This novel has been a big hole in my reading history, having never read it at school or university, so when the opportunity came up to go to Haworth and have a Bronte's weekend at the end of this month, it was a good excuse to get this one under my belt at last. Plus Jane Eyre by sister Charlotte is one of my favourite books ever.
I had only seen clips of the Laurence Olivier film, and my only other experience was the Kate Bush song. I felt it was a dark and passionate love story, atmospheric and intense. This was all I knew beforehand.
Telling the story of two houses in the remote moorland of Yorkshire and the families that reside in them over two generations. Mostly it is told in retrospect by the previous housekeeper to a new tenant of Wuthering Heights after he arrives, to a frosty welcome, at the main house and meets the master, Heathcliff, and the other degenerate occupants.
The housekeepers story recounts the history of Heathcliff, an urchin brought up as his own by Mr Earnshaw, along with his other two children. His son Hindley hates Heathcliff who is a sullen little boy, but Cathy and him share a special bond from childhood. When the father dies and Hindley inherits the estate he deliberately treats Heathcliff with contempt, reducing him to a servant and humiliating him where possible. Cathy becomes friends with the children of Thrushcross Grange so when Heathcliff runs away and is gone for 3 years, Cathy entertains a flirtation with Edgar Linton and eventually agrees to marry him. Heathcliff returns with one thing on his mind...revenge.
I have to say that my expectations of a passionate love story were quickly dashed. There is a love story, but it is obsessive and melodramatic, and not convincing as anything genuinely based on love. This only forms some of the story though. Revenge is the flavour of this novel, a really base and immoral form of it, that waits its time, calculating major catastrophe on all of those in its vicinity, seeking to destroy even its possessor and reaching those who were not even born when it began.
This is where I had my problem with this novel. Almost everone in it is vile, not just dislikeable but truly vile. We have a collection of sadistic, unfeeling, selfish, game players. Most of the women are spoilt and the men are either manipulative to the extreme or weak, or both. My despair at reading about this horrible lot and their to-ing and fro-ing between the houses over rode any sympathy or feeling I may have had. They all got what they deserved and I wanted to be free of them. The one or two that are not outwardly horrible, like Edgar or even the tenant telling the story, are flat and unmemorable. With the others there was too much gnashing of teeth and debauchery for me.
I did enjoy the setting, the remoteness of the lives in the story (I deliberately picked this edition because of the effect of the cover picture), and the compelling descriptions of the more eccentric characters at Wuthering Heights, like Hareton and Joseph. At times it felt like a 19th century classic novel version of the Addams family and did have some comedy elements. Indeed on talking to others who hold the novel in high esteem these parts were some of their favourites and I did pick up on that. Sadly though I just hated them all and this is what dominated my impressions of the novel.
I am glad that I have read it and I look forward to talking about it in Haworth in a few weeks, and I do appreciate that this was never meant to be a comfy read about nice people living in the countryside, and it is this that emulates it in the affections of so many. Also I didn't want to abandon it at any point and I am sure the images of the residents of Wuthering Heights, sniping and bickering at each other in that sulky, miserable house were etched indelibly on my imagination. I cannot say I wholly liked it though.
An essential but not always enjoyable read that was nothing like Jane Eyre, and I guess therein lies the appeal of the Bronte sisters.
For discussion questions about Wuthering Heights use the link.
To read an interesting Online Guide to Wuthering Heights use the link which includes some of the more obscure questions about Wuthering Heights.
For information about the Brontes at Haworth in England use the link.