Monday, February 16, 2009

Late Romantic

Out on the winding, windy moors
We'd roll and fall in green.
You had a temper like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy.
How could you leave me,
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, but I loved you too.

Kate Bush

Had I not endured a most lame lapse in Internet connectivity over the weekend (I guess it's a good thing I'm married and was not mid-sentence on, I would have written about that least romantic of Romantic texts, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (no, I can't seem to generate the diaeresis in her name here). A recent rereading of it reminded me that it makes "love" of the Hallmark-card-variety seem mild indeed.

The Irish Anglican curate Patrick Bronte (1777-1861) lived long enough to bury his wife and all six of his children, but not before Emily (1818-1848), Charlotte (1816-1855), and to a lesser degree, Anne (1820-1849), became acclaimed novelists. In conjunction with their ill-fated brother Branwell, the girls had famously devised the childhood fantasy worlds of Angria and Gondal--their upbringing was austere and isolating, of the kind that a television in the background effectively dispels today. It was the perfect English Romantic family, with equal parts genius and tuberculosis.

Emily Bronte was an enigmatic figure who left few unpublished writings behind. Charlotte later recalled her sister as follows: In Emily's nature the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life: she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to consult her most legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very flexible, and it generally opposed her interest. Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.

If claustrophobia and agoraphobia can ever be said to coexist, they would seem to do so in Wuthering Heights; it is like a game of violent chess played in a closet set down on an endless plain. Interpersonally the book is minimalistic and constricting, comprising two families four miles apart who seem to despise each other but who can't stop having encounters, presumably because the rest of the human race is nowhere in evidence. If here, as for Sartre, hell is other people, it is still far preferable to the lack thereof. If anyone doubts that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, read this book.
Here is a tidy vignette on love: The intimacy thus commenced grew rapidly; though it encountered temporary interruptions. Earnshaw was not to be civilised with a wish, and my young lady was no philosopher, and no paragon of patience; but both their minds tending to the same point--one loving and desiring to esteem, and the other loving and desiring to be esteemed--they contrived in the end to reach it.

Heathcliff is of course the dark conundrum of the novel. Even as a child he is described as having a kind of native churlishness about him, what in that century may have been termed "spleen." But he had been a homeless child, and was treated cruelly and resentfully at times after his adoption, so as always we cannot separate inheritance from environment. His exceeding cruelty supposedly scandalized critics of the day, but his extreme attachment to Catherine Earnshaw, however perverse and extending, in classic gothic fashion, beyond the grave, rules out psychopathy. His is not the "motiveless malignity" of Iago. Malignant narcissism, perhaps: he does have a monomaniacal need for control combined with real sadism. And yet his great strength and firmness of character are granted grudging admiration, particularly beside the mild and weak characters of Edgar and Linton.

Emily Bronte wrote a few great poems as well, which Charlotte "happened upon," as would occur to another poetic Emily on the other side of the Atlantic years later (Emily Dickinson was eighteen years old when Wuthering Heights appeared and Emily Bronte died). Not having revisited the novel for twenty years, I had forgotten how many affinities exist between the two Emilys: inscrutable intensity, to the point of morbidness at times; otherworldliness, yet compounded with exquisite sensitivity to natural and spiritual realities; the stern and distant fathers; the supportive sister; and both way before their time.

The book may be ideal for both romances and break-ups, a particularly barbed reminder that if we think we're done with love, it may not be done with us (and Cupid's arrows are not rubber-tipped). Red is for romance--and for blood.

(We had a fine weekend, really, don't get the wrong idea).


Anonymous said...

For the life of me, I've never understood the appeal of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff was a totally despicable character and the rest of them were no prizes either. Jane Eyre was more to my taste even if Jane caused most of the problems in her life.

Novalis said...

I agree, it is no favorite, but I enjoyed it in the same way that I enjoyed, say, "As I Lay Dying." In certain hands even wretchedness can be made to achieve a certain grandeur.

No one has made it into an opera, right? It would seem to be well-suited (if about as cheery as "Peter Grimes" or "Billy Budd").

vanderleun said...


Use & e u m l ; (no spaces) as a substitue for e in Bronte

Anonymous said...

Passion in two dimensions is a healthy two-faced beast: claustrophobic and agoraphobic in equal measure, like life half-lived and half-wished in ordinary measure. In three dimensions its unbearable depth becomes cloyingly malignant, and ends up murdering itself for want of balance - but not without leaving an exquisite bloody stain.

Oh stains! - if they were for everyone they wouldn't be so pretty...

pretty stains, stained pretty...stained.

A passion two thirds lived is not worth living...