Thursday, 29 September 2011

Wuthering Lows

It rained here the other night, and the wind blew fiercely. The leaves in Scotland have already begun to change and there is a chill in the air. So we lit a fire in the fireplace and the girls and I decided to watch Wuthering Heights. With the wind moaning in the chimneys and the rain lashing the trees, it seemed like good Wuthering Heights weather. The house was cozy, we had blankets and snacks and mugs of hot cocoa, and we were all prepared to be enchanted.

I'm not sure when we first started getting irritated with the characters, but it didn't take long.

"Drama queen," one of my three girls murmured after one of Catherine Earnshaw's tantrums. "Spoiled brat," another one muttered under her breath.

I've read Wuthering Heights at least three times. Why didn't I remember how headstrong and volatile Catherine Earnshaw was? Why didn't any of her reckless bursts of rage stay with me?

"What a jerk," my youngest daughter said as Heathcliff threw his weight around, swearing and tormenting everybody in his family.

And Heathcliff really was a jerk, so why didn't I remember that either? As a teenager, I came away from Wuthering Heights as besotted with him as foolish Isabella Linton, his much-abused wife. How could I have been so stupid?

"He's not even handsome," one of the girls muttered. "And even if he was, he's a total dickwit."

As we kept watching, even less flattering, unprintable things were said about him and his true love, Catherine Earnshaw. I listened to their conversation with interest:

They're such losers. They're totally spoiled and selfish. No wonder they're so crazy about each other, and They ought to just shut up and get married to each other. They don't deserve the people they're married to. And even though I've been a Wuthering Heights fan since the first time I read it, I totally agreed with them.

Heathcliff and Catherine should have eloped and lived a life of blissful poverty until the first baby came along and threw them into confusion. Neither of them being the nurturing, selfless type, parenthood would probably have turned them into the kind of ill-tempered, sour-faced people you see snapping at their kids and each other in public places, but at least they'd have only made each other miserable. There would have been no story then, but after an hour of Catherine's tears and fits and Heathcliff's swearing and cruelty, that hardly seemed like a raw deal.

We watched as much of it as we could bear, finally turning it off just before Catherine Earnshaw-Linton died in childbirth (Good riddance to her, too. Prat.) In the end, the only person we could all stand was Nelly Dean, the housekeeper. We all loved Nelly Dean, a woman who was compassionate, intelligent, and useful. Who didn't make the wrong choices and then spend her life making everybody around her miserable, whining and moaning and agonizing over it. Who didn't destroy a perfectly good pillow and leave it for somebody else (Nelly) to clean up.

I still think Wuthering Heights is a great book. But I marvel that I could ever have been moved by Heathcliff's smothering, destructive, obsessive love for Catherine, or that I could ever have thought her emotional dependence on him was romantic.

We put the Wuthering Heights disc away and watched Up instead. I watched the girls laughing and crying, and I said a little prayer of thanks that my girls are a lot smarter than I was.


tanita davis said...

I feel shame, as an English major, to have hate, hate, hate, HATED the whole Healthcliff-on-the-moors thing. But, I also hated bloody Catcher in the Rye. I don't do well with whiners, so even Ethan Fromm tries my patience.

Whiny classics. Bah.

Keep in mind, too, that the recent novel series/film/carwreck Twilight books raises Wuthering Heights as a classic works of literaturrrre, and HarperTeen put out another edition with a cover so much like Twilight's iconic apple/rose thing that it started a whole new generation of girls reading them, as if searching anew for sparkly, sparkly Edward Vampire everywhere...

Again: Bah.

Linnhe Mara said...

I like revisiting favourite books from my teenage years. It lets me know how much I've grown!
Wuthering heights is still one of me favourites but it's the romance between young Catherine and Hareton that I feel most empathy with.

Vijaya said...

I've never liked the dark broody types ... and as a teenager never understood why anybody else would, either. I'm with your girls, Mary.

Anne M Leone said...

