Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, (Heron Books, 1966) [1847/1850]
Wuthering Heights is a strange sort of book,—baffling all regular criticism; yet, it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it. – Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, January 15 1848.
Well, this was a surprise. I’ve been trying to get my head around “literary criticism” lately - having managed to avoid it throughout all my years of schooling - and I had picked up a couple of weeks ago a copy of Terry Eagleton’s Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. I was interested in what his Marxist criticism would look like, but I hadn’t read any of the Brontës before. Partly, I think this was due to a general lack of sympathy for any novel written between Jane Austen and, say, Joyce; I was pretty sure I knew what kind of novel Wuthering Heights must be - Romantic, clichéed and not as good as Austen. To tell the truth, there was probably something of an anti-Brontë prejudice I inherited from my father. At any rate, when I saw a decent hardcover edition in my local Wee Book Inn, I picked it up.
Reader, I couldn’t put it down. Jerrold’s newspaper has it right: it’s been a long time since I was so invested in a novel from page one. Not only does Emily Brontë know how to keep her pot boiling, but the world she creates is so weird, so strange, so violent, that you have no choice but to keep reading if you want to make any sense of it.
According to the Wikipedia article, initial reviews were not kind to Wuthering Heights - the violence, the seeming amorality, the complexity of the characters all made the novel seemingly intractable to the criticism of the time. I think, too, there’s something else afoot here. Wuthering Heights is not, I think, a realistic novel in the sense that, say, Pride and Prejudice or Middlemarch are. But it’s unrealism is not sentimental and moralizing, like Dickens’, so it makes sense that critics at the time might have had difficulty with it. I don’t think readers would have had difficulty with it at all - it must count as one of the most readable novels of the Victorian period!
Strangely, it reminded me a lot of Steinbeck’s East of Eden - another novel I put off for a long time but ended up loving. Brontë’s characters are, so to speak, modern archetypes in the same way that Steinbeck’s are. The interlocking pairs of characters, the multigenerational struggles, the circumscribed society, even the name and complexity of “Cathy” are shared between the two books. Steinbeck’s is perhaps more explicitly biblical, but Wuthering Heights shares a certain Old Testament ruggedness and violence. Neither are “Good Christian Books” in the New Testament sense. Both books exist in a world where “an eye for an eye” takes precedence over “turning the other cheek”.
Anyway, there’s much to digest here, a lot to think about and chew on. I look forward to reading it again in a couple of years.