardly be missed. He is referred to throughout as “dark”: admittedly, that does not tell us much, as many white Anglo-Saxons can also be described as having a “dark” complexion, but Mr Earnshaw’s description of him – “as dark almost as if it came from the devil” – does suggest that his skin colour was conspicuously different from that of the others.  When the child is first brought into Wuthering Heights, he is described as speaking “gibberish”. This could, indeed, be Romany (Heathcliff is taken by many readers to be of gypsy origin), or it could be a foreign language: we cannot be sure. But, rather interestingly, the child is initially referred to as “it”: Nelly only starts referring to Heathcliff by the pronoun “he” after he, it, is christened. That Heathcliff, right from the start, was seen very much as an “other”, as “not one of our kind”, seems inescapable.

Later in the novel, Nelly Dean says to him: “Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen?” Nelly may not have known how Chinese people differ from Indian people physically: if she had, she would not have suggested that Heathcliff could be of Chinese or of Indian descent. But her speculation does seem to suggest that she saw Heathcliff as physically different, very different, from the others.

Of course, it may be objected that if Emily Brontë had intended Heathcliff to be black, she would have told us so openly, but I don’t think this holds. In the first place, Emily Brontë tells the story through voices other than her own; and in the second place, this is a novel in which large gaps are quite deliberately left in the narrative: if Emily Brontë is happy to leave unspecified even so important an aspect of the plot as the source of Heathcliff’s wealth, why should we expect her to be specific about such matters as Heathcliff’s race?

We shouldn’t really be surprised that Heathcliff’s racial origins are not made specific in the novel. The characters living in this isolated part of the country, and in that age, would not have been familiar with anyone outside their own racial stock, and would have been unlikely to have had the vocabulary to describe people of different races to any degree of accuracy. I don’t know that we can expect even Mr Lockwood to describe racial differences accurately. But in any case, Heathcliff’s exact racial origin – gypsy, Indian, or black – isn’t really so important: what is important is that he should be different from the others, and be seen as such, both physically and in other respects.

In a film, of course, there is no room for vagueness in the matter of Heathcliff’s race: some decision must be made on this point, and casting him as black seems to me a perfectly reasonable decision, and quite consistent with what’s in the text. Why shouldn’t Heathcliff be black? He was, after all, picked up in Liverpool, which was at the time a major centre of the slave trade: there were many black people in Liverpool at the time. He could have been of Indian origin as well, for that matter, given that Liverpool was a major port, and given further the large number of Lascars working on the ships. (Heathcliff is, indeed, referred to at one point quite specifically as a “little Lascar” – i.e. an Indian, or, more generally, someone from South-East Asia: once again, we shouldn’t expect precision on this point.)

I haven’t yet seen the latest film. Of all the classic 19th century English novels, Wuthering Heights has, perhaps, fared the worst in adaptations: even the famous William Wyler film featuring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, fine though it is in its own right, hardly reflects the intensely violent and disturbing nature of Emily Brontë’s work. Whether this latest version will succeed better than its predecessors, I do not know. What worries me is not that a black actor has been cast as Heathcliff, but that they’d make too much of the racial difference, and make it a drama specifically about race: but I hope I’m wrong. For, despite the countless adaptations that have been made to date, there is a good film – perhaps even a great film – still to be made from Wuthering Heights. But such a film will have to forgo romance; be brave enough to allow its leading lady to die half way through; and look unblinkingly into the dark, demented heart of this extraordinary work.

“Wuthering Heights” and Romanticism

Wuthering Heights comes with an awful lot of baggage. There have been endless adaptations, all of them presenting it as essentially a love story with two very attractive protagonists (it being an unwritten rule of any love story that people who are not physically attractive have no business falling in love), and none of them getting at all close to the very dark heart of the work; it has been subject to endless parodies, from Monty Python’s “semaphore version” to those marvellous Dave Allen sketches featuring a couple running through the moors shouting “Heathcliff!” and “Cathy!” at each other; it has inspired (if that’s the word I’m looking for) a more than usually vacuous (though very famous) pop song; and there has even been, Heaven help us, a musical, featuring Cliff Richard. The names Heathcliff and Cathy have become such hoary old clichés that the very mention of these names is likely to raise a few knowing sniggers; and worse, these characters are seen to represent archetypal romantic lovers, which, it seems to me, they most certainly aren’t. It is very difficult to offload all this baggage, and try to see the novel with fresh eyes.

