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Classics Never Die: Wuthering Heights

Wolfmother has just released a cover of Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights, which is in turn a lyrical & musical retelling of a 19th century book by the same name. You may have heard of it.

That right there? That was a joke. Of course you’ve heard of it –it’s one of the most beloved books of all time. Whenever newspapers are making best-read lists, it’s there. Whenever 15 year-old girls are scouring bookcases for something new to read, it’s there. Whenever literary types are being interviewed about old favourites, it’s there.
Wuthering Heights continues to be bought, which is interesting because it doesn’t get taught at school. I suspect this has something to do with the incest, murder, rage and jealousy prevalent within the novel; topics that teachers are, unsurprisingly, somewhat loathe to touch upon (except if they are hidden in the linguistic gymnastics of Shakespeare of course).

“He had the hypocrisy to represent a mourner: and previous to following with Hareton, he lifted the unfortunate child on to the table and muttered, with peculiar gusto, 'Now, my bonny lad, you are mine! And we'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!'”

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s sole novel, shared a stage with some great books of that age, but few present such originality and timelessness. This is a violent story with, as I mentioned earlier, a strong incest theme from start to finish and a heroine and hero who are brutal, wild and often intensely unlikeable. I guess it’s a romance, but the love between Catherine and Heathcliff, if you can even call it that, is often vicious and ultimately doomed.
Wuthering Heights is a romance novel in the least saccharine way possible. There is nothing weak, self-effacing, smugly soporific or innocent about Catherine Earnshaw. Indeed, she is a woman who controls her own destiny. Even when contained, she finds a way to step outside that box to make her own choices. And in the face of the man, Heathcliff, that she is inescapably drawn to and passionately in love with, she will stand her ground and decide for herself. There is an appealing, powerful honesty to Catherine – she knows herself through and through, and she is fearless in expressing her desires.

“'This is nothing,' cried she: 'I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. 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...'”

Perhaps she was the original feminist, long before Germaine Greer and that ditsy suffragette mother from Mary Poppins. Catherine was an early example of a woman in literature who wasn’t bound by how her society viewed her, she was wild and she was ok with that.

I read Wuthering Heights every few years and am constantly surprised at how well it still draws me in. Even after many, many reads.

“I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton's only harmonised by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff's still bare.
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 any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

photo by Matt Hodges

words: Kristen Hodges


November 23, 2009 at 4:56 PM Shandos Cleaver said...

I have to disagree with your comment about the novel not being studied in school - I'm pretty sure I studied it for year 12 English (in 1999, here in NSW). I had already read it by then, and should read it again sometime...

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