Sophisticated narrative layering and emotional insight make Wuthering Heights an extraordinary novel.
I believe Wuthering Heights to be one of the best (if not the best) English novels of the 19th century, possibly ever. I’ve read it perhaps 20 times, taught it in various writing courses, and with each reading and discussion I find something new to admire, something new to notice. FR Leavis couldn’t categorise it in his attempt to quantify English literature – he called it a ‘sport’ (meaning a freak). Sport it may be; it’s certainly unique for the time, both in its structure and its imaginative power.
First, there is the sophistication of the narrative layering. The outside narrator is the nerdy Mr Lockwood, writing in his diary, who has come to rent the manor house Thrushcross Grange from a Mr Heathcliff.
The next major narrative layer is that of Nellie Dean, who tells Lockwood about the history of the place and the people; but slyly, and with absolute artistic rightness, her version is preempted by Catherine Earnshaw’s diary, another narrative level, which Lockwood finds when he is forced to spend a night at Wuthering Heights among the viper’s nest of the extended families of the Heathcliffs, Earnshaws and Lintons. Gentleman though he purports to be, Lockwood has no compunction in reading the journal. This device is not unusual in 18th and 19th-century fiction – particularly the Gothic, which was frequently epistolatory, using letters and diaries to tell inside stories – but the placement here shows a maturity way beyond that of a first-time novelist.
Later that night Lockwood has a ghostly visitation from Cathy, tapping at the window to be let in, which drives Heathcliff into paroxysms of regret when he hears about it, as the one thing he desires is to be haunted by her:
‘And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! … Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!’
Nelly Dean has been the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, and a nursemaid to some of the children. Hers is a first-person eyewitness account of everything that happened 20 years ago. She is also an important participant in the events of the story. She relates how Heathcliff came to Thrushcross Grange as a foundling, adopted by Catherine’s father, how he was bullied and despised by everyone except Mr Earnshaw and Cathy, and how the two young people found their soulmates in each other.
Inside Nellie’s first-person narration, in addition to her own observations, is reported speech: what the central characters have said to her. Although we have to believe her reportage, our knowledge of her personality and her partisanship colours the events she describes, as does our suspicion that she might not have fully understood what was going on.
Really the essential story – thwarted passion – could belong to any romance. But having to unpeel the layers of narrative to find the pearl within lifts Wuthering Heights into a different category.
Neither Nellie Dean nor Lockwood is a reliable narrator, and this complicates the telling. Lockwood is a conventional 19th-century gentleman; Nellie Dean is biased and she has been complicit in the events of the novel. This means that their attitudes can be easily discarded by the reader, but still inevitably influence the story. Their prejudices should turn us against the lovers, but in fact have the opposite effect, because we can discount their perceptions when it suits us. Our sympathies are all with Catherine and Heathcliff, and this is directly because of the clever manipulation of unreliable narration.
Secondly there is the characterisation – Heathcliff, the abused and probably bastard child, later the embittered and violent older man; Catherine, the spoiled and selfish pampered daughter of wealthy parents; Lockwood; Edgar Linton, Catherine’s husband; Catherine’s daughter, ‘young’ Catherine and her nephew Hareton, promising redemption in the next generation; Nellie Dean; the pious, hypocitical and judgmental servant Joseph, and others, all stand out clearly as ‘real’ people in this novel. There are no caricatures; everyone has a unique personality and comes with his or her own baggage.
As we now know, abuse continues through the generations. Emily Brontë knew this too. Heathcliff, tormented and humiliated himself as a child, perpetuates the pattern with his wife, Isabella Linton (Edgar’s sister), and with Hareton Earnshaw.
Thirdly there is the fact that we very seldom see the story from the protagonists’ own points of view without the filter of another narrator. But who can come away from the book without knowing this is the story of Heathcliff and Catherine and their grand, doomed passion and empathising with them completely? This is an amazing sleight-of-hand. What might have been dismissed as melodrama and passion bordering on the psychotic is tempered and mediated by pragmatic and often unsympathetic recounting.
Then there is the socio–political context. Unlike her contemporaries, Austen and Dickens, Emily Brontë was not concerned with satire – gentle, humorous and forgiving in Austen’s case, more savage in that of Dickens. In fact, she was an early realist, prefiguring George Eliot (without the polemics) and Thomas Hardy. Brontë’s concern was with the stories of the individuals who suffered, or thrived, under the brutal English class system, and she wrote passionately about their lives, exposing religious hypocrisy, class and gender inequality through characterisation and action, laying bare the nasty realities beneath the English bucolic myth. She could have coined the expression ‘the personal is the political’.
And there is the last section of the book, when Lockwood returns after an absence, echoing the early chapters where he first meets everybody and moving the ‘present’ story forward. What could have produced an unwieldy structure here has in fact balanced the narrative beautifully. It should also be said that without this redemptive coda the book might have been even more maligned than it was when it was first published. Even Heathcliff, irredeemable and violent to the last, has to evoke sympathy in the end for his lifelong raw anguish and passion. But the next generation will not repeat the mistakes of the past; the reverberations of Heathcliff’s awful childhood and his malign influence have finally run their course.
It is the characterisation of Catherine that most interests me, however. People talk of Jane Eyre being a feminist model, and, yes, she had to struggle to make her own way in a bleak and hostile world – yet to me she seems hypocritical, taking the moral high ground over other people’s sins and weaknesses but forgiving of Rochester’s attempted bigamy, lying and wife-abuse. As with any conventional romantic heroine, these considerations go by the board because Jane is in love with him and wants to marry him. And, reader, she did! Rochester holds all the power in the relationship until Jane finds out about his wife, and it is not until the end of the novel, when he is brought low by events beyond Jane’s control, rendered physically and emotionally dependent, that she can claim any real equality and look forward to her happily-ever-after.
Catherine, however, holds all the emotional power from the beginning. Although she is a drama queen, without Jane’s intellect and common sense, she is strongly self-preserving and self-knowing. She realises there can be no happily-ever-after with Heathcliff and, as a woman bound by class and convention, without real freedom of choice, she settles for security over passion, propriety and emotional peace over the depth of her own feelings:
‘I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now so he shall never know how I love him and that not because he’s handsome Nelly but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of his and mine are the same and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning or frost from fire.’
One of the many ironies of the novel is that the eavesdropping Heathcliff only listens until ‘It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now’ – then he skulks away, heartbroken and enraged.
Catherine chooses herself, anyway. It costs her emotionally, but she is willing to pay the price, at least until the end. Paradoxically, although she is ostensibly more shallow than Jane Eyre, she is finally, I think, a more complex character, with a greater control over her own life and feelings, however suppressed they may be – and their suppression adds its own texture and depth. She has a greater self-awareness than Jane, who does not often examine her own motivations:
‘And you love Edgar, and Edgar loves you. All seems smooth and easy: where is the obstacle?’
‘Here! and here!’ replied Catherine, striking one hand on her forehead, and another on her breast: ‘in whichever place the soul lives. In my soul and in my heart, I’m convinced I’m wrong!’
And finally, pervading the whole story, there is the atmospheric evocation of the moors, the mist, the storms (all the pathetic fallacies of the Gothic), metaphorically rendering the characters and events larger than life; elemental beings and happenings in a wild landscape, yet still individuals who suffer, and sometimes rejoice, each in his or her own way.
There are many other aspects, many other details, that make Wuthering Heights an extraordinary novel that will reward the reading. It was Emily Brontë’s only published book and she died, aged 30, in 1848, the year after it came out under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell.
This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 16 June 2016