Tomorrow (Wednesday 5/20) night at 8 PM Central Time, Coven Book Club will host a livetweet of the Masterpiece Classics rendition of Wuthering Heights, starring Charlotte Riley and Thomas Hardy. Please join us, using the hashtag #WHeightsLT. In anticipation of our event, Maria and Allison will whet your appetite with some fun facts about the book’s original reception and how its position in both popular and literary culture has evolved since 1847. Basically, this is a tribute post to all things Wuthering Heights.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights produced passionately strong reactions from reviewers when it was first published 1847 by Thomas Newby, along with Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. Reviewers disapproved of the violence and depravity depicted in the novel, but they also regarded it as an unusual and unprecedented text. The words “strange,” “power,” and “savage” reappear over and over again in early reviews of Wuthering Heights. Here are some excerpts (I’ve put the repeated words in bold):
“Wuthering Heights is a strange, inartistic story.”
“We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity” (283).
Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper:
“Wuthering Heights is a strange sort of book.”
“We strongly recommend all our readers who love novelty to get the story, for we can promise them that they never have read anything like it before. It’s very puzzling and very interesting” (285).
“This is a strange book. It is not without evidence is of considerable power; disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages ruder than those who lived before the days of Homer” (285).
There are scenes of savage wildness in nature which though they inspire no pleasurable sensation, we are yet well satisfied to have seen. . . .It is humanity in this wild state that the author of Wuthering Heights essays to depict. His work is strangely original” (288).
In the years since its first publication, Wuthering Heights has become universally acknowledged as a classic. During the last century alone, numerous critics have analyzed the intricate narrative structure, strangely desolate setting, and the highly repetitive plot, exploring the uncanny, metaphysical, and existential aspects of the novel. It has also become an integral part of popular culture: it’s a staple in literature classes across the country and has generated a number of retellings, films, parodies, and even a pop song (Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”). Even those who have not read the novel are familiar with the iconic images of the brooding, mysterious hero and the gloomy, windswept moors. When the novel first appeared in 1847, Heathcliff and Catherine’s tempestuous relationship was often disturbing and puzzling to readers, but the general public has come to regard the novel as the definitive love story, and its protagonists as the symbol of everlasting love (more on that later).
However, none of this would have happened without Charlotte Brontë. Without her encouragement, Wuthering Heights would never have been published, and without the connection to the immensely popular Jane Eyre (via the fictitious surname Bell), it would not have been republished in 1850 for a much larger audience. Although all the Brontë siblings displayed artistic tendencies and were prolific writers, it was Charlotte who encouraged Anne and Emily to consider publishing their poetry and fiction. Emily was the most resistant to the suggestion, and apparently took quite a bit of persuading (imagine a world without Wuthering Heights!). Anne and Emily finally acquiesced, and the three sisters published Poems in 1846 under the pseudonyms Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell. It sold 2 copies. But Charlotte was not discouraged. She convinced her sisters to submit manuscripts to publishers.
In a strange twist of fate, Emily and Anne’s manuscripts were accepted for publication (in a single volume), but Charlotte’s, The Professor, was rejected by all the publishers she submitted it to. Ultimately, this was for the best because Charlotte ended up working with a far more reputable and scrupulous publisher (Smith, Elder). They agreed to publish Jane Eyre in 1847 and it was an instant critical and commercial success, which gave Charlotte quite a bit of leverage. She used her newfound status to convince her publisher to reprint Poems and Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights (again as a single volume). The success of Jane Eyre prompted critics to revisit Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, partially because they believed all three to be the work of one author. The Brontë sisters’ decision to publish under pseudonyms created quite a bit of confusion and speculation about the identity and gender of the author(s). In the Norton Critical 4th edition, the editor Richard Dunn notes, “Wuthering Heights would not have gained stature and even remained in print for many years had not Jane Eyre been such an instant and continuing sensation.”
