Dec 13, 2006

One book, one reader, two reactions

Elizabeth Baines rereads Wuthering Heights.
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 was pretty fired up by Heathcliff and Cathy's passion as a teenager myself, which is why I think I'll be rereading the book sometime soon.

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