2015 – I have just returned from a visit to my old neighbourhood, a crumbling council-owned territory in northern England, where I had been tasked with putting in order my grandfather’s estate. Of course, by estate I mean the few rags and personal, but perfectly worthless, objects that my grandfather had accumulated during his long, and scarcely happy, existence. I must return on the morrow, to complete this task.
The day had set in gloomy and cold, and my fingers were stricken, even before venturing outside, with a dull ache the like of which always besets me in winter. So I had no mind to make for that stoney edifice where I had just yesterday spent many none too pleasant hours. Yet the task of sorting through my grandfather’s meagre things would be upon my shoulders some future day, like it or not, so postponement would little benefit me.
I took, of course, a bus, the windows of which were so mired in dirt that I could, for all I knew, have been heading for anywhere. It was only the familiar rattle of stones and rocks rebounding off the side of the bus, which from experience I put down to the arms of local children, that spoke of being near to my intended destination. Much in fear of the bus being turned over, I silently willed my journey to its end. However, upon alighting I felt sorry for having done so, for the cold and gloom were much intensified here, being at the top of a hill.
Inside the dour tenement block, I vainly pushed the button for the elevator, before accepting defeat, as I had done yesterday also. The stairs, which I was forced to confront, were clearly the whim of a madman. Each step was thicker or thinner than the last, so that one climbed them in the fashion of a spider with an injured leg negotiating a half-ruined web. At the top I was met, much to my surprise and chagrin, by Mr Bower, my late grandfather’s immediate neighbour. “Yah fer tah coom ta spayke baht guings uhn, ave ye? Ye’ll wahn ta nuh I’d weger, baht yon granfither an whet tuck place thear,” he said, all of which was quite incomprehensible to me, despite being born and raised in these parts. Before I could enter the key into the lock of my grandfather’s flat, and take my leave of the old man’s hideous visage, he wildly shook his walking stick at me in what I took to be an invitation to enter his abode. Verily, I had no choice but to follow, for I feared for my life lest I refuse.
Inside the old man’s dwelling, I was guided to the living room, and then of a sudden left to my own devices. Not wishing to take a seat uninvited I took note instead of the shelves against the walls, in particular those upon which a few books were stacked. Indeed, I had just taken down a copy of Wuthering Heights, a book I greatly favour, when a young lady entered. Understandably I ventured to suppose she might be Mr Bower’s granddaughter, and so I greeted her accordingly.
“There’s no Miss Bower here,” she replied. “Sit down, sir.”
I sat, rather without pleasure, on the sofa. She took her place opposite. “You’ll have to forgive the old man, he doesn’t see too many faces, and those he does see he appropriates for himself.” The young lady, it turned out, was another neighbour, whom Mr Bower had also appropriated. “He’s gone back out onto the landing. T’will be sometime yet before he returns and frees us. Are you from around here, sir?” I told her that I had been born but not a few doors away. “Ah, a Yorkshireman? You don’t sound it.” I granted her that, but said that no matter how my speech might strike I felt, in my bones, always a Yorkshireman. “It’s a strange part of the world, isn’t it, sir? Gets under your skin.” This I granted also. “What have you in your hand?” At this remark I realised that I had still the book in my possession.
“A book. Wuthering Heights. T’is the old man’s. I was looking at his shelves.”
“A fine Yorkshire book!” She laughed. “Have you read it, sir?”
“More than once,” I confessed. “You have perhaps read it also?”
“Indeed I have. I esteem is just as much as you evidently do yourself, sir.”
“Ah, you like Heathcliff, I imagine.”
“Heathcliff?” she scoffed. “What madness would compel me to like Heathcliff? He’s a brute. A sadist. He hangs dogs; he marries a woman so as to hurt her father; he torments his own son. Heathcliff!”
“I concur, Miss, but for many he is a kind of romantic hero.”
“Nay. Maybe the idea of him is. Maybe what he represents.”
“A man so in love, or so obsessed with his love, that it drives him mad. Ah, that is a romantic idea, but no woman could like Heathcliff for himself.”
“I’ve often thought that he wasn’t really a man, but half a man.” I ventured, warming to my task. “In a way, he isn’t even a character; for me he simply represents one side of human nature, the wild and passionate side. Edgar Linton, whom Cathy marries, is rationality, is propriety and good-breeding. Together they would make a perfect man. It is why Cathy is so torn, because they speak to different aspects of her own personality.”