Unfortunately, by the time Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights were republished in 1850, both Emily and Anne had died of consumption. Charlotte became the editor of her sisters’ work, and the protector of their legacy. As Dunn indicates, it’s thanks to Charlotte that anything written by Emily and Anne has survived. No drafts or proofs of the 1st edition of Wuthering Heights remain- Dunn notes, “nothing [from Wuthering Heights] remains directly from Emily’s hand.”
When Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were republished in 1850, Charlotte wrote a biographical notice and a preface for Wuthering Heights specifically. The biographical notice clarified that Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell were, in fact, 3 different people. The preface responded to the initial reviews (and criticism) of Wuthering Heights. The preface has always struck me as a bit odd. It’s elliptical and filled with hypotheticals; Charlotte engages in quite a bit of rhetorical gymnastics in an attempt to persuade the reader that Emily was innocent, immature, and heavily influenced by her environment (the moors). She claims Heathcliff, Catherine, and the other characters were products of Emily’s imagination (perhaps to squash speculation that they were based on real people), and that “having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done.” That’s right. Charlotte claims Emily was so naïve that she had no idea that people would be shocked or horrified by what she had written. I find it hard to believe that in a household that endured so much tragedy and darkness, including the death of one parent (Maria Brontë), two daughters (Maria and Elizabeth Bronte), and the alcoholism and opium addiction of the only son, Branwell Brontë (who also died of consumption), that Emily was a wide-eyed ingénue.
In her preface, Charlotte attempts to tell the readers how to interpret Wuthering Heights, to guide them in a way that Emily chose not to do. For those readers who were disturbed by the amorality of the main characters, she writes, “For a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity, look at the character of Nelly Dean.” Hmmm. When Nelly describes her first encounter with young Heathcliff, referring to him as “it,” she explains that since Catherine and Hindley were unwilling to share their bed with him, she “put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone by the morrow.” So, look at Nelly, except for the part where she treats a young orphan like a stray animal.
Charlotte engages in a practice that has become common for readers of Wuthering Heights (and consumers of its themes and imagery). She is rewriting, or revising, the novel by glossing over the darkest and most troublesome (especially to an audience in 1850) parts. However, the fundamental problem with this is that Heathcliff and Catherine are at the heart of the novel, and there is no redemption for either of them. Emily is unapologetic in her depiction of their love as a destructive force that corrupts all that it touches. When Lockwood, the first narrator, stays in Thrushcross Grange, he (in a dream-state) opens a window to grab a branch that has been tapping against it. Instead, what grabs hold of his arm is a child’s hand-a child who claims to be Catherine. His reaction? “I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes.” His instinct is to preserve himself and destroy the other creature; not to rescue it. This incredibly violent and disturbing scene takes place directly after Lockwood has read the late Catherine’s diary. There’s no need to summarize Heathcliff’s behavior, for even Charlotte acknowledges “Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition.” But, I want to draw attention to one scene in particular, just after Linton’s funeral. Heathcliff gets the gravedigger to open Catherine’s (who has been dead for quite some time at this point) coffin. He tells Nelly, “I thought, once, I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again—it is hers yet—[the gravedigger] had hard work to stir me.” Maybe it’s just me, but it’s hard to see Heathcliff’s desire to remain with Catherine’s (probably rotting) corpse as romantic. It’s deeply unsettling, which is also how Nelly Dean sees it, asking him, “were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?” Consider this scene when you see Wuthering Heights touted as a great love story. It seems to me that the proliferation and recirculation of imagery and themes from Wuthering Heights has diluted, or obscured, the darkness of the story itself. That said, I still enjoy the retellings, film adaptations, and songs that pay homage to the classic (Kate Bush’s song is too catchy to dislike).
Let’s take a look at the ways in which Wuthering Heights has been incorporated into popular culture:
Maryse Conde is a Guadeloupean author who writes in French. The original title of her novel was La Migration des coeurs (loosely translated as “the Migration of Hearts”). Her husband and translator, Richard Philcox suggested they change the title to connect the book more directly with Wuthering Heights. I had the opportunity to speak to Maryse Conde when she gave a talk at Smith College in 2008, and when someone asked her why she decided to do a retelling of Wuthering Heights, she said that when she read it for the first time as a young girl, it moved her and touched her heart. Conde’s novel takes place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Caribbean. The plot is closely linked to historical events, such as the Spanish-American war, and the abolition of slavery in Cuba.
