Elizabeth Baines is a prize-winning radio playwright and the author of numerous short stories as well as two novels, The Birth Machine and Body Cuts. More recently she has become an occasional actor, and has written for the theatre, producing her own stage plays, 'Drinks with Natalie' and the award-winning 'O'Leary's Daughters'. Here Elizabeth writes about Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.
Elizabeth Baines on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Which book has been most important to me? Well, how would I choose? Jane Eyre or David Copperfield, both of which, aged eleven, I bought from Woolworth's with my saved-up pocket money and which most certainly coloured my emotional landscape and increased my (already formed) determination to write? Or George Orwell's essays, which, when I was at university, hit me right in the eyes with a clean fresh blast of political air and ensured that in future I would be aware of the politics of whatever I wrote? But wait - wasn't I once asked this question before, and didn't I answer unhesitatingly, 'Wuthering Heights', because this novel, with its striking structure - a narrative within a narrative, yet containing other narratives, a layering of voices and perspectives - has probably had the greatest impact on my own writing?
What did I remember of this novel, which as a teenager I read several times? A tale of the passionate and doomed love-hate relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff, related by the homely and sometimes disapproving housekeeper Nelly Dean to the somewhat anaemic new tenant Mr Lockwood (as I remembered him), a tale filtered further for us through Lockwood's diary. As a fairly tempestuous teenager myself, well accustomed to adult disapproval, I had no problem identifying completely with the young pair, and with Cathy in particular, and in seeing the framing narrations as merely structurally ironic counterpoint to the real emotional heart of the novel (the young pair's passion) which was thus set in greater relief. I remembered, too, being somewhat less fired up by the second half of the novel, which dealt with the aftermath of Cathy's premature death and the next generation, but finding that the novel motored up again at the end when Cathy appears to return to Heathcliff in the form of a ghost, allowing him to die happy (he dies with a fixed and diabolical grin on his face). This seemed to me romantic fulfilment.
This week, all these years later, having had teenage children of my own, I read the novel again. Well, what a shock. That Cathy: what a brat! Those tantrums, that vicious cruelty, pinching Nelly Dean when she can't get her own way. I was with Nelly now when she says, 'I own I did not like her, after her infancy was past; and I vexed her frequently by trying to bring down her arrogance.' This time, no longer seeing the book through my old lens, but not yet having found a new one, I was puzzled by the perverseness of Cathy and Heathcliff, which as a teenager I had almost revelled in, and I could have no truck with Heathcliff's casual (and less casual) cruelties, which I had once happily accepted as a by-product of a passionate, oppressed and uncompromising nature. And the second half of the novel? This time, it was the part of the novel I found most interesting, dealing as it does with the emotional legacy for the next generation of such destructive passion, and their struggles to survive it.
I began to realize: this was not the kind of novel I had thought it and that I believed it was generally held to be - that is, romantic or gothic. Indeed, framing the 'gothic' story as it does with the calm and rational voices of Nelly Dean and Lockwood, it is a novel which anatomizes the destructive, adolescent and selfish nature of gothic passions. Cathy and Heathcliff are emotionally arrested in selfish childhood, concerned for themselves alone, or for each other only as mirror-images of themselves (that famous cry of Cathy's: 'I am Heathcliff!'). Once Cathy begins to decline - so strange, as Nelly notes, for one of so robust a constitution, the decline appearing self-willed, the result of deliberate self-starvation - she reverts in her imagination to her childhood on the moors. The reader is unprepared for Nelly's later revelation that before her death Cathy was delivered of a baby girl, the child of her husband Edgar Linton: since she is emotionally a child, no consciousness of the child in her womb or her status or responsibility as a mother clouds Cathy's dying mind. 'An unwelcomed infant it was, poor thing!' Nelly tells Lockwood. 'It might have wailed out of life, and nobody cared a morsel, during those first hours of its existence.' This is the younger Cathy's legacy: subordination to the self-centred, self-consuming passions of the earlier generation, and a more concrete disinheritance at the hands of a passionately yet coldly vengeful Heathcliff. But the younger Cathy and her cousin Hareton, equally disinherited by Heathcliff, survive, and it is through learning to be reasonable that they do so. It is their calm and rational happiness which appears finally to unhinge Heathcliff and dissipate his cruel power, so we may see his death as pathetic rather than as romantic fulfilment.
The genius of this novel, however, is that while arguing via its all-important structure for rationality and against the gothic impulse, it evinces the latter vividly. Initially, on this latest reading, I found Nelly's account unrealistically over-literary, but this serves the purpose of subsuming her doubting and chiding voice for great tracts of her tale, and allowing it to be properly dramatized, which in turn allows us to identify with the other characters. My error as a teenager was to take this identification as the only focus of the novel, and since I did not remember ever being contradicted while at university by the critics, I was curious now to check them out.
Indeed, in the 1965 Introduction to my 1982 Penguin edition, David Daiches entertains the view of Thomas Moser, author of 'Conflicting Impulses in Wuthering Heights' (in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol 17, No 1, June 1962), that in Freudian terms Heathcliff is 'the source of psychic energy; the seat of the instincts (particularly sex and death); the essence of dreams' - a view which Daiches says 'involves the admission that the latter part of the book is inferior and indeed novelettish, the grafting on to the real novel of a conventional moral pattern' (my italics). However, in a magnificent essay, 'The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights', Joyce Carol Oates argues that such a view is indeed a misreading of the novel (Critical Inquiry, Winter 1983). As Oates says, 'A novel's strategy reveals itself in structure and process, not in isolated passages or scenes.' (She comments wryly: 'That professional critics identify subject matter in process with an ambitious novel's design is one of the curiosities of literary history.')
Through the structure of this novel, the perspective of every principal character is framed or counterpointed by another's. Even Nelly's attitude is on occasion questioned by Lockwood, such as when, otherwise down-to-earth and sensible, she reveals an inclination towards an over-romantic view of death: 'I am seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death... and I feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter... Do you believe such people are happy in the other world, sir? I'd give a great deal to know.' 'I declined answering Mrs Dean's question, which struck me as something heterodox.' Yet this novel makes us feel with the characters while also allowing us to see objectively the consequences of their feelings and actions. It is this precisely which Oates calls its magnanimity, and herein lies its brilliance.
So. I had forgotten that I had once cited Wuthering Heights as a main influence on me as a writer, and it turned out that in any case I'd misread it. But as I put down the novel this time I realised how far I had absorbed its real meanings and how much it had indeed influenced my writing. Contingency has always been an important theme in my writing: the contingency of viewpoint, the contingency of reality, and above all, the contingency of narrative. And I was stunned to recognize the parallels in my own recently written novel, The Forgetting. Though in many ways very different, The Forgetting is also a story of two generations and an unhappy legacy of uncontrolled passions to be overcome. It is also a novel which pits two contrasting versions of the story against each other, and contrasting emotional ideologies. As a twenty-first century writer I'm inevitably more interested than Brontë in voice, and prefer the more psychologically authentic-seeming interior monologue, but I know now who my mentor is for sure.