Out on the wiley, windy moors,
We’d roll and fall in green
You had a temper, like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me?
When I needed to possess you…..
As we arrived at the venue for the discussion, the lock drew back and the door creaked open. “Enter”, exclaimed our host, warmly. “Thank you”, we replied, nervously. “Would you like a drink”, he continued, perspicaciously. “We have brought some ale”, interjected a colleague, thirstily. “Come in and sit down”, he exclaimed, tartly. “I have no more adverbs. Ms Brontë may help us as she has plenty to spare, but I can certainly find a bottle opener”. And so we assembled in the living room, some of us with our backs to an exposed, un-shuttered window that seemed to invite a ghostly presence. We fingered our fiction, feverishly. We began.
This is clearly one of the most influential novels in the English Language, and not just on the 1978 Kate Bush song and performance recorded on film. This is a book selected by the Guardian in 2003 as the 17th greatest novel of all time, one ahead of Jane Eyre, no less, although one has to suspect the compilers have only read English language classics. Is the novel influential because of its inherent quality, its unusual claustrophobic setting and quasi-Gothic atmosphere, the associated tragedies of the Brontë family, or more recently, the many filmed treatments? Is the Monthly Book Group qualified to offer an opinion? The answer to this last question is almost certainly “No”, especially when viewed against the many literary theses from the many English Literature departments in the many Universities, but herein is recorded an inaccurate record of the discussion.
Our host introduced the author and the book. The history of the gifted Brontës is well known, and is not repeated at length here. Emily was born on July 30th 1818 at Thornton, Bradford and survived the loss of her mother and two of her sisters to live a rather secluded existence in Haworth, after unhappy experiences at educational establishments in England and abroad. None of the literary Brontës lived to a ripe old age, possibly due to the insanitary water supply. One of us gave the startling information that the life expectancy in Haworth was then 25!
Of early significance was the collaboration between Emily, Charlotte and Anne to write and publish a book of poems following early youthful efforts in an imaginary world, Gondal. The poems were published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, which prompted discussion about prejudice against women authors, as Mary Ann Evans slightly later used the pen name “George Eliot” to ensure her books were taken seriously. However, there were already many examples of women publishing as women, such as Mrs Radcliffe. Jane Austen, who predated Emily Brontë, published her books anonymously “by a lady”. It was said that only three copies of the poems were sold, which is probably less than Pam Ayres, not included in the Guardian listing of the best poets to the best of our knowledge.. Our host informed us that a signed copy of the Bronte work still existed, and he recommended Emily’s poetry. From “A death scene”:
He cannot leave thee now,
While fresh west winds are blowing,
And all around his youthful brow
Thy cheerful light is glowing!
Familiar to those who have read the novel?
Anyway, it is thought that Emily started the novel in 1845; it was published in 1847. Emily died a year later at age 30. Subsequently, Mrs Gaskell wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë, covering all the siblings.
One of the group suggested that the unique place of the novel owes so much the cloistered imagination dominating realism, as the extraordinary behaviour and circumstances of the participants tend to the supernatural. To a large extent this may have arisen out of their family circumstances. Certainly, ill health dominates the novel.
The proposer continued that he had been inspired to read the novel initially at age 17, following a visit to Haworth, before the Yorkshire Tourist Board defined it as ‘Brontë country’. He suggested the development of Heathcliff as a psychopath, and showed how the complete action stemmed from the impulse of Mr Linton to bring Heathcliff into the family. There was some discussion about whether Heathcliff was really Linton’s child out of wedlock, of which more later. It was not clear whether such ambiguity was clever and deliberate, or whether it arose from reluctance by the author to be more explicit.
Following this point, there was much discussion about the ambiguity of the several names of the intertwined families, and the difficulties in keeping track of Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliffs, as exemplified by the many surnames of Catherine on the ledge observed by Lockwood at the beginning of chapter 3. Certainly, this reader had to keep referring to the family tree.
Then again, there was the apparently contradictory parentage of Hareton and Linton. Although Hareton is supposedly the son of Hindley and Frances, he is dark in complexion and with the behavioural traits of Heathcliff. So we may reasonably suppose that Heathcliff was his biological father, supported by the fact that Heathcliff caught baby Hareton when Hindley ‘accidentally’ dropped him. Isabella notes that he has “a look of Catherine [Earnshaw] in his eyes”. Again, Linton did not have any Heathcliff characteristics, being pale and lacking in energy, so perhaps Hindley was intended to be the biological father. There is a famous line in which Cathy realises she is destined to be at one with Heathcliff, in death if not in life. “I am Heathcliff”.