Here on Earth is set in the late twentieth century in the small fictional town of Jenkintown, Massachusetts. Hoffman uses the basic plot of Wuthering Heights to explore issues of verbal and physical abuse, including rape, and alcoholism. Here on Earth was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club in 1998, and made the New York Times bestseller list. Although many of the eleven novels Hoffman wrote before Here on Earth were bestsellers, Here on Earth was the first one selected for Oprah’s book club.
Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” was released in 1978 as the debut single on her debut album, The Kick Inside. It was an instant sensation, becoming a #1 hit on the singles charts in the UK. Almost 40 years later, the numerous covers done by musicians in a variety of genres are a testament to its enduring popularity. I’ve included some of my favorite covers below, in addition to the original.
Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”
Puppini Sisters Cover
Josh Pyke Cover:
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain cover
There have been at least eleven television and film adaptations of Wuthering Heights and a great many of the trailers are incredibly amusing. So much slapping.
1920: “Wuthering Heights is a 1920 British silent drama film directed by A.V. Bramble and starring Milton Rosmer, Colette Brettel and Warwick Ward. It is the first film adaptation made of the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Its survival status is classified as unknown, and is considered to be a lost film.” -Wikipedia
1939: “Wuthering Heights is a 1939 American black-and-white film directed by William Wyler and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. It is based on the novel, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The film depicts only sixteen of the novel’s thirty-four chapters, eliminating the second generation of characters. The novel was adapted for the screen by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston. The film won the 1939 New York Film Critics Award for Best Film. It earned nominations for eight Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Actor. The 1939 Academy Award for Best Cinematography, black-and-white category, was awarded to Gregg Toland for his work. In 2007, Wuthering Heights was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” – Wikipedia
Lots of slapping!
1953: Developed by the BBC for a program known as “Sunday Night Theatre,” a live television broadcast of a variety of plays. Wuthering Heights aired in season 4. It was directed by Rudolph Cartier, starring Richard Todd and Yvonne Mitchell.
1954: “Wuthering Heights (The original Spanish title is Abismos de pasión) is a (1954) Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel.The 1954 film was produced by Óscar Dancigers and Abelardo L. Rodríguez. The movie starred Irasema Diliánand Jorge Mistral as the Cathy and Heathcliff characters.” – Wikipedia
1970: Directed by Robert Fuest, starring Anna Calder-Marshall and Timothy Dalton.
1978: “Starring Ken Hutchison, Kay Adshead, Pat Heywood, and John Duttine, originally broadcast on BBC Two as a 5-part mini-series, beginning 24 September 1978. Location filming took place on the Yorkshire Moors. This BBC version is regarded as being the one most faithful to the original novel; although it does not end with Cathy’s death, but continues into the next generation, with Heathcliff seeking revenge against those he felt had wronged him.” – Wikipedia
This isn’t a trailer, but a cut of scenes from the series, set to Kate Bush’s song, which came out the same year. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of slapping.
1988: A Japanese adaptation of Wuthering Heights, directed by Yoshishige Yoshida, that was entered in the1988 Cannes Film Festival.
If you want to watch the whole film, it’s here and has subtitles. There doesn’t seem to be much slapping in the first few minutes, but who knows? Maybe there’s some later.
2003: MTV adapted the novel, setting it in a modern day California. It stars Erika Christensen, Mike Vogel, Christopher Masterson, Katherine Heigl, John Doe, and Aimee Osbourne.
And of course, there’s the Monty Python Semaphore version of Wuthering Heights. Skip to 1:04 to see the funny:
Thanks so much for joining us today in our love of all things Wuthering Heights and we hope you’ll join us tomorrow for our livetweet!
All best until then,
Maria, Allison and all the CBC contributors