The book has seen as the archetypal schoolgirls’ fantasy, and has been criticised on that score; and it has also been seen not to be the schoolgirl fantasy it has been made out to be, and has been criticised on that score also. I am obviously at a disadvantage here, since, never having been a schoolgirl myself, I have no clear idea of what it is they fantasise about; however, if schoolgirls do fantasise about this sort of thing, it is little wonder they used to scare the shit out of me when I was a schoolboy! I suppose it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not Wuthering Heights represents a schoolgirl fantasy: what is undeniable is the very powerful impact it had on me when I read it again recently. But trying to work out why this alleged schoolgirl fantasy made such an impact on me is not particularly easy.

It is, to state the obvious, a Romantic novel – but I don’t mean “romantic” in the sense that it celebrates sexual attraction: I mean “Romantic” with a capital “R”, i.e. relating to the aesthetic movement that came into being somewhere around the late 18th century. And here, I think I run into one of the many problems I have in trying to formulate my reactions to Wuthering Heights: while I can recognise this as being a Romantic novel, I really do not know how to characterise, let alone define, Romanticism. It is something more easily recognised than defined. We may recognise Schubert’s music as Romantic compared to Haydn’s, Delacroix’s art as Romantic compared to Poussin’s, Shelley’s poetry Romantic compared to Pope’s – but it seems almost impossible to identify the criteria that characterise Romanticism. Just about any observation one may make about Romanticism, it seems that the very opposite can also apply; just about any feature one may identify as belonging to Romanticism,  one may find evidence for this feature in other works that are clearly not Romantic.

There is no shortage of learned and eloquent writing dealing with this issue, and I don’t know that I am foolhardy enough to attempt to add to it; but one aspect of Romanticism that I find particularly striking is its insistence on the importance of striving, of aspiring. Of course, the concept of aspiration is hardly exclusive to Romanticism, but there is at least a certain strand of Romanticism in which our very existence seems defined by our aspiration, and which, further, appears to have no conception of what it is precisely that we are supposed to be aspiring towards. In a pre-Romantic opera such as, say, Le Nozze di Figaro, what Figaro and Susanna aspire towards is very simple, and achievable: they want to marry, and live together in earthly contentment. But in a Romantic opera such as Tristan und Isolde, the idea of the protagonists living in earthly contentment as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde is unthinkable: the very intensity of their striving seems to transcend its object; even if circumstances were to allow it, it is inconceivable that anything so ordinary as mere earthly union could satisfy a striving so intense.

It is not merely that the object of Romantic aspiration is beyond earthly reach: it’s also that it has to be beyond earthly reach. It has, indeed, to be beyond what may be imagined. For if it is possible to attain the object of aspiration, then once it is attained, the aspiration itself will no longer be required, and the very feature that had characterised our existence to so important a degree will become unnecessary. Goethe’s Faust, for instance, is saved from damnation because he had never stopped aspiring; but once he is redeemed and his soul is taken into heaven, what then? The aspiration that had been, quite literally, his saving grace, now becomes redundant. Can a heaven even be imagined in which the very feature that defines our humanity is redundant?

Thus, while the Romantics aspired fervently towards some heaven, the Romantic imagination did not allow any heaven to be imagined. So, many of them merely aspire for death instead. The protagonist of Winterreise, Tristan and Isolde, and, as we will see, Heathcliff and Cathy, are all unable to live in a world in which their terrible striving cannot be satisfied, and equally unable even to imagine a heaven in which it will: death is all they have left to strive towards.

