Can I just say it? Actually, you know what, I’m going to say it even if I’m not supposed to say it: Wuthering Heights is not my idea of a love story.
I love the Brontes and their crazy life and their contribution to literature and I think WH is a fine, fine example of a novel that I like very much. But my favorite love story? It’s definitely a toss up between Pride and Prejudice and that other great (Charlotte) Bronte novel, Jane Eyre.
WH, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of disturbing power that is about a lot of things, including love and romance. But when I think about Cathy and Heathcliff, what I remember the most is not their love for each other, but their screwed up personalities and that awful, destructive, obsessive relationship that they forged, first between them and then the world. I thought I was a voice in the cold loneliness, until I found this piece by Martin Kettle, hilariously titled “If Wuthering Heights is a Love Story then Hamlet is a Sitcom”:
I have only one question to ask the 2,000 readers who, according to a new poll for UKTV Drama, have just voted Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights the greatest love story of all time. How many of them have actually read the book?
Wuthering Heights is also about many other things besides that relationship. It is about class conflict and Heathcliff’s obsessive revenge. It is about the vindictive soul of a wronged man. It is about society on the Pennine moors. It is a horror story. It is about wealth, power, obsession and death. If Wuthering Heights is a love story then Hamlet is a family sitcom, Tristan und Isolde a musical and the Sistine Chapel a cool piece of interior design.
Wuthering Heights is unfilmable. It exists only as carefully structured piece of literature, told in flashback and conversation. It is not a narrative story in the way that the highly filmable Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre are. It is no more filmable than Proust.
But that hasn’t stopped attempts to do so, of which the 1939 William Wyler movie – with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine, and doing away with more than half of the novel – casts a particularly long and deceiving shadow. Those who classify Wuthering Heights as a love story are really thinking of Olivier’s Heathcliff, not Bronte’s. Rumours that Johnny Depp is about to take on the role, with Angelina Jolie as Catherine, show how strongly this heresy persists. Gordon Brown would be a far better Heathcliff, any day.
That pretty much sums up every single thing I have to say (and far more cogently and eruditely than I could’ve managed) except that I’ve always thought that Laurence Olivier made the best case for why this story can never be a “love story”. It is conventional wisdom to say that Olivier’s Heathcliff is the definitive one and I think that’s interesting because Olivier brought to that role all the charisma of a man who likes to turn into a bat at night and drink the blood of virgins.
That sounds like a diss, doesn’t it? But I don’t mean it like that at all. When you think about it, vampires must be extremely charismatic beings – they’re not like your friendly, neighborhood serial killer that everybody is shocked to discover is a psychopath. If a vampire was your neighbor, chances are you might have noticed it at least. I mean, Anne Rice created the most boring vampires ever in the history of vampire-dom and even they were pretty darn fascinating. But there’s a lot more going on there than blood drinking, although that’s one aspect of it.
So there’s Olivier, pale and fascinating as Heathcliff – creeping me out of my wits in a way that you’ll never understand by just watching that clip above (what the hell, watch it anyway!). But if you want to read the book, then rent this movie, then I can guarantee you that you’ll have a good time. It won’t give you that fuzzy feeling in the pit of your tummy that reading Pride and Prejudice and then renting the Colin Firth BBC version will give you – in fact, far from it – but it’s a great way to spend a weekend.
But then, I like Wuthering Heights. It might not be your cup of violent tea at all.
I also don’t think it’s (entirely) the fault of the poll respondents that they picked WH. Truth is, I’m beginning to wonder how many people mistake the trappings of romance for love. Is it a love story if we have characters going out to dinner and maybe having sex afterwards? Or does it require something more?
What I’ve always loved about P&P and JE is that their lead characters had to struggle to fall in love with each other and stay that way. And by the time their story reaches a ‘conclusion’, they’re still faced with challenges.
But the current trend is to look down on romance – it’s soppy, sentimental, boring, uncool, too girlie, etc. In a recent article in Time called “Who Killed the Love Story?“, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and Funeral, Notting Hill) says:
“If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it’s called searingly realistic, even though it’s never happened in the history of mankind,” he notes. “Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you’re accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”
And the sad thing is, people feel like that because the idea of love is far some simple in this day and age – it’s a lot more formulaic and Curtis’ industry had just as big of a hand in making that happen as anybody else. Think back to the last date you had or the last five if you get out a bit more. How many times did you find yourself doing something that you “knew” the other person would like. If you’re a guy, then chances are you’ve bought a girl some red roses without ever once asking her if she actually liked the damn things. If you’re a girl, then you’ve probably longed for some red roses without ever once asking yourself whether you actually like roses, red or any other kind.
I’ve never been one of those “world well lost for love” types but I’m not a big “Bah! Humbug!” person either. However, I do find it puzzling when people confess that they figured their marriage was an end in and of itself, only to find out that there was actually more to the whole thing afterwards. It’s like that Anne Sexton poem, Cinderella:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
And if all this makes your head ache, then just watch the Monty Python take on it.