[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
Emily Brontë (1847)
Folio, 1991, bound in boards covered in green moiré, with slip-case; wood engravings by Peter Forster.
… and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. 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….
Wuthering Heights has passages like this that some English ladies – and I do mean ladies – that you might meet at Oxford know by heart. It has become part of the English psyche. It was the first and only novel of a young woman from Yorkshire who had probably scarcely been kissed by a man, and it fairly raises the question: just what did they put on the porridge of those young girls up there back then?
Emily Brontë was brought up in Yorkshire with a Celtic ancestry of an Irish father and a Cornish mother. Her father was an Anglican minister and the parsonage was the centre of the life of the family which included a sister, Charlotte. The girls went to a harsh Curates’ Daughters’ School but they had the run of their father’s library so that their education in literature was so much better than what modern children get – the Old Testament, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and the rest. The children’s mother died young, as was common in that time, and their aunt had a fiercely Calvinist view of the world. The children began creating their own tales and legends and creating their own worlds for those legends. They spent some time in Europe but they were unhappy away from the parsonage. The novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte came out two months before Wuthering Heights. They are very, very different books.
When you think of Wuthering Heights, think not of a novel. Think of Shakespeare – the passionate young Hamlet jumping into the grave in defiance of convention to embrace the dead body of a woman who went mad and then killed herself when Hamlet so coldly and cruelly rejected her; think of King Lear, plunged into madness by his sustained rage at being rejected by the one woman he loved; think of Othello, tipped over the brink of madness by the thought that the young, white woman he loved was not true to him; think of Macbeth, who allows the woman he loves to push him so that his ambition sends him and her to their respective hells; think of Malvolio, who is cruelly tricked into believing that his lady loves him and then is even more cruelly accused of being mad; think of Prospero, who uses his powers of magic to bring together those who had wronged him and then brings them undone – and then buries his magic.
Think of opera. Think of The Flying Dutchman, and the thumping romantic drive of the music of the sea by Wagner, and the story of a rejected loner doomed to roam alone until he finds redemption. Think of painting. Think above all of La Tempesta by Giorgione. Against a nocturnal European landscape, with sawn off pillars and odd buildings, and lightning in the sky, a young man in contemporary costume stands calmly watching over a nude woman suckling a child. Have you ever seen anything so enigmatic? What on earth can it mean? Or are we simply impertinent to seek to put into words what this great artist put on canvas? Well, then, why not just enjoy it?
Wuthering Heights is the story of a man despised and rejected of men, who is then rejected by the woman he loves, and who sets out to and does get revenge upon the whole pack of them, but who then, in the emptiness of his achievement, is reconciled to the memory of the woman he loved.
Catherine and Heathcliff get close roaming the wild moors, exulting in nature and their momentary freedom. One day they raced down to look in on the Grange. Heathcliff won the race. Catherine went barefoot. It is four miles each way. Heathcliff says that they peeked through a window and ‘we laughed outright at the petted things’. Were they really wild ones?
Cathy tells Nelly of her love for Heathcliff in the passage set out above. When Heathcliff overhears her saying she will marry Edgar Linton he quits the house. Cathy then goes on, speaking to Nelly in what might be the crux of the novel: ‘Who is to separate us, pray? They’ll meet the fate of Milo!…. Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married we should be beggars? Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise and place him out of my brother’s power.’
Heathcliff returns after many years, rich and powerful. Edgar Linton has very good reasons to fear Heathcliff. Cathy is desperate for Edgar to receive Heathcliff, and we have one of the few funny moments in the book. Edgar thinks it will be appropriate for the servant (Heathcliff) to be seen in the kitchen. Cathy says she cannot sit in the kitchen but Nelly could set two tables, one for Edgar and Miss Isabella, ‘being gentry’, and the other for Heathcliff and herself, being ‘the lower orders’.
The scenes between Cathy and Heathcliff on his return are the most blazing. ‘I meditated this plan just to have one glimpse of your face – and a stare of surprise, perhaps, and pretended pleasure; afterwards settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself.’
In their final argument Heathcliff looks to Nelly like a mad dog foaming at the mouth. There is a level of sustained hysteria not seen outside Dostoyevsky. Heathcliff and Cathy flay and lacerate each other like mad monks. It is like crossing Medea and Now, Voyager.
Has any other English writer unleashed emotional power – passion – like this? The fury that Heathcliff unloads on those who should have been close to him – for example his wife and his son – must unsettle any reader. Heathcliff twice refers to Cathy as a ‘slut’. Nelly got it right when she said they were ‘living among clowns and misanthropes’. But the more revenge and power that Heathcliff gets, the more empty becomes the shell of his life, and then we see that the second Cathy is looking to change things by being civilized.
For Heathcliff, God and Satan are one, and equally irrelevant, but somehow he manages to induce his own death, so that he can be at one in the ground with his Cathy. The novel ends in this way: ‘I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next to the moor –…I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and the harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’. It is so English, and so wild.
This book comes up at us like a novel of Christina Stead – like a rough uncut diamond. It is all rawness, and it is found in Yorkshire, of all places. Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet come at us from the mists of the past. (Charlotte found her male lead in Rochester in Jane Eyre – those Brontë girls sure liked their men strong and tough.) Our novel is altogether more modern. Heathcliff is the original angry young man who comes undone because his girl is not ready for him – Cathy prefers the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, with a little bit of bovver on the side.
Well, who could blame her? Heathcliff was a gypsy and he had all the makings of a real bastard. And yet we know that neither was ever going to find peace above the ground. How come, then, that Geoffrey Boycott was so boring?