This is, of course, madness, and it is not surprising that so many Romantic protagonists become mad – the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, Mr Tristan & Mrs Isolde … all mad as hatters, the whole bunch of them. Winterreise is, in many ways, archetypal in this respect: we start off with a hackneyed scenario – the protagonist has been rejected by his girl, and he is awfully cut up about it. But as the song cycle progresses, the longing becomes so unbearably intense, that it far transcends what is ostensibly the object of the longing: even if the boy were somehow to get the girl, such intense longing, we feel, cannot be stilled. Towards the end, the protagonist starts to hallucinate: longing without a clear object can only lead to insanity, and in works of Romanticism, we are never too far from that.

In this context, Wuthering Heights seems very clearly a product of Romanticism, and whatever irrational feature it is in us that responds to this Romantic irrationality, responds also to this novel. Wuthering Heights is unusual in this respect, because the novel, as a form, is very resistant, I think, to Romanticism. When we look through the history of the novel, we find a fine flowering in the mid-18th century with the likes of Richardson, Fielding, Sterne and Smollett, and another flowering some hundred or so years later, with the likes of Stendhal and Balzac in France, Dickens and Trollope and George Eliot in England, etc. But between these two peaks, there are very few novels of much note. There are the Gothic novels, which are impossible to read nowadays for any literary enjoyment; and there was Scott, who has much liked in the Victorian days but whose reputation has plummeted since and is unlikely to recover. But who else was there? Sure, I am generalising, as is inevitable when speaking in such broad terms; and yes, there was the odd masterpiece, such as, say, James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. But the only major novelist I can think of between Sterne & Richardson at one end, and Balzac & Dickens at the other, is Jane Austen.

The reason for this hiatus is, I think, Romanticism, which got in the way. The Romantic ethos, however one defines it, was very quick to capture the imagination, but the novel as a form simply wasn’t capable of accommodating this ethos. The novel as a form dealt with the everyday, the quotidian, and not with the heroic. The great larger-than-life figures such as Achilles, Clytemnestra, Medea, Othello, Milton’s Satan, Racine’s Phèdre – such characters belong to the realms of epic poetry, or to verse drama, and definitely not to the novel. From the very beginning, the novel was seen as anti-heroic: Gargantua et Pantagruel, Don Quixote, Tom Jones – these are all consciously mock-heroic works. How could a form that was so doggedly anti-heroic accommodate the heroism of infinite striving? How could a form so rooted in the everyday be compatible with that which seeks to transcend the everyday?  Jane Austen flourished as a novelist in this period precisely because she bucked the trend: she didn’t have a single Romantic bone in her body, and she would certainly have relished the irony of her novels being marketed these days as archetypal romantic works.

In time, novelists emerged who were not so concerned with the Romantic ethos, and were happy to explore the everyday – Balzac and the rest. Some of the greatest novelists even found the transcendent within the everyday – Tolstoy, say, or Joyce. But finding transcendence in the everyday is not quite the same as transcending the everyday: the distinction may be subtle, but is nonetheless important. I can think of only two major novels (or at least, novels that I would place in the top rank) that have managed to accommodate the Romantic ethos within their confines, and they appeared in the mid 19th century, within a few years of each other: one is Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the other is Wuthering Heights.

Neither novel is realistic. Moby-Dick is clearly symbolic, as the intensity of Ahab’s striving seems quite out of proportion to what he is striving for – revenge against a dumb creature that had maimed him. Since we cannot believe that this simple circumstance could in itself occasion such immense passion, we are forced to see the object of his passion – the white whale – as some sort of symbol. But as soon as we try to identify what it is the white whale symbolises, we begin to flounder. This is not surprising: the very essence of Romantic striving is that the object of one’s striving is beyond definition, beyond even imagining; so, if one is to depict it at all, one can only do so with the use of metaphors. And the white whale Moby-Dick is among the most haunting of all metaphors.

