Monday, May 19, 2014

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Books written in the elevated prose of 19th century English literature have a certain charm. If you can get past the tuberculosis, syphilis, dysentery, kissing (and marrying) cousins, the writing, with its somewhat stilted syntax, has a certain seductive quality. Its graceful grammar, even the vocabulary, appeals to me in ways I can't really define or defend.

Partially due to my age, partially due to my love of language, I have a tendency to sound like a stuffed shirt when I should don the prose equivalent of the casual pullover. I'm inclined to receive when I should get, speak instead of talk. In casual conversation, I still distinguish can (what is possible) from may (what is allowed). And don't get me started on will and shall. Incidentally, this might explain, in part anyway, why I love reading Wodehouse and watching British comedies. Or maybe it's the other way round; spoiled on the stirring elocution of poets, I dread the brute with the bullhorn.

For whatever reason, the snob in me balks at the attitudinal contrast from yes to yeah; pardon? to huh?; perhaps to pfft; maybe to meh. And it's this difference, this speaking with authority versus sleepwalking, that stirs something within me to reject the limp tongue for the limpid. Call it indigestion. Blame my mother for blaring vinyls of Mozart and Beethoven to a babe confined to his crib, but this literary fetish, for good or ill, is real, and I'm happiest when well fed.

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, so it's steeped in the prim prose of that era. Planted in the Yorkshire moors, northern England, the story recounts the stark and tragic lives of two generations of families, related by way of a literary gimmick. You've probably seen it before. A protagonist walks into an inn and is treated to a fireside chat; or a wounded, bedridden soldier or sailor recuperates in either a private or military hospital and spins a yarn for his physical therapist; or an officer with too much free time tells a tale the patient patiently dictates. Whatever the relationship, whether Donaldon's “Ser Visal's Tale” or Conrad's Lord Jim, such stories depend upon both the impeccable memory of the narrator and the formidable stamina of the author who must inevitably postpone trips to the loo and often fast for the duration.

I celebrate artistic license. I'm a great practitioner of suspending disbelief. But in Heights, we see this gimmick in almost exaggerated form. Detailed exposition, as well as reams of dialogue no one could possibly recount with such precision decades after the events have unfolded, are conveyed by the housekeeper as if she were reading directly from her diary. This tests both the patience and the credulity of the reader.

For those who consider this novel a love story, I would ask them to disavow this notion and remember love's lesser, though more seductive, siblings: infatuation, lust, and obsession. A critic expressed a similar sentiment about Lolita, claiming it was perhaps the most convincing love story ever written. Lest we forget, love isn't abusive or callous. Those are corruptions of love. At its heart, love is a virtue, not a vice. The feelings or emotions that accompany love are not love itself but rather reflections of it, like the sun's light illuminating the moon or the flavor of food rather than the nourishment itself. Love is commitment, devotion. It inspires oaths. We sacrifice what we want for the needs of those we love. Neither Lolita nor Wuthering Heights would recognize love in its pure form. Instead, those books describe relationships depraved and detrimental to the parties involved.

Despite my praise of the prose, this is (spoiler alert) a tragedy. If you enjoy soaps – stories in which the villains suffer no more than their victims throughout – then you might enjoy this drama. If, on the other hand, you lament the absence of goodness or justice in fiction, you should give this classic a pass. Recommended but with reservations. 

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