“Yes, one might say that Heathcliff is the devil on the shoulder, and Linton the angel,” the bright young lady replied. “Or, if you rather, one is the Appollonian and t’other is the Dionysian. The second Cathy, the daughter of the original, tames, or harnesses her Dionysus [Hareton], in a way her own mother could not, by helping him to read and write and cultivating his softer side, by refining him a little. I think that is Bronte’s ultimate message: that you need both sides, but in moderation, in order to find true happiness.”
“The book is more than just about that, however. Upbringing and parenting, it strikes me, are important themes. None of the children in the book are raised correctly. Some are raised without love and care, and others are too indulged, so that they become either spoilt or roguish. Marriage was obviously under her microscope too. Who marries happily? No one. They all make bad choices, ‘cept the younger Cathy and even she marries badly, and for the wrong reasons, the first time around! I say again, strange that some would have that it’s a love story!”
“Do stop prattling on about love, sir, we have already dealt with that. Besides, it is a love story, just not a conventional one. One might say that the book asks, what is love? And, how ought one behave if one is in love? Heathcliff claims to love Cathy and yet treats her horribly. She claims to love Heathcliff and her husband, yet does right by neither. Her daughter loves and marries Linton out of pity. T’is a complicated business, love. One cannot always identify it with complete assurance, for it often skulks around in the shadows with its playmates, duty and infatuation.”
I must confess that I felt the sharpness of that prattling, but I did not let it deter me. Therefore I continued, “Now that you mention it, Heathcliff’s love for Cathy is the basis for one of my few criticisms of the book. That he is rendered mad by it is undeniable, yet the actual cause of his love escapes me. What I mean by this, if I may explain myself further, is that we are to take Bronte’s word for it that Cathy and Heathcliff have such an incredible bond, that they love each other, but one never witnesses anything between them – there are no passages of great tenderness, or bonding, or sharing – to justify it. We are told they were close as children, but we aren’t privy to that closeness beyond one or two seemingly insignificant episodes.”
“Oh, I rather like that. I like that we don’t see, but have to imagine, instead. If I have a criticism of my own to make t’would be the structure of the thing. That is, to be polite, somewhat awkward.”
“Ah, we are at variance again, Miss. I don’t share your concern. Yes, yes it isn’t elegant, not at all, what with it starting out as Lockwood’s first person narration, which then shifts to Nelly Dean’s, and then shifts twice or thrice more times. I grant that Lockwood telling us what Nelly tells him, which also includes letters from other characters and speeches from other employees, is a creative writing professor’s nightmare, but does any of that trouble one’s enjoyment? That is the important question.”
“Are you saying that when Lockwood, about half of the way into the book, takes over Nelly’s story and, well, stands in for her, using the personal I, even though Nelly herself is no longer present, is not a problem for you, sir?”
“Oh, certainly it is, if I have my academic hat on. But I repeat: did it trouble your enjoyment?”
“Not especially.” She said, folding her hands in her lap, “Well, not at all, no.”
“Well, and so why belabour the point?” I replied, waving the book around. “The structure is messy, of course, no one would deny it, but no book is perfect, all books are flawed. I’m a literary critic, and it is such a miserable thing, Miss. So, away, let us forget all about structure or any other negativity, even my own small criticisms. Wuthering Heights is a page-turner, one fairly romps through it, like one could romp through the the Moors themselves. It is bombastic and thrilling and gothic and gripping and funny…yes, funny too…the opening of the novel…Lockwood’s first visits to the house are hilarious, it’s as though he has stumbled upon the Klopeks from The ‘Burbs. Have you seen The ‘Burbs, Miss? A fine film, featuring Tom Hanks…”
Before my lady could answer Mr Bower entered the room. “Shey nut seyan ahnuthing lake thar,” he grumbled.
“Mr Bower,” I said, rising to my feet. “I must beg your leave. I have much to accomplish next door.”
The man’s ghoulish countenance darkened, and once again he waved his stick in my direction. “Thear thee go? Nay, nowt uh reckon firt tug go.”
“I think he rather likes you,” opined the lady.
“Likes? Why he is the very Devil! Am I never to leave this accursed room?”
“Oh, he will get bored of us soon. Stay and take some tea, sir. We can continue our interesting discussion.”
“I have nothing more to say, Miss!” I was fairly rattled, I must admit.
“So you have exhausted your opinions on Wuthering Heights. Villette, then?”
“Yes, Villette. A great book. Fine. But, that’s it; there I draw the line. Don’t even think about mentioning The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!“