“I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy and free.”
Emily Brontë, poet, novelist and author of one of my favourite books, was born on this day two hundred years ago.
I probably don’t need to tell you the title of the book, since not only was it Emily’s only novel- she died a year after its publication at the age of thirty- but also because it has taken on a life of it’s own, becoming more widely known than the author herself.
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, initially under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, and it wasn’t until two years after her death that Emily’s own name appeared as author of the work, shocking all those who believed that a story of such passion, violence and cruelty could only have been written by a man.
Passion, violence and cruelty are absolutely the corner stones of the novel, as anyone who has read it will undoubtedly agree, but there is more to Wuthering Heights than just that, or at least there is for me.
Wuthering Heights seems to be a sort of literary Marmite. There are those like me, who love it, and those who hate it, and there seems to be very few people in-between. I’m sure some of the polarity in opinion stems as much from circumstance of reading, as from the book itself, since much of it’s readership these days is enforced via academia. I was fortunate enough to miss it as a prescribed text, and only read it for the first time as an adult.
I’ve spoken before about the importance of timing when it comes to reading. How certain books arrive at a particular point in your life, and how at any other time they might not have had the same impact. I think a lot of my favourites are a combination of brilliant writing and perfect timing, and Wuthering Heights is no exception. The following circumstances probably all helped with my enjoyment of the book:
- I was reading it for pleasure, rather than to be quizzed on it’s ‘themes’ at a later date
- I was already a fan of Gothic fiction
- Wuthering Heights hadn’t been over-hyped to me, so I went in with few expectations
- As a Yorkshire lass, like Emily herself, I could read the occasional passages of Yorkshire dialect and hear them just as though they were spoken out loud, rather than staring at a row of seemingly unconnected letters wondering what on earth ‘Hathecliff’s noan t’chap tuh coom ut maw whistle- happen he’ll be less hard uh hearing wi ye!’ means
If any one of those factors had been missing, perhaps Wuthering Heights wouldn’t have had quite the impact it did on me. But then again…perhaps it would. Because let’s not pretend it isn’t an incredible piece of literature in its own right.
Wuthering Heights is incredible not just because it was written by a young woman at a time when young women didn’t write, and certainly didn’t write *things like that*. And not just because it has gone on to inspire adaptation after adaptation, along with other creative works, such as Kate Bush’s legendary, chart-topping record of the same name, which put the young singer-songwriter down in history as the first number one single both written and performed by a female artist.
Even without all of that, even with just Emily Brontë’s words, on the page, it would have been enough to secure a spot in my heart.
The main complaints I hear about Wuthering Heights are that a. it is not a romance and b. all the characters are terrible. And I’m here to tell you that both of these assertions are absolutely 100% true.
The main plot is about the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff, and it contains Gothic romance elements, but for a book to be classified as a Romance in the strictest sense the two main characters must achieve a ‘Happily Ever After’ or at the very least a ‘Happy For Now’. No one in Wuthering Heights is truly happy, ever. And as for the characters? They are all deeply flawed, and for the most part wholly unlikeable. Sounds like a barrel of laughs, doesn’t it? I bet those of you who haven’t read it are dying to get your hands on a copy now 😉
Well, you should.
Because despite the unrelenting misery it is a masterpiece. And in an age where characters and public figures are expected to be inspirational, relatable, and likeable, reading about self-absorbed Cathy and the vengeful, hate-filled Heathcliff, along with their supporting cast of similarly irredeemable characters is a breath of fresh air, the likes of which you could only otherwise get on a brisk moorland walk.
The setting itself is perfection, and indeed the story wouldn’t work anywhere else. The wild Yorkshire moors serve as symbolism for the wilds of Cathy and Heathcliff’s tumultuous relationship and the eerie isolation fulfils the Gothic element, although in truth I doubt that was Emily’s reason for choosing to set the story where she did. It seems infinitely more likely that it was a case of ‘writing what you know’ and where better to set this sprawling tale of love and hatred across generations than the sprawling Yorkshire countryside in which the author herself lived?
The title of this blog post comes from one of the books popular quotes, one I have typed so many times now that my phone’s predictive text feature now suggests it whenever I type the words ‘I wish…’
It’s from a passage in chapter 12 of the book when *spoiler alert* Cathy falls ill, after a fight between herself, Heathcliff and Linton:
“I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy and free…and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed? Why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words? I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills…Open the window again wide, fasten it open!…”
I love the line, not just because it so perfectly embodies a feeling so many of us have had- about how easy it would be to live our adult lives as though we were still children, when nothing bothered us for very long, because we existed out of reach of expectation and beyond even the barriers of physical pain, but also because it seems to sum up not just Cathy, or even her creator Emily, but the entire book as a whole.
Wuthering Heights is a half-savage, hardy and free novel that like Cathy herself, refuses to conform and ruins all hope of happiness in doing so, and yet, like Cathy is wild, breathless and lovely. And Heathcliff- what of the dark, brooding, Byronic hero? He is, without a doubt, bitter, vindictive and certainly in the latter parts of the book- mentally unhinged, but like Cathy, I found that I loved him anyway. Not because I believe him redeemable necessarily, but because I know from experience that it is possible to love people who are not, and to know that they are not, and yet not feel that love any less keenly. And in that at least, Catherine Earnshaw and I have something in common.
So happy birthday Emily Brontë, with tremendous thanks. And if you’ve never read Wuthering Heights, or your memory of it is tainted by a GCSE English Literature paper, then why not check a copy out of your local library, and let me know if you’re a lover or a hater.