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Posts Tagged ‘Wuthering Heights’

SWF LogoIt was a grey, cold and wet start to the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) today, but I kicked it off in great style with ‘The Uncommon Reader’. Tegan Bennett Daylight chaired an engaging panel discussion with respected critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White on what books have inspired them, from their formative years through to their predictions on the classics of tomorrow. I’ll just pick out a few talking points…

There was a discussion about the moment they began to feel like they wanted or needed to reply to books. James said it wasn’t until university that he was taught to read better, at which point he began to be a better reader, or observer, of the world as well. I think this is true of all us readers.

Both Geordie and Jane spoke of the enthusiasm that works such as Wood’s The Broken Estate allowed them to have. Jane said she still reads with a child’s enthusiasm now, something that was evident when she spoke about her favourites.

For James, he wanted to be able to write about things that made him DSC03665 - Harbour Bridge in Mistwant to burst out and say ‘this is bloody good!’. He writes not for academics, but for other readers.

Tegan asked a great question about what are the books that these avid readers return to, time and again. For Geordie, it is V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. From Naipaul, post-colonial literature emerges. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a most ‘writerly’ book, something he leafs through when he feels a little stale.

James also admires Naipaul, noting A House for Mr Biswas as a very funny and poignant work. But for him, ‘the one’ is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a favourite of mine too. It has, he said, the thing so many works of fiction lack: the ideal ending.

Jane gets excited about any new translations of works by Homer and Tolstoy. But the two works she picked out are F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its ‘flawless prose’ (she read a passage of this out, endearingly trying not to cry!), and a favourite of mine: Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (my review).

Thoughts then turned to books and writers of today that will last. Tegan offered Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro. Geordie split the discussion into local and international contexts. For his local, he gave Tim Winton, admiring Winton’s ability to pull off writing that appeals to a wide audience and is also ‘pregnant with intelligence’. He had a smile when saying Stephen Romei had rung him to say the new Winton has just been delivered (expect it on your nearest bookshelf soon! – no title was given). For a global context, he offered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a ‘generational shift’, and praised the first page of Wallace’s unfinished work The Pale King.

James echoed Geordie’s praise of the opening to The Pale King, and agreed with Tim Winton. To that he added his admiration for Peter Carey, saying that while he liked his more recent works, he is eagerly hoping for the next ‘great novel’ from him, something to rival Illywhacker (my review) and Oscar and Lucinda (my review). (Given they are two of my favourite novels, I couldn’t agree more!) He also noted Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel. For his international, he picked out W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (which is featured in Wood’s most recent work of criticism The Fun Stuff and Other Essays). 

For Jane, it is Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the one that ‘knocked her socks off’ recently was Atomised by French author Michel Houellebecq, which had James Wood nodding too. Jane was positively gushing in her praise, and has blogged about Atomised at Bookish Girl.

For all that, the one author not mentioned, but mentioned by an audience member in a question was Jane Austen. Geordie swung this to Tegan, who re-reads every Austen each year, (and is an admirer of Northanger Abbey, whereas Jane Gleeson-White said she’s more a Persuasion fan (as am I).

I left with the feeling that if I had only attended one session at this years’ festival, then this would have been a great one to choose. The reading list alone would keep me going with great reads for a good while. The panel spoke with intelligence, wit, and above all, enthusiasm about the thing that brings us all together: books.

I’ll have more SWF musings over the coming days and weeks.

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Mr Lockwood, who has let Thrushcross Grange from the brooding Mr Heathcliff, decides that his landlord will trouble him, and that is to some extent true, but it’s really Heathcliff who is troubled, by the ghost of Catherine who stalks him long after her death.  Ironically, it is Lockwood who sees Catherine at the window in a dream after he is installed into her old room for the night when he is caught at Wuthering Heights in poor weather.  Already suspicious of Heathcliff’s nature, Lockwood observes him as he gets onto his bed and “wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears.  ‘Come in! come in!’ he sobbed. ‘Cathy, do come.’” Lockwood can’t give up the question of what has caused Heathcliff’s heaving sobs and investigates by discussing the history of the relationship of troubled Heathcliff and the imperious Catherine with the Grange’s housekeeper, Nelly Dean.  Nelly takes over the narration of the story for much of the rest of the book, and is a fascinating player in her own right, given the way her actions (and inactions) affect those of the main characters. It all hinges on the moment Heathcliff overhears Catherine’s obtuse dismissal of him as a potential mate.  Says Catherine, (p80):

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone though and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

She then goes onto tell Nelly that she couldn’t take Heathcliff:

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; … 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.

