Tag Archives: Wuthering Heights

Author Feud: Brontë vs Austen

480If asked to name two 19th century female authors, most people (if they could name 2 at all) would say Jane Austen and at least one Brontë.  Right?  Those really in the know might mention George Eliot, Frances Burney, or Elizabeth Gaskell.  I suppose people who read more American literature than I do would list Alcott or Dickinson, but Jane Austen and the Brontës are the heavyweights in this category.  I suspect this is because of the number of  movie versions of their books. Movies with ladies in bonnets and men with sideburns and waistcoats. The two last names are synonymous with those movies and are inseparably linked in our minds. So it’s strange to think of a feud between them.

I read an article last week discussing the feud between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  I say feud, but it was more unrequited vitriol on the part of Brontë, who loathed Austen for her popularity and for her frivolity. Austen had no opportunity to dislike Brontë, as she was long dead by this point. Here are some of Charlotte’s thoughts on Austen and her writing, that we know from her letters:

‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point.  She has no eloquence none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry

Brontë, after reading Pride and Prejudice, compared it to a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with no open country- no fresh air

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books, some multiple times.  I’ve read several of the Brontë’s novels-Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. I also have a vague recollection of doing a 9th grade report on Anne’s poetry, so I’m practically the world’s most preeminent Brontë scholar.

I have read enough of their writing to compare them from the reader’s perspective, rather than a scholarly (re: pretentious) way.  So, are they so terribly different?

Yes.  Those who don’t read this sort of literature might see them as fancy romantic stories, sort of proto-chick lit, the progenitors to things like Harlequin romance novels, Sophie Kinsella, and Bridge Jones.  Certainly they have similarities.  Female protagonists for whom marriage is of extreme importance.  The time period, though separated by 30+ years, is similar enough that most people wouldn’t really know the difference.  I get very strange looks when I try to explain that Jane Austen was during the Regency period, whereas the Brontë sisters were in the early Victorian period.  No one cares.  There are bonnets, long dresses, a lot of societal rules. Pot-ay-to, po-tah-to.

But anyone who has read them knows that the they are as dissimilar as The Color Purple and the Help.  But I radically reject the idea that this means one of them is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.  Just like I reject every preposterous notion that fiction which is more difficult, more realistic, more depressing is always more ‘valuable’ than fiction that is enjoyable or escapist or imaginative.  What more would you expect from a Harry Potter fan?

Jane Austen wrote about the world of a very small subset of humans; this is undeniable.  There is  little acknowledgment of a world outside the upper classes of Regency era England, except for a few vague references to the troublesome French (usually to explain the presence of handsome soldiers in uniforms). In modern equivalents, I suppose an Austen novel would be about the cheerleaders and the football players–people born quite lucky and shining in the lovely light of youth, beauty, and naiveté to the world’s evils.  After I read Charlotte’s criticism that Jane’s writing is like a well-tended garden, I tend to think of it that way myself; she embodies the sophisticated, cultivated farmlands of the South of England.

The Brontë sisters, on the other hand, are like the wild moors so ubiquitous throughout Wuthering Heights.  There is passion in their writing, but also an equal amount of horror, of pessimism and cynicism, and of truth.

Anyone who has seen senseless violence, or tragedy, or loss, cannot continue to believe that life is the cultivated garden presented in Austen’s works.  In short, anyone who has lived long enough, with an IQ over 60, will realize that life doesn’t make as much sense as our parents lead us to believe.  The wildness and randomness and senselessness of the real world are always in the back of our minds, much as we try to focus on weeding the metaphorical weeds from our rosebushes. Are the Brontë works more realistic?  Yes.  Emphatically yes.  They portray not people with minor flaws that are often laughable (as Austen’s books do), but people who are seriously and irrevocably flawed. Is that more realistic?  Sadly, yes.  Is it fun to read? no.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics that he thought characters should always be good and admirable.  He thought people should see heroes in fiction, so that they will act like heroes in real life.  If they saw bad characters, they would emulate bad characters.  I have to disagree with Aristotle there.  If you’re a deeply flawed person, reading about the trials of another flawed person is much more compelling than reading about a paragon. Of course, in what we think of as a ‘novel’, there is rarely a paragon to be found.  All characters are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum from good to bad.  Austen’s tend toward the good side, the Brontë characters are very close to the other end.  So much so that it seems that redemption is impossible for them; they are fated to be miserable and to be bad.  Not all of them, of course, but certainly nearly everyone in Wuthering Heights is wholly irredeemable. When you compare Mr. Darcy to Mr. Rochester, you see the differences pretty clearly.  One has some superficial and fairly-easily overcome problems that don’t make him a bad person.  The other is deeply flawed; bad-tempered, pessimistic, sometimes dishonest, and already married.  If you think he’s a brilliant romantic hero, please read Wide Sargasso Sea and reconsider.

