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Last month my pal Melissa asked me if I’d read Wuthering Heights. As it happens, I had not. Like countless Americans of my generation, for me the book lies crusted with the patina of dread summertime required-reading lists, and I’d never found reason to update its mentally-archived status as a dodged bullet. (I think I chose Moby Dick instead that year, which at least held the promise of intriguingly seaborne violence.)
My friend, who had just herself read the book for the first time, went on to describe it as surprisingly filled with nothing but utterly reprehensible people, every one a villain. Even the characters you’d expect to elicit tragic sympathy from the reader in a gothic and sallow-cheeked novel of the period end up utterly detestable. She knew that this would prove enough to pique my interest, and I proceeded to borrow a 2003 Penguin Classics edition from the local library. Through it, have discovered such an overflowing cultural treasure chest that I felt the need to write something down before even finishing the first of the novel’s volume-breaks.
Such, of course, is the joy of reading old stuff, at one’s own pace. There is the central work, and then as much of its aurora of comment and criticism and reaction and derivation as you care to ingest, either alongside or afterwards. This edition of Wuthering Heights carries some of that within its own covers, blanketed by no fewer than five prefaces that go backwards in time as we read forwards. The deepest of them, sitting snug against the text, are introductory notes by Charlotte Brontë, she of Jane Eyre and the author’s sister. First, a eulogistic reminiscence of the exciting years when the young Brontës wrote together and saw themselves published (initially under three masculine pseudonyms), a period made shockingly brief by the younger sisters’ swift succumbing to tuberculosis. Charlotte follows this with a more businesslike editor’s note to the book’s second printing, which she oversaw after Emily’s death.
As Kate Beaton says in one of her pages of Wuthering Heights comics, Charlotte takes a surprisingly apologetic tone in her editorial, which the cartoonist summarizes as “Wuthering Heights: Sorry, Sorry, Just Give It A Chance OK?” Reading that introduction (which also contains a screed against fig-leafing the letters from printed cuss-words, amongst other surprises) succeeded in washing away my doubtful expectations for a stuffy drama of stiff aristocrats swanning about the titular manor. Charlotte makes plain that the book is about a monster who smashes a path from cover to cover, with a supporting cast of only slightly lesser goblins gnawing the pages in his wake; she describes how the novel’s earliest critics focused with a disapproving sniff on Heathcliff’s rudeness. Charlotte insists that her late sister had a gift for depicting a darker, more realistic, earthier side of human personality and relationships than one typically found in contemporary literature, and begs the audience to read past the initial shock and take in a singularly unforgettable work.
Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. Thus did my amazement with Wuthering Heights begin, before I’d even reached the first Arabic-numbered page. Needless the say, this has carried through to the story, which seems to me the clear ur-text for Snicket and Gorey and every other writer of dark comedies about terrible people published since 1850. The novel, let us be clear, is hilarious, describing one outrage or misadventure after another befalling two little families living in the moors after a howling outsider, the earth-elemental named Heathcliff, crashes into their sleepy orbit and upsets their equilibrium for generations. I have laughed out loud with shock and joy several times so far.
And the pacing! In the first chapter, the outermost narrator character (for this book lets itself get positively oniony with layered narrators) sets out to meet Heathcliff, his new landlord. He must battle a pack of dogs on his way over, and then he fights off a wailing ghost during his overnight stay. Then he gets angry at his host for setting him up in a scary haunted bedroom! And Heathcliff kicks him out, and commences to yell at the ghost! And that’s about when narrator number two insinuates herself into the telling, and all this happens before page 30. I had no idea what I was in for when I started this book; well into the middle now, I have just as little idea what will happen next, other that what misfortunes are foreshadowed by events in the frame-story before the narrative inceptions itself forty years into its own past.
Hark a Vagrant has five more pages of those wonderful cartoons about the novel, by the way: go to its archive page and perform an in-page search for “wuthering”. Beaton retired the project at around the point in the novel I currently find myself, alas, but this well illustrates just what I mean when I speak of treasure chests; just reading a little bit has pointed me at layers of culture I would have never discovered (or, anyway, never comprehended) otherwise, and it all happens alongside my read of the original text.
My reading has reminded me about the best potentials of social media too, and how sharing enthusiasm for something can lead one to a beautiful diffraction of related work. I’ve been chronicling my journey through Wuthering Heights on Twitter, and this is how one friend pointed me to magnificent illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg, and another to those Beaton comics. Meanwhile, I discovered that searching for “wuthering heights” on Twitter reveals few people mentioning the book but plenty the Kate Bush song of the same name from 1978, an apparently famous bit of culture that has somehow eluded me entirely for my whole life before now. And when I raved about that, yet another person — a complete stranger, this time — led me to find the Christmas ornaments depicting Kate Bush’s dancing her role as Cathy’s frozen shade pressed against Heathcliff’s window, and with which I decorate this post.
And given the season in which I write this, that feels full-circle enough for now; I should really get back to reading the book.
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