So the questions arise. Was there an affair between Frances and Heathcliff to beget Hareton, and between Hindley and Isabella to produce Linton, based on the relative health and complexions? All sorts of other possible relationships were suggested. “Cousins were fair game” declared one of our group, with an air of experience.
The conversation turned to Nelly Dean, the unreliable(?) narrator. The pub song came some 60 years later, but no connection has been established! It was suggested that Nelly was the one stable and perceptive character in the book; although sometimes she did not appear to act rationally, for example when imprisoned she failed to alert the visiting servants. The unusual structure of the book was mentioned, as the story was related through Nelly to Lockwood to the reader. Did this further add to the mystery and uncertainty?
To what extent is the heroines’ behaviour ruled by social convention? Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar rather than Heathcliff was noted. On the other hand, Isabella ran off with Heathcliff at age 19. Was this an illegal marriage? Our resident historians embarked on lengthy discussion, but I am unsure of the conclusion. Catherine and Heathcliff were never really engaged in a sexual relationship, we assume, and as noted above one could speculate that they may have been related. Initially Catherine misused Heathcliff as she was the supremely self confident and dominant partner. However, Heathcliff was changed by his time away and the relationship changed. Again, there is no certainty about his absence. When he returned, it did not seem to some of us that he was motivated by revenge at the outset. Yet, did he now think of Catherine as a possession? Ultimately, Cathy formed a relationship with Hareton to defeat Heathcliff, although a more likely explanation was debated; he just lost his energy and drive. He had achieved his goals in acquiring both properties, and destroying the families. He wanted to be reunited with Cathy in death. Touching again on the ambiguity, Heathcliff is portrayed as the romantic hero, a mirror image of Catherine herself. The debates between Cathy and Nelly about Heathcliff are very telling in that regard.
It was time for dissenting voices. This is a novel about “stupid people doing stupid things”. For example, the section where Nellie fails to act when salvation is at hand from the searching servants defies belief. Lockwood was a complete “bampot”. Why did he go back on day 2? He had a shine on the younger Cathy. It was argued that the characterisation was also weak, the characters owing much to Hammer Film portrayals. This was caricature rather than character. Or is this too anachronistic? What about the preceding ‘Gothic novels’? To what extent did they influence this book? The one most people knew of was Shelley’s Franklenstein, written in 1818, A heated debate broke out; the room seemed to divide on geographical grounds with the proposer leading the debate to declare EB a very fine novelist as well as a poetess. There seemed to be general agreement on the evocative nature of the descriptions of the landscape, somewhat romanticised like the 19th century paintings that hang in the National Galleries, and so the perceived deficiencies were in characters, plot, and dialogue. Oh dear! At least she did not resort to ‘bampot’.
We returned again to the origins of Heathcliff. We talked of the common motif of the adopted child who behaves appallingly. Heathcliff was portrayed as an elemental force, of swarthy skin, a social and racial outcast, possibly a gypsy? In fact, Earnshaw brought back Heathcliff instead of a whip! Is he therefore a metaphorical whip? And so we turned to the Marxist analysis; Heathcliff as the oppressed; rises up against the state. A slightly modified version of ‘The Red Flag’ ensued; you probably know the words. What about some sign of solidarity with Joseph? What about his conversion to capitalism? Were the women no better than chattels?
Hold on. Here, we have three proud, spirited women – the two Cathies and Isabella. From a feminist point of view, what? All literature reveals how women are exploited. So Emily writes about this. The company was reeling from Marxism to feminism to alcoholism…
We turned to the animals; is this an apologue? Dogs are a much reiterated image; there were many metaphors about dogs. Returning to the alleged weak characters and claustrophobic family circumstances, one suggested that Emily knows more about dogs than people. The spot, Penistone Crags, in the hills is perhaps a metaphor for sex, which is rather absent in an explicit sense. Yet, does it end well? Heathcliff puts his hair in Cathy’s locket; Nellie twists them together in the locket. There is Cathy at the window, and so Heathcliff and Cathy reunited at the last. The thoughts, like this account, were assuming a rather random pattern. So,
Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy, come home
I’m so cold, let me in-a-your window
Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering,
Kate Bush and Emily Brontë have the same birthday. Maybe Kate is …….spooky or what?