Heathcliff overheard the start of her speech, up until the point she says it would degrade her, after which he stole off. So begins the thrust of much of the story, a revenge tale in which Heathcliff seeks retribution against Catherine, against the Linton family she marries into, as well as the Earnshaw family that raised him as an orphan alongside Catherine, but in which after old Earnshaw’s death, he is treated as more a servant than a member of the family. Nelly tries to make her see that all her reasons for marrying Linton are weak.  By way of reply Catherine says:

… my great thought in living is [Heathcliff].  … My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods.  Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary.  Nelly, I am Heathcliff.

But Heathcliff has gone, disappeared, run off into the wild night, not to return for some years. And when he does make it back he is rich and appears every inch the gentleman, save his boorish behaviour. And those bleak Yorkshire moors!  They are so evocative of the wildness in the hearts of those who populate the story… (p4):

… one may guess at 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.

The amount of conflict is really something. The engine of the story’s drama, it’s present on every page. Never have I seen so many tears, so many exclamation marks! There are aspects of writing craft that might be frowned on today by some, such as the redundant use of adverbs when describing the manner in which a character is speaking, and the overt northern dialect of Joseph, which is hard for the reader to get through. All those exclamation marks would be trimmed no doubt as well.

What would survive is that quintessential Brontë drama, the desire, the love, the oh-so-poor choices, the suspicions and regrets, and Heathcliff’s scheming and abiding drive to have his revenge. To think of the appalling choices that people make! There is Catherine’s choice of Edgar.  Isabella’s choice of Heathcliff. Oh, how my heart was wrung by Isabella’s letter to Nelly asking her (p136), “Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil? … I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married…”

There is Miss Cathy’s (Catherine’s daughter) choice of Linton – what a damp squib of a man he is!  How could anyone in their right mind want to marry him?  (Not that Heathcliff would have given her much choice!)

Then there are the malicious, calculating choices made by Heathcliff, his scheming to gain control of Wuthering Heights and the Grange, his snaring of poor Isabella and diabolical treatment of her, the way he takes Miss Cathy back to Wuthering Heights, and his later jailing of her and Nelly.

It is the next generation after Heathcliff and Catherine that seek a way out of the mess created by him. Will they be similarly poisoned or will they escape from the strictures of the past? The resolution suggests a rebalancing of the Heathcliff-Catherine generation’s tumult, though there is enough violence exhibited by all the characters to indicate that all might not be settled even when we turn the last page.

I think one of the great aspects of Wuthering Heights is this sense that the story is not over, that we could read it many times and see a different angle on things. It’s part of what makes a novel a classic. The way the world is so cut off, almost like a fantasy, means it is, for all the moors’ open wildness, a very claustrophobic setting. In part this allows Brontë to sail as close-to-the-wind on thematic taboos as an author of that time might dare, such as incest and the borderline necrophilia of Heathcliff’s desire for Catherine’s dead body. There’s no overt incest of course, and the love between Catherine and Heathcliff is never consummated, but it’s all very inbred.

There are plenty of other interesting elements of story design I could muse over for longer, such as the similarity of the names: Heathcliff and Hareton and Hindley – and how this makes it difficult for any outsider, be they reader or Mr Lockwood to make quick judgements on the characters. But the above is enough for this reading of a worthy classic.

You can see a layout of Thrushcross Grange here (along with some other famous houses in classic literature).

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Penguin Classics 1847

ISBN: 9780141439556

337 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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