Sometimes we need to read things that are awful and have veracity on their sides.  But if that were the only type of thing we read, it would be horribly depressing.  If you spend all your time reading Proust, Kafka, Camus, and Franzen…you’ll be pretty depressed, I would imagine.  If you spend all of your time reading nothing but Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, you won’t be as inclined to depression–you’ll be entertained.  But you won’t be challenged.  None of those books are going to remain in your thoughts, weeks later, when you think about the nature of love or grief or violence.

Everyone finds their own balance and seeks entertainment somewhere between verisimilitude and escapism.  We’d all do better to have a good mix, and to not judge others for where they find their satisfaction in literature. That includes Charlotte Brontë.

 

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Wuthering Heights: my own personal white whale

Wuthering HeightsI first tried to read Wuthering Heights when I was around 20. I had just read, and loved, Jane Eyre, and moved on to a different Bronte sister. Much to my chagrin, Emily is just no fun, and I didn’t make it through more than a few chapters. Since then, I think I’ve tried twice more and made it even fewer pages through.

In May, I took up the challenge again, determined to at least finish the damn thing. And I did! And I can check this off my list, know that it is not a book for me, and move on with my fucking life.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Wuthering Heights is the story of two families who occupy a stretch of land in ‘the North’ of England. The setting is based on the childhood home of the Bronte family, which was north of Leeds. The setting is perhaps the second most iconic character in this story. Long stretches of windy and cold countryside, simultaneously bleak and beautiful. That’s what people think of when they read Wuthering Heights. It’s a perfectly isolated and lonely part of Yorkshire. Or it was in the mid-19th century, at any rate.

The multitude of characters, many of which share the same names, can get confusing. I found a chart online, which only confused me more–and I’ve read the book.

Wuthering Heights character relationsIf you concentrate, you can usually figure out which Catherine and which Linton and which Heathcliff is being discussed. Plus, people keep dying in nearly every chapter, so most of the characters with the same name don’t interact often as their other half is already dead.

The story is told through a moronic and useless narrator, Mr. Lockwood. Seriously, Nick Carraway has too much personality compared to this guy. Most of the story of the two houses that are concerned in the story is told through Ellen Dean, a servant of one family, and then the other.

We learn that Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw are brother and sister, and their father brings another boy into the home. An orphan, possibly of Romani origin, that he found alone in the big city. Heathcliff. He is uneducated, parentless, and dark-skinned (a mortal sin in 19th-century England). Most of the family detests him from the beginning, but he is spoiled by the father of the house and by Catherine. The two grow up running around the moors together, like feral children.

The other family is the Lintons. Mr. Linton is a member of the gentry, and his family is a far more socialized and gentile one than the Earnshaws. When Catherine meets their son, Edgar, who is very handsome and very sophisticated, she begins to turn against the ways of her family. In some ways, she dislikes the Linton children because they are so sheltered and weak. They are polite and kind, but the smallest unkindness sends them into tears. She is used to a rough and tumble existence with Healthcliff.

As you might be able to guess, Catherine agrees to marry Edgar. She likes being treated like a princess, being revered, and being in a kind and comfortable home. The Lintons spoil her incessantly, which she also enjoys. In her heart, she admits that she loves Heathcliff as if he were a part of herself, but says that she would debase herself by marrying him. His parentless, landless, poverty-stricken existence makes him an unsuitable match for her.

From that moment on, everyone involved is absolutely doomed. Heathcliff, furious with Catherine, with Linton, with Catherine’s brother, and with himself, turns from wild to calculating and vengeful. He disappears, and doesn’t return for months (years?). He has a plan to exact revenge on everyone who has wronged him. According to his own calculations, this is everyone he knows. Catherine’s brother, Hindley, is the first on the list. Inticed to gambling, Hindley ends up turning over his entire property (the eponymous Wuthering Heights) to Heathcliff in an attempt to win back what he continuously loses at cards. Heathcliff gains revenge on Edgar Linton by running off with Linton’s sister, marrying her out of spite.

