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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, or: Surviving “A Perfect Misanthropist’s Heaven”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, read by Carolyn Seymour

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
Read by Carolyn Seymour

Blackstone Audio, 2011
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository

Remember November 2010? Way back when I was just a little bit obsessed with Jane Eyre? Back then, one of the things I thought I’d do was reread Wuthering Heights, that most difficult book written by Charlotte’s sister Emily Brontë. I was fairly confident that this time around I would like it better. However, as so often happens, one bookish fancy passed and I picked up other novels and did not return to Wuthering Heights for quite some time.

That is, until there was the option to download a free audiobook version of the novel sometime last summer. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, read by Carolyn Seymour. I enthusiastically started listening. Until I stopped running regularly. However, here we are, months later: Iris is back to running and is happy to report that she has finally finished rereading Wuthering Heights on audio.

I know it is customary to remark on the audio production of a book at the end of a review, but can I just mention something about this book in audio at the very beginning of this post? I think that, in part, audio is a perfect medium through which to experience Wuthering Heights. The story just flows, and listening to someone reading the sentences aloud really brings out the poetic qualities of Emily Brontë’s prose. The obvious drawback being, of course, that audio does not allow you to leaf back through the pages, and since Wuthering Heights is such a complex and often confusing read, I did feel the urge to check earlier chapters for some of the facts. I cannot really remark on the quality of the narration, since I have very little audiobook experience. I will say that Seymour does quite a good job, though her accents for different characters got on my nerves a little.

Now, back to rereading Wuthering Heights. Did I like it better than last time, or less? Did I feel I understood it better?

Well, to be honest, I am not really sure how to answer that. I sure was not as naive as back when I thought that it would be a quick read. I came to the novel much better prepared. Yet, I am not sure I enjoyed it much, or enjoyed it better even. Nor can I claim to understand it in its essence. I will, however, claim that I appreciated it more. I know that is probably the most unsatisfactory answer I could give you, but there it is.

One thing I enjoyed discovering was of how many stories within stories within stories this novel exists. All of them providing different perspectives; all shading the truth in one way or another. There is a lot of rumour, skewing of details, and protection of personal responsibilities by the characters going on in Wuthering Heights. All of which leads to a lot of confusion and disorientation on the reader’s front. Amateur Reader has written a post on just this aspect of the novel, on how Emily Brontë meant to mislead and disorient the reader from the very start. At times I found it strangely entertaining to discover just when something like this occurred, when Emily meant to have you question which version of reality you are supposed to hold on to, meant to have you feel dizzy by the number of characters and dreamlike sequences.

But I admit that just as many times, I couldn’t quite enjoy the experience. I could not move beyond the mere “heh, she’s doing it again” to the “this is genius”. Because, honestly, at times I like knowing what is what. At times I like knowing what I am supposed to be believing, what I should believe, and how I should feel about all of it. Or, as much as I hate someone telling me what to think, I find it easier to at least know what the author is thinking him or herself. Of course, perhaps this is the very strength of the novel. Perhaps this is why it is so daring at its core, and why Violet, who I fear will not like me very much after this post since I did not love her favourite book, admires Emily Brontë so much. The thing is, I can see it, I can signal it (in part), and I can appreciate it. I just couldn’t love it.

I think a major reason for not always liking what I found in Wuthering Heights is that it just made me feel so damn uncomfortable. There is the hatefulness of almost any character in the book. Or perhaps I had better say the character’s feelings of revenge, be it through storytelling or actual acts. There are the layers upon layers of untruths, fancies, and versions of events that become an almost intangible web. There are the hints that are dropped, though not often outright mentioned, of Heathcliff’s abuse, as Amateur Reader (again in a different post) points out. But then, does that mean Heathcliff is horrible, or is it hinted at because Nellie Dean finds him so? And if she does, why does she never outright condemn him, only leave hints for the reader (or really, listener Lockwood) to interpreted? And what are we to make of Lockwood’s retelling of Nellie’s version of events? Difficult,  difficult, disturbing book.

More disturbing and difficult towards the end than the beginning, I think. Not so much in its fast array of characters or shifting perspectives, because these were always difficult, but because of the turn events take. A few chapters from the end, not the end-end which is less so, I really did not know how to deal with all of the bleakness in this book. Of course, some might wonder at my choice of words: bleak? There’s all the passion! and love! and hate! and love turned to hate but love at its core! But for me, this book left a lingering sense of bleakness, hopelessness, and pessimism on reading it. I just cannot help but tell you that it truthfully did.

Again, I couldn’t love this book. I did not hate it, as some seem to do, either. I did very much appreciate it at times. But then again, I did not so much at other occasions, because it’s just that confusing and  disturbing in its picture of human nature. You know what I would really like? A proper class on Wuthering Heights. This book, and I as its reader, could only become better through close reading and discussion of it, I think. It is just that kind of book. The kind that leads to endless discussions and fierce divisions of its readership, but I fear not ever to me fully embracing and loving it. That fact in itself is rather interesting, I think? Perhaps that is why, in writing about it, in sharing with all of you on the blog, I might just have grown to like Wuthering Heights a tiny bit more.

And so will the final words of the novel, which are beyond beautiful:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

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