There is striving too in Wuthering Heights, and it is less clear that the object of this striving is presented as a metaphor. However, the longing of Cathy and Heathcliff is not one that can be satisfied on earth. In this, it differs sharply from its sister novel Jane Eyre, in which not only is the longing of this earth, but it is actually achieved at the end, as the rough, masterful Mr Rochester becomes domesticated. An outcome such as this is unthinkable in Wuthering Heights. Unlike Jane and Mr Rochester, neither Cathy nor Heathcliff strives for domestic bliss. Cathy cannot even imagine a heaven in which her strivings can be satisfied: she dreams at one point that she is in heaven, but that she is so unhappy there, that she is brought back to Wuthering Heights. Forever reaching towards something that can never be satisfied, not even in heaven … it seems the very epitome of Romantic madness.

And there is a madness throughout this novel. Cathy and Heathcliff are both quite clearly mad. Heathcliff, indeed, becomes demented: he is a psychopath. The schoolgirl fantasy is of a rough, masculine exterior, masterful and threatening, but with a heart of gold that is capable of yielding to the more tender emotions. Indeed, these are the very terms in which Isabella sees Heathcliff. And Emily Brontë seems to have nothing but disdain for this sort of mush. That may have been all right for the likes of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, but it’s very out of place in this psychotically violent and terrifying novel. Heathcliff and Cathy are not capable of tenderness, not even, perhaps, to each other.

The sense of terror and of violence that runs through the novel is electrifying. It is not merely the graphic depiction of physical violence that is so striking: it is the atmosphere that pervades the entire novel of an emotional violence. The night Mr Lockwood spends in Wuthering Heights is about as terrifying as anything I’ve read: there’s nothing in any horror fiction that I know that surpasses for sheer terror the moment where Mr Lockwood puts his hand through the glass, and is met on the other side by an icy cold hand that enfolds his own. There follows the first of the many grotesque images of violence in this novel:

Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes

Terror can, indeed, make us cruel, but this (especially coming as it does from so insipid a character as Mr Lockwood) is horrendous!

It is, however, entirely consistent with the general tone of the book. There is a very hard edge throughout – indeed, a rather nasty edge. I cannot think of any other novel in which the author quite deliberately takes steps to ensure that we do not like, far less sympathise with, any of the characters. When, due to circumstances in the plot, we may feel inclined to sympathise with a character, Emily Brontë would put in something to make that character appear despicable. For instance, in case we feel inclined to sympathise with Isabella who is ill-treated by Heathcliff, she is shown taunting Heathcliff with Cathy’s death; in case we feel inclined to sympathise with Heathcliff’s ailing and brutalised son, Emily Brontë rubs in his utter selfishness and insensitivity. (Indeed, she possibly overplays her hand on this occasion, as she gives no reason at all for the young Cathy to love him.) Even the nice Mr Lockwood, as we have seen, is capable of rubbing a child’s wrist against a piece of broken glass; even the homely Nellie Dean, in one deeply shocking scene, can express satisfaction that Heathcliff’s teenage son is unlikely to live long. The only character one can come close to liking is Edgar Linton, and he, perhaps for that very reason, is kept more or less in the background. The picture we are given is unremitting: nasty people in an unremitting, nasty world. And yet they are compelling figures, and we watch, fascinated: these figures, and those of Heathcliff and Cathy especially, are larger-than-life figures that no novel hitherto had even attempted to accommodate.

To accommodate such figures, Emily Brontë had first to create a fictional world in which they would not appear incongruous. Melville had to do the same: he set his novel on a whaling ship, thus simultaneously suggesting an enclosed world (the ship) and also the vastness of an unbounded world outside (the seas). In Wuthering Heights, the world is reduced to two houses on the moors: once again, the setting suggests both an enclosed world (the houses), and also a vast immensity outside. Everyone who has read the book, even those who do not care for it, comments on the powerful atmosphere it projects of the landscape; so it comes as quite a surprise to see how little descriptive writing there is. At no point is there a single extended passage of descriptive writing of the type one gets in, say, Hardy’s novels. There is just the odd little touch here and there, but they are made to tell:

…one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Not a single image, not a single word, is wasted.