How funny revisiting something you loved from your childhood and finding yourself viewing it so differently. I've actually been meaning to reread WH. I HATED it as a teenager, but wondered if it would age better. Maybe not. ;)

Did you see this article about Jane Eyre types vs. WH types? Made me laugh.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tell you, watching some one else's visualization of a book you love can surely ruin it for you.

Mary Witzl said...

Tanita -- NOW I remember who I had that conversation with! At the time, I was amazed that anybody could NOT have liked WH. But now that you've mentioned it, Heathcliff is very much a prototype for Twilight's Edward -- the kind of idiotic 'we were born for each other' hero who would climb into your very grave and might as well be a creepy stalker. You've always had the sense to see through that nonsense; how did I get girls who were so smart? (Maybe people like you rubbed off on them. ;o)

Linnhe -- I agree, but they were cousins! I remember being a little grossed out by that when I was younger.

Now I'm afraid to go back and reread the books I loved as a teenager. Part of me wants to know how much I've grown, but part of me wants to keep my good memory of the classics.

Vijaya -- Fortunately, I'm with my girls too now. But there was a time when I thought Heathcliff was quite a mysterious and romantic figure. Now I'm just pleased and relieved to know that my daughters managed to skip this stage.

Anne -- I'm amazed to find out how many people didn't like Wuthering Heights. If I hadn't seen the film the other night, I'd never have had this revelation.

I think I've read that Guardian article -- it rings a bell -- but clearly I need to go back and read it again. I've always loved both of these novels, but my guess is that I'm more of a Jane Eyre type now.

Charles -- I think my reaction WAS partly based on the adaptation: they really hammed it up. But even if they hadn't, Catherine and Heathcliff would have gotten on my nerves, I'm sure of it.

Mirka Breen said...

Heathcliff is a tragic figure in every way. It helped that he was also Lawrence Olivier. Talk about charisma.
Styles have changed. My daughter could not relate to Gable’s Rhett Butler. (“Yuk, greasy hair!”)

Funny and poignant post, Mary. You made my morning coffee taste good!

Anonymous said...

The most recent BBC iteration of Jane Eyre works much better (although in the interests of the budget, they cut a lot of the fun stuff). I was going to re-read Jane to compare & contrast, but have started WH instead, now that you have piqued my curiosity!

Marcia said...

Oh my gosh, I hated Wuthering Heights the first (and only) time I read it. I so loved Jane Eyre that I was expecting to enjoy another Bronte book as well. Not! I told a friend how much I hated the book, and that I was surprised by that, and she (an English major) surprised me further by agreeing. "Isn't it horrible?" she said. (Like you, she meant the characters, not the literary quality of the novel.) I'm a romantic sort, but I've always been a sucker for nice guys. The dark, brooding, volatile types leave me cold and always have.

But the first paragraph, where you all cozy-in to watch the movie, sounds wonderful.

angryparsnip said...

How funny that through blogs we connect... I thought was the only one who despised Wutherng Hights although I loved Jane Eyre. I so agree with what @tanita davis said... Ethan Fromm almost killed me.

But then I think I am the only woman in the world who never liked Titanic and the Twilight hysteria plus don't like chocolate either.

Love that you put the cozy evening to good use and watched UP. I watched the 1995 The Little Princess last night. Love the scene when the window blows open and a light snow blows in with Sara turning and between the music and the light that scene chokes me up every time. Absolutely perfect.

Oh weather side note, here in Tucson our fabulous fall weather is starting 90/70 perfect !

I so look forward to your posts !

cheers, parsnip

Kit said...

The bright light of modern practical thinking on the gothic romance of ages past!! I remember reading Wuthering Height for school and getting rather frustrated that they didn't just get on with it. Glad your girls are so together in the face of male (and female) dysfunctional behaviour!
I'm steering well clear of teenage vampire novels - hope my girls turn out to be as smart as yours.

inluvwithwords said...

