So today, while sunny, has been a downer; snow melting into a dire mud that alarms eyes and soul to look at; coughing away the lingering cold I caught last week; couldn’t go see Mom because of illness–
And I need a place to escape my dreariness –where there is love that lasts to the edge of the grave and beyond, a world of passion and ghosts and wild wind and weather that echoes like nature itself is yearning for an eternal lover.
Today I yearn for a romance of heart and spirit, of two people who can declare they are each other–
And I reach for Wuthering Heights.
In Victorian England, where it was first published in 1847, Emily Bronte’s only novel was considered “brutal, dogged, and morose.” Her elder sister Charlotte, author of the initially more famous but less accomplished Jane Eyre, left a vivid word picture of a dying Emily chuckling at that description of her character. Part of the oddness stems from its setting, on the moors of West Yorkshire, among gentry and country folk more foreign to the sophisticates of London than another planet’s citizens would be to us.
What Emily Bronte did manage to do, in spite of all criticism (including Charlotte’s), was to create two immortal lovers, in the mysterious orphan Heathcliff and the willful beautiful Catherine Earnshaw, that no other novelist has come close to matching.
Told by a housekeeper named Ellen Dean to Heathcliff’s tenant, Mr. Lockwood, it is an extended fantasy rather than a coherent narrative, told in flashbacks, dreams, and ghostly visitations. The passion between Heathcliff and Cathy–who might be described as “two hearts that beat as one”–is as huge, elemental, earthy and all-consuming as the great moors that lie beyond the threshold of the Earnshaw home, the eponymous Wuthering Heights. Cued, perhaps, by Shakespeare’s quip “the course of true love never did run smooth,” the two are parted by her flighty insistence on marrying the pallid and rather sissy Edgar Linton instead of her beloved Heathcliff. Heathcliff runs away after overhearing her declaration “to marry (Heathcliff) would degrade me,” without hearing her further declaration, “I am Heathcliff.”
The most passionate and sensuous portion of the novel is in the middle, when Heathcliff returns to the Heights after an absence of three years, on which he is forever silent. He returns a wealthy man, gains ownership of the Heights by subterfuge, and sets out to destroy all who stand between him and Cathy. Torn to her very soul by the realization of her folly in having married Edgar Linton and by the enmity between her husband and her true love, Cathy falls dangerously ill. She recovers to some extent; she is pregnant with Linton’s child, but her strength never rallies to the point at which she can resume a normal life. Heathcliff, now married to her sister-in-law, the foolish childish Isabella, comes to visit her in early April 1784 to find her dying–and the scene that ensues is almost painfully erotic to read:
. . .in a stride or two [he] was at her side, and had her grasped in his arms. . .He neither spoke, nor loosed his hold, for some five minutes, during which period he bestowed more kisses than ever he gave in his life before, I daresay, but then (Cathy) had kissed him first. . .she was fated, sure to die. . .
Over the next several pages the two lovers–who never actually make love, such were Victorian conventions and, possibly, the realization of Emily Bronte herself, parson’s daughter though she was, that sometimes the most sensuous scenes stop far short of consummation,–berate each other over mutual faithlessness and wound each other with passions bigger than most humans will ever know.
. . .he turned to her, looking absolutely desperate. His eyes wide, and wet at last, flashed fiercely on her. . .An instant they held asunder. . .Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought [she] would never be released alive.”
Perhaps the most telling lines in the whole book are when Catherine says to Heathcliff, “How strong you are! How long do you mean to live after I am gone?” and his wail, once Nelly Dean has informed him of Catherine’s death: “. . .do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!. . .I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
In real life, we–at least the hopeless romantics among us–yearn to be swept away by a passion that huge, like an ocean wave that carries us away, lovers clinging to each other like drifting planks after a shipwreck. In the novel, Heathcliff lives for eighteen years after her death, a long agony during which he never sees his Cathy’s spirit, although Mr. Lockwood, the tenant, does. Lockwood is completely flipped out when he sees Heathcliff kneeling by the broken window where Lockwood suffered her visitation:
. . .He got onto the bed and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears.
“‘Come in! come in!’ he sobbed. ‘Cathy, do come. Oh, do–once more! Oh! my heart’s darling, hear me this time–Catherine, at last!'”
On a day like today, when despite the sun the world seems to lack color and passion, I’m swept away into this wild and passionate world, quite willingly.
I have seen more than one film and/or TV version of the book, but none of them quite do the novel justice. Better to settle into a corner and a dream and while away the afternoon in that wild insular world a minister’s spinster daughter birthed from a wild imagination. 😉