The sense of the enclosed world is accentuated by several means. While an outside world is known to exist, all the characters (except Mr Lockwood, the narrator of the framing story, and Hindley’s wife Frances) belong to this enclosed world of Wuthering Heights and of Thrushcross Grange. (Heathcliff is also an outsider, of course, to begin with, but he very soon becomes part of the landscape, as it were.) We are never taken outside this enclosed world: every scene happens in one of the two houses, or in the moors between them. Only briefly in the final chapters are we allowed a brief scene in nearby Gimmerton.  And what happens in the outside world is never clarified: so we never know who Heathcliff really is, why Earnshaw decides to adopt him, or how he makes his fortune: what happens outside the world of Wuthering Heights and of Thrushcross Grange, even if it impacts on the story, is not depicted.

Even the names keep reappearing in different combinations – Catherne Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, Catherine Linton, yet another Catherine Linton, Linton Heathcliff, Catherine Heathcliff, and so on – as if there were only a few names to choose from, and each name must be made up of these scraps: over a century afterwards, Gabriel García Márquez used a similar technique in One Hundred Years of Solitude to suggest a similarly enclosed world.

The story itself, with all the various inter-marrying between families, seems to have an incestuous feel about it. Indeed, the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy may well be incestuous: the possibility that Heathcliff may have been Mr Earnshaw’s illegitimate child must surely have crossed the characters’ minds.

The plotline is very convoluted, and most of it is narrated indirectly, but such is the quality of the storytelling that we never for a single moment lose the thread. I was also surprised by how quickly the plot moved: there is an awful lot of incident crammed into less than 300 pages. The danger in telling so eventful a plot in so relatively short a space is that a disproportionate part of the narrative would be spent on explaining the mere mechanics of the plot; but once again, Emily Brontë is too skilful an author to fall into such a trap. The pacing seems to me masterly.

The various framing devices through which the narrative emerges must have seemed quite bizarre to readers of the time. (And incidentally, those who think that the “unreliable narrator” is a modernist innovation would do well to take a look at Wuthering Heights again!)  The framing narrative is told us by Mr Lockwood, but the main part of the story is narrated to him by Nellie Dean; and quite frequently, as in Nellie’s readings of Isabella’s letters, we get narrations within narrations. All this is done to root the fantastic tale in some sort of reality. Wuthering Heights is not, as I said, a realist novel, but if touch with reality is lost altogether, the result may well be utter chaos. Mr Lockwood’s foolish vanity and Nellie Dean’s homely common sense provide a much needed counterbalance to the demented nature of much of the content.

Melville, too, needed a level-headed narrator to tell the terrible story of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick; but unlike Melville, Emily Brontë never tells us more than her narrator could have known. Melville’s narrator, whom we are instructed to call Ishmael, often relates scenes at which he could not have been present: Brontë never does this, and even takes the risk of leaving unexplained gaps in the narrative rather than break this rule. However, she gives herself the liberty of diverging from the narrator’s tone of voice. So while she will let Mr Lockwood say a few things to establish his foolishness, once his narrative starts in earnest, a far more perceptive narrative voice takes over. Some may object to this, but I can’t say it bothered me too much: a long narrative completely in Mr Lockwood’s voice would have been very tiresome, to say the least.

As for the content, one hardly knows where to start. There are many parts of the novel that are pure horror. (Certainly, the Hammer studios had no problem ripping off the scene in which a pathetic figure appears outside the window, begging to be let in: this was recycled to quite splendid effect in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.) There is that terrible scene where Hindley comes home drunk, tries to force a knife down Nellie’s throat, and then nearly kills his infant son. Or those scenes of delirium before Catherine dies, where she is terrified of her own reflection in the mirror, and then rips open her pillow and takes out the feathers, and starts talking about which bird each feather had come from; it is completely demented: I can’t remember the last time I read anything so feverish. Then, as Cathy dies, Heathcliff stands outside howling like an animal, beating his head repeatedly against a tree, making the blood gush down its knotty trunk: here, he is barely human. Or take that scene where Isabella narrates Hindley’s attempt on Heathcliff’s life: everything seems piled on top of each other to a wild, phantasmagoric effect – Hindley’s horrible wound with the knife, the relish Heathcliff takes in trampling on Hindley and kicking him in the head, even when he is already unconscious – and as if all that weren’t enough, there’s Hareton hanging up puppies from the back of the chair. The unmitigated sadism nauseates even as it fascinates; and the febrile, thrilling excitement that is generated has no equal except, perhaps, in the novels of Dostoyevsky. It is a world completely alien – thank goodness – to anything I know, but it is utterly compelling. Even when Heathcliff digs up Cathy’s grave to hold her decomposed corpse in his arms once more, one feels compelled to read on even as one feels faintly sick. This is a fictional world in which the inner demons are not on the inside any more – they are out in the open, and they are utterly uninhibited.

