Friday, December 27, 2013

Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights

A blurb: Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine's father. After Mr Earnshaw's death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine's brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries.

The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

The book: Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights was published, under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, in 1847 (a year before her death) and was reedited by Charlotte Brontë and released posthumously as a second edition in 1850. Now you might be wondering why I am looking at it here? Many will know it as a dark, gothic piece of fiction with the rather Byronic Heathcliff (I find the idea that he might be classed as a hero or even an anti-hero doesn’t sit right with me, he most certainly is a villain), others will know the 1939 film with Laurence Olivier (Dracula), Merle Oberon and David Niven (Vampira), and some will only really know it from the classic song by Kate Bush.

The book is narrated by a tenant of Heathcliff’s, Mr Lockwood, who through much of the book relays the narration of a servant of the two buildings in the book (Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange) named Nelly Dean. Nelly wonders about Heathcliff, towards the end of the book, “Is he a ghoul or a vampire?” Though she herself goes on to suggest that this is, “absurd nonsense”.

However if we look to the work of Carol A Senf (The Vampire in 19th Century English Literature) we will see that vampires, as well as in vampire stories in their own right, were sometimes invoked in other literature. Senf points out that books such as Middlemarch, Bleak House and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre all mention vampires. Jane Eyre likens Bertha (Rochester’s insane first wife) to “the foul German spectre – the Vampyre”. The three books mentioned are clear in the fact that their reference to someone being like a vampire does not make them supernatural. Senf points out that, despite Nelly Dean saying otherwise, Emily Brontë does not clarify that point. Indeed Nelly Dean goes on to say that both Heathcliff (who is dead at this point) and his erstwhile love Catherine are said to be seen abroad on the moors. For instance a boy leading sheep and a couple of lambs will not pass a point, neither will his animals, because “There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’nab,”

So, is there any other evidence? Lockwood, at the beginning of the novel, is forced (because of the weather) to stay at Wuthering Heights (a farmhouse). He is shown to the erstwhile room of Cathy. Now we should note that there are two Catherine’s in the novel. The first Catherine is a headstrong young woman, she and Heathcliff love each other but she marries Edgar Linton. The second Catherine is her daughter, the elder Cathy died giving birth to her. Heathcliff forces the younger Catherine to marry his son later in the novel… But, getting back to Lockwood, he reads some of Catherine’s journal before going to sleep, but in the night a branch tapping at the window disturbs him. He cannot open the window and so breaks the glass and goes to grab the branch when a hand grabs him. The owner, describing herself as Catherine Linton (her married name, and Brontë makes the point that Lockwood had read her name much more as Earnshaw, her maiden name) says she has come home after being lost on the moors. To try and get her off him, he cuts her wrist (which bleeds) on the broken glass. Catherine, at that point, is long dead and, despite having read part of her journal, Lockwood is a stranger to the area. Though this may have been a nightmare both Lockwood and Heathcliff clearly believe the visitation to be real, the fact that Lockwood cut her wrist suggests she was corporeal.

As we learn Heathcliff’s story we hear that he is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy” and is a child found by Catherine’s father on a trip to Liverpool and brought into their home. He is very much, then, a foundling and a representation of the other – which, of course, the vampire often represents. We never discover – during the period of time he is absent from the area – how he makes his fortune. We do discover that he has a violent temper and, with regard Edgar Linton, he suggests if it wasn’t for Catherine, he “would have torn his heart out, and drunk his blood!” When she is buried Heathcliff replaces a lock of Linton’s hair with his own, to be placed in the grave with her.

Before her death, however, Catherine has promised Heathcliff that “I’ll not lie there by myself: they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me, but I won’t rest till you are with me. I never will.” As it is, when Linton eventually dies and is to be buried with his coffin next to his wife’s, Heathcliff confesses that he opened Catherine’s coffin (we are some 16 years past her death at this point) and she was incorrupt (though the sexton suggests the corpse would corrupt if the wind blew on it). Of course an incorrupt corpse was a sign of vampirism. Heathcliff also arranges that, when he dies, Linton’s coffin should be pulled away and his slid next to hers – as “you’ll have a better chance of keeping me underground, when I get there.

Heathcliff, at one point, is described as having “sharp cannibal teeth”. However in his last days he is said to have a “ghastly paleness” and he describes being “animated with hunger; and, seemingly, I must not eat.” This seems like he is becoming a vampire and further, whilst admitting that I was perhaps reading too much in and looking for vampires, I very much noted the description when his dead body is found: “no blood trickled from the broken skin”. Perhaps more noteworthy is the report by Nelly Dean that “I tried to close his eyes: to extinguish, if possible, that frightful, life-like gaze of exultation before any one else beheld it. They would not shut: they seemed to sneer at my attempts; and his parted lips and sharp white teeth sneered too!

Senf argues that Brontë was familiar “with the vampire motif” and uses the work of Twitchell (the Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature) to argue this point. The arguments do seem compelling, however I also understand that we are reading her work with modern eyes. If she was familiar with the motif then a couple of other points in the book also stand to be scrutinised. Catherine’s sister-in-law dies not long after giving birth to her son Hindley and the doctor suggests “she’s been in a consumption these many months.” We are familiar with the fact that consumption (tuberculosis) was being connected with vampirism and there were actual exhumations and a vampire panic in the United States contemporary with this book. Is this casual mention evidential that the connection between “consumption's vampire grasp” was more widely known or is that a connection too far? Likely the latter but Heathcliff does say, on the death of Catherine’s brother, “‘Correctly,’ he remarked, ‘that fool’s body should be buried at the cross-roads, without ceremony of any kind.” That could only be in reference to preventing the return of the dead.

So there we have it, the classic literature that is Wuthering Heights. Perhaps Senf, and therefore myself, are reading too much in. But looking at it with modern eyes it certainly suggests itself as a book with vampirism at its heart.

7 comments:

JaredMithrandir said...

This reminds me how Paul Feval's "Companions of the Treasure" of his "The Blackcoats" saga is kind of the opposite of what we're used to. It's a book that does not offically classify as Paranormal in any way, but as Stableford epxlains in the Afterward it's plot ONLY makes sense if.... well I don't want to spoil it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Jared

You have me there as I haven't read "Companions of the Treasure" but that dichotomy does seem to go for several examples of mid-19th century literature

JaredMithrandir said...

I've seen people describe Jane Austen's "Lady Susan" as being like a female Heathclif.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

My wife is the Austin fan, I'm afraid I'm not too knowledgable on her works

Taliesin_ttlg said...

to the point that I spelt Austen wrong!!! lol

fenris said...

I know of at least two recent novels that give Wuthering Heights a full vampire makeover: Wuthering Bites by Sarah Gray, and Heathcliff, Vampire of Wuthering Heights which is credited as 'by Emily Bronte, adapted by Amanda Paris'.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers for the info Fenris