Wuthering Heights

So, Wuthering Heights has been the most recent book on mine and Stephanie’s Book List O’ Doom, and it’s only the second one I had been actually excited to read, as opposed to indifferent (Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, Paradise Lost) or dreading (Pilgrim’s Progress). I read Jane Eyre a million years ago and really loved it, and since Wuthering Heights is written by a Bronte sister about similar-ish material in the same era, I figured I’d probably enjoy it.

Sadly, not so much.

I certainly didn’t hate it; I gave it three stars on Goodreads (though I’d’ve rounded down to 2.5 if they’d’ve let me). The setting is in fact my favorite part; the moors, the crags, the windy hills and blooming gardens. The writing is that sort of period lovely prose that is beautiful if you’re into that sort of thing (I usually am), and tedious if you’re not. The plot itself is mostly interesting, though slow, as it follows two (kind of three) generations, and it definitely trends toward the melodramatic.

Spoilers ahead!

One thing that definitely made me struggle in the beginning was simply keeping the characters straight: Wikipedia has a helpful chart to sort them out for you. The story is told by one Ellen (Nelly) Dean, a housekeeper to both households alike in dignity, in fair Gimmerton, where we lay our scene (whoops, wrong book). We find out that she’s grown up as basically the foster sibling of Hindley Earnshaw, who has a notably younger sister Catherine Earnshaw, and ends up with a foster brother known only as Heathcliff.

The Earnshaws have some neighbors, the Lintons, who are much nicer than the rather awful Earnshaws, but whom are also pretty much totally hapless. But Catherine Earnshaw becomes Catherine Linton, and then has a daughter Catherine Linton, who marries her cousin Linton Heathcliff, and after his death, marries her other cousin Hareton Earnshaw to reverse her mother’s trip and move from being Catherine Linton to being Catherine Earnshaw, and… you get the picture.

This is the third book in a row to use some sort of “told later/by another person” device, and I find that interesting; we almost never do that these days, rather, we tell the action almost as it happens, sometimes even in present tense or first person. Wuthering Heights, though, is told by Nelly Dean to a visitor who happens to encounter the Earnshaws and Lintons in a series of incredibly long gossip sessions. Having a servant tell the story of course gives the narrator more omniscient abilities than would otherwise be the case, and works fine as a narrative device, but I’ll admit that Nelly Dean’s extreme lack of subtlety in her preferences to the characters took some getting used to.

I also feel that this book must have had a lot more punch when it was written. I really kept feeling that there was a lot going on with regard to English class politics and expected behaviors that was just wasted on me as a largely lower-class American. I’ve run into this before, and not just with British literature; there’s a certain type of fascination with the upper classes (or if you’re an American, celebrities) that I’ve just never quite grasped, and I think it means that there are some stories where I’m supposed to care more about people, or think better of them, because they’re either rich and/or famous (see also: Gatsby), and I really don’t, which pulls the emotional punch of the work a bit.

In any case, the real kicker for this book was that all of the characters are spineless at best, and actively horrible people at worst. It was hard for me to ever muster up enough sympathy to care what happened to them, even if I did stay interested in the plot, and that made it a less entertaining read than it might otherwise have been.

Up next: Vanity Fair!

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