After a few years, almost everyone is dead. Edgar, Hindley, Catherine, Edgar’s sister. Heathcliff has a son, Catherine and Edgar a daughter. Hindley also has a son, who is left to be more or less wild, raised piecemeal by servants. Confused yet?

Heathcliff feels his last revenge will be to get his son married to Linton’s daughter. On the one hand, I think that he feels if they marry, it is the closest he will come to marrying Catherine himself. But mostly, he wants to own what money and property Catherine has inherited.

Long story short, he accomplishes his goal, just before his son dies. Then he goes mad and dies, and Catherine falls in love with Hareton Earnshaw, her cousin.

It’s a terrible story. There are a few main themes that are sort of smashed into your head multiple times.

One is the difference between those that are treated well in life and those that are not. The Linton family, and all that have that name, live in a comfortable house surrounded by polite people. They are kind to each other, and have no evil in their hearts. On the other hand, they are terribly weak and often spoiled, and barely have the capacity to care for themselves.

The Earnshaws and Heathcliff live in a dark, dreary house with angry, drunk, violent people. They all grow up to be angry and violent. But they are tough. They outlive and outlast. Heathcliff proves himself the toughest and the most violent main character I can remember. At one point, he tries to kill a dog. Multiple times, he hits and beats, or threatens to do the same, women and children. He gets what he wants by brute force. He becomes the richest, the most powerful man in the area–a man Catherine would not have refused if given her chance again…but it is too late. She’s long dead, and his inability to fix that is what drives him mad. He has a lot in common with Jay Gatsby, if you think about it. A Jay Gatsby who is evil and cruel.

The book also shows a somewhat radical (for the time) idea of social class. At first, the Earnshaws are the owners of Wuthering Heights. While Old Man Earnshaw is alive, Heathcliff is treated like one of the family. When he dies, and his son Hindley is in charge, Heathcliff is demoted to the place of servant. When Heathcliff takes charge of the house, he elevates his own son and sends Hindley’s son, Hareton, to live the life of an uneducated servant. Yet, once Heathcliff is dead, Hareton and Catherine Linton own both properties together. Time and time again, Heathcliff takes people into his house (often by force), and forces them to debase themselves. Used to having servants, his wife, then his son, then Catherine Linton, have to learn to live by their own means.

Two things drive me crazy about this book. No, three. I’ll stop with three, though I could probably find more.

1-No one is likeable, in any way. Everyone is violent or weak, stupid or condescending, overly pious or entirely evil. You don’t care about a single character, because they are all awful. I didn’t want a single one of them to find happiness, because none of them deserve it! And I thought It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was bad!

2-Everyone makes the same mistake, over and over again. Particularly Nelly (Ellen Dean), who is the main narrator. She must say 10 different times that she should have and wanted to intervene, but paused momentarily. Then, oops, who could have guessed, Heathcliff beat them all and locked them in the house until he got what he wanted. Or Mr. Linton tells his daughter not to go to Wuthering Heights or to see its occupants, and that rule is broken again and again, supposedly by accident. If your neighbor had a habit of beating women, or forcing them into marriage, would you go visiting? Even if your horse was tired or his son was sick? I wouldn’t. What morons.

3-Heathcliff is a romantic hero. This is not the books fault, to be fair. But women love Heathcliff. Women love him more than Mr. Darcy?! Who are these women? They must be the same women who write love letters to prisoners and stay in abusive relationships. Heathcliff is a sadist. I guess that means they are also women who read 50 Shades of Grey.

Yes, it’s briefly romantic to imagine a man so enamored of you that he will destroy the world without it. A love so strong that 20 years after you’ve died he is still entirely devoted to you and finds no point in living without you. When I was 14, that would sound romantic.

But as an adult, I don’t get it. Even if he wasn’t horrible, sadistic, violent, abusive, and mercurial, it is not romantic to have someone live for you. Not in reality. I would rather have a partner who has his own hobbies, his own desires, his own independent life. Not only would it be a lot of pressure to be someone’s entire world, but it would be quite dull. It seems a very immature view of love, to want something like this. The fact that grown women are so fond of him makes me both irritated with and embarrassed for them.