After my obsession with Jane Eyre, and my mother telling me that Wuthering Heights had been her favorite book in high school, I read it with high hopes. But I felt much like you and your daughters as you watched the movie. I didn't like the characters at all and really didn't care what became of them. So disappointing. My next read was Charlotte Bronte's Villete, and it became an eternal favorite!

Mary Witzl said...

Mirka -- Clark Gable DID have greasy hair, didn't he? Other people's ideas about romantic heroes have always amazed me. Years ago, other girls thought Captain Kirk on StarTrek was swoon-worthy. I never let on that for me it was a tough choice between Captain Sulu and Mr Spock.

Anne -- I've reread Jane Eyre quite recently, so I'm confident that my love for her remains undiminished. But I've also read Jean Rhy's Wide Saragossa Sea, which gives you an entirely different view of the story, and which I definitely recommend.

Jane is a much better character than Catherine. She has backbone and ethics and incredible courage, and she doesn't spend all her time whining and angsting about how her life went the wrong way.

Marcia -- If there had been a bit more kindness and vulnerability in Heathcliff, I think he would have been a much more sympathetic character. But he is so full of anger and blame, so selfish and bent on destroying everyone else's happiness, including his own children's, that he is ruined for me. I can't believe I used to think he was remotely appealing. So I'm finally a firm, if late, member of the Hates Heathcliff club. I'm so glad my girls felt like this straight away!

Parsnip -- (Making a mental note to go and read Ethan Frome to see what is so awful about it.) Both Titanic and Twilight have done nothing for me; I saw only snippets of Titanic and I fell asleep during the Twilght movie, having failed to manage even one chapter of the book. But I can count the number of chocolate-hating people I've met on one hand. I'm so envious! I'm sure I'd be 20 lbs lighter if I had the same condition.

Kit -- Everybody was a lot more sensible and discerning than I was, getting frustrated with Catherine and Heathcliff -- her inability to make a choice and be done with it and his inability to let things go and move on. I remember feeling sympathetic the first two times I read it, but clearly I've changed. Better late than never.

InLuv -- I've never read Vilette, though I picked it up once on a trip years ago and remember being intrigued by the first few pages. With your recommendation, I'm now determined to find it and finish it.

Bish Denham said...

Wuthering Hights drove me crazy when I read it and when I've seen the various film versions. It is the story of a dysfunctional family and it just makes my skin crawl.

MG Higgins said...

I've never read Wuthering Heights, but have seen a couple of filmed versions which nicely get across the attraction to dark brooding types. When the book was written, strict societal norms must have created all kinds of dysfunction that we don't understand today. Hooray to your girls for NOT relating to it.

Pat said...

I wonder what they make of Romeo and Juliet, Eloise and Abelard and all the other star-crossed lovers in literature, ballet and opera?
Clark Gable may have had lank hair and nowadays - in the character of Rhett Butler - could be described as a rapist, but way back in the forties/fifties when he snatched up Vivien Leigh and mounted the stairs with her, we melted.

Anonymous said...

Oh thank you! I found the characters irritating as h*** even when we did WH in school back in the late 80s, and never found anyone else who shared my views, so decided I was incapable of appreciating "real romance" - a view compounded by the fact that I was irritated by Gone with the Wind as well :) Titanic and twilight, I decided to stay far away from the movies, and like you couldn't get past even one chapter the first Twilight book, so my romantic gene is clearly broken :)

ah well - practicality is so much more useful :)


Anonymous said...

How funny. I HATE Wuthering Heights and have long felt its only worth was to give us all a reason to yell CATHY! on really windy nights. I never could see how it became a classic, frankly. But then, I also hated Titanic. WHO has a 3 day affair in her 20s that so affects her that she throws a priceless jewel into the OCEAN 80 years later while hardened men look on and smile sentimentally? Ugh. Gave women a bad name, I felt.
Thank you for this chance to vent ;) And to feel very connected to some of your other readers, who feel the same way! Truly the internet is a wonderful place.

Carole said...

Also not a fan of Wuthering Heights so never watched the film version. Now I will never have to. Thank you.