At the centre of it all, of course, is the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy. Normally, everyone loves lovers: the world will always welcome lovers, as the song goes. But not if they are like this pair. For this is not the sort of love that one tends to find in love stories – the love that may be satisfied. These two crave each other with a longing that hardly seems of this world: it is completely unimaginable, even if circumstances allowed for it, for these two to find earthly happiness with each other in the manner of the insipid Jane Eyre or the rough-diamond-with-heart-of-gold Mr Rochester. These two are demonic. They crave each other because they must – because cannot do otherwise. Is this really what schoolgirls fantasise about? I sincerely hope not!

I do not want to go as far as to suggest that the longing Heathcliff and Cathy have for each other is a metaphor for something else, as is the longing Ahab has to destroy Moby-Dick. But the intensity of Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s longing does indeed seem to outstrip its ostensible ends. These are superhuman desires – way, way larger than life – and it is hard to see how it could possibly be satisfied with anything earthly. It is that Romantic longing for that which is forever beyond one’s reach; and for the first time, it has found expression in a novel.

By any rational standards, Cathy and Heathcliff both become mad before they die. Once again, this madness is very much part of the Romantic ethos: what else can one be when one desires so fervently what can never be? Heathcliff’s madness takes the form of a sort of psychotic hatred and sadism. It frankly defies belief that this monster could possibly be regarded by anyone as a romantic hero. But, rather disconcertingly, Emily Brontë passes no moral judgement: Heathcliff is as he is because he could not be otherwise – and how can one pass a moral judgement on that? One might as well pass moral judgement on a wild beast.

I don’t know whether Emily Brontë endorses the Romantic ethos she depicts in this book. It is of little matter anyway. What we do get is a vivid depiction of a favourite theme of the Romantics – madness: here, we straddle that vague borderline between sanity and insanity. It may not always be a pleasurable experience, but it hits you with a force that makes most other novels seem a bit bloodless. And it is executed throughout with the most marvellous skill.

The ending, particularly, I found surprisingly moving. (It is, incidentally, surprising that one can be moved despite the very obvious lack of any sympathetic character.) The ending was always going to be difficult: how can one provide a satisfactory end to something so very turbulent? Melville ends Moby-Dick with a breathless, extended climax, as Ahab and his crew finally come face to face with the great white whale. Emily Brontë has a quite different ending up her sleeve: she opts for a quiet ending. Rev Brontë would, I am sure, have had a copy of Milton in his well-stocked parsonage library, and the Brontës would all have been familiar with the quiet endings of such turbulent works such as Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes. Here, Heathcliff, at the very moment when his great revenge would be complete, loses interest in it. He loses interest not out of any moral consideration: that would have been deeply alien to his character. He loses his desire for revenge – indeed, his desire to go on living – because he is, quite clearly, seeing Cathy’s ghost. In the end, he starves himself to death. He does this almost, as it were, passively, because he no longer has the motive to keep himself alive: as he says himself, he has to remember even to breathe. Like the true Romantic hero, he craves death, and welcomes it.

And with this transformation, the whole tone of the novel changes marvellously. It is as if all the dark storm clouds vanish, one by one, leaving a sky of clear blue, and an air of hard-won serenity.

The closing sentence is one of the loveliest of any novel:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.