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Cathy and Heathcliff, revisited in midlife

Book of a Lifetime | 9 minute read
Wuthering Heights is known as a story of wild, untameable passion, but another, quieter love story unfolded for an Emily Brontë fan on second reading

Summer 1987

I read Wuthering Heights in the summer of 1987. I was 15, in my first year of A’ Levels, and it was a course book that became ‘My Favourite Book’. I lost my original copy, bought several others over the decades, but never re-read it. I am not sure I even remembered the ending; much of the book was a blur after Catherine died and Heathcliff was left bereft. I didn’t pick it up again for 30 years. It simply remained seminal on the strength of that first reading.

My school was on the fringes of Hampstead Heath, in North London, and I spent the first term of Lower Sixth lounging on the same spot of grass with my circle of friends, observing other groups of students. Until sixth-form, it had been a girls-only school but now boys joined us for English classes. The girls changed in their presence; they were attentive, flirtatious, knowing just what to say. Where had they learned this? I wondered, feeling quietly cast out from the Sophomoric drama of their parties and drunkenness and thigh-skimming dresses. So I sat on my more temperate heath, navigating the confusing transition into adulthood, and drawing back from the realities of life into the high octane drama of the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights.

I certainly wasn’t the first teenager to be beguiled by it and yet it wasn’t just Heathcliff and Cathy’s devastating love story that appealed. My comprehensive school had been fairly multicultural and included many of the girls from the housing estates around Highgate, but almost all of that diversity had emptied out by sixth-form. I became aware of how few students now resembled me and that might have made it easier for me to see the intersections between class, race, gender and power in Wuthering Heights, and how entangled these became in Cathy and Heathcliff’s love. I admired their radical desire to get beneath – to overturn – convention, even if they both paid the price.

Photo by Asa Rodger/Unsplash

Heathcliff was especially important not just because he was bestowed with great depths of passion and ‘brooding’ good looks, but because he was tarred with the blood of ‘foreignness’ – an immigrant-orphan picked up on the streets of Liverpool where he was left, or so Mr Earnshaw tells his family. As an immigrant myself, I had shuttled between London and Lahore, speaking only Urdu for the first six years of my life, and I felt every bit the outsider in my adoptive homeland. By the time I came to Wuthering Heights, English was still the other language. I felt uneasy around its vocabulary and I remember circling words to look up in the dictionary, like ‘lascar’ and ‘usurper’, which were used to describe Heathcliff.

He was the novel’s dark-skinned ‘Other’. Maybe because of his outsider status, I forgave him for his flinty heart and his violence as an adult. Now, I can see his assaults on his wife, on animals, his physical and emotional cruelty towards Cathy’s daughter and his own son, as the embodiment of toxic masculinity. Then, I held firm to the version of him that was first a child victim and then a grieving lover.

1987 to 2018

It remained my favourite book even when the story became half forgotten. I related to it like a first great love which all other loves are measured against; more distant yet more revered over the years. I did read about and around it – its sadomasochistic subtext, its postmodernism, all the elements I hadn’t grasped as a teenager. It sounded, reassuringly, like a novel that I had every reason to keep admiring. Brontë had surely meant to shock her contemporaries with the hanging of puppies, the violence against women, neglect of children and slicing of ghostly wrists against window-panes. I approved and bought collector copies. I read biographies of the Brontë sisters and discovered that Wuthering Heights caused such moral consternation in its time that Charlotte Brontë issued apologies for it.

I watched film adaptations too. Laurence Olivier seemed ridiculously tame, ridiculously white, as Heathcliff. Andrea Arnold’s vision came closest to my imagining of it. Yes, of course Heathcliff was black, or at the very least, mixed-race. Why didn’t we acknowledge this more fully?

It was not just the truth of Heathcliff that Arnold captured so acutely but the visual aesthetics of the book too. The film was so arresting with its strangely angled, half-empty frames of turbulent nature and sky merging with earth as Cathy and Heathcliff wrestled in the mud as children. And in their not-quite-sexual chemistry, she caught their exquisite, unassailable, almost brother-sister bond which is as profound as sibling love but too charged to be so.

Laurence Olivier and actress Merle Oberon on set of Wuthering Heights, circa 1939 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It was such a powerful film that it nearly sent me back to the book, but other books took precedence and I didn’t want to hold Arnold’s interpretation of the book up against the original text because it seemed an unfair comparison, somehow. Some years later I interviewed Paul Auster who spoke of the multiple forms through which the book filters its story, from its many letters and Nelly Dean’s retelling of the past to Lockwood’s unreliable narration. Auster said he loved it for this narrative layering. I did too, I thought, and felt that even without re-reading it, I was coming to know the book better.

Somewhere in my inner recesses, I knew a re-reading was potentially dangerous. To revisit a book plucked out in my teens and forever held in the mind as the measure of my taste. To re-read it was to re-appraise that former self, in that former summer, and risk a kind of self-alienation. The potential disappointment of a re-reading, decades later, would implicate some core aspect of my ‘truest’ self, I thought. It had happened before with other ‘favourite’ films and books, seen or read years later, that had left me doubting my past judgement.

Summer 2018

Kate Mosse, in her introduction to the anthology, I Am Heathcliff (Borough Press), reflects on re-reading Wuthering Heights at various stages of her life, and the different stories she has found folded inside the same book: ‘In my teens I was swept away by the promise of a love story, though the anger and the violence and the pain were trouble to me. In my twenties, it was the history and the snapshot of social expectations that interested me. In my thirties, when I started to write fiction myself, I was gripped by the architecture of the novel… In my forties, it was the colour and the texture… Now in my fifties, as well as this, it is also the understanding of how utterly EB (Emily Brontë) changed the rules of what was acceptable for a woman to write, and how we are all in her debt.’

In other words, what gives the story its meanings is not just how we read but when we read. Time changes us, and so it changes the story we read, to some extent: both what we find in it and what it finds in us.

On my second reading, at the age of 45, so much of the story’s ground had shifted. It was still a book I loved and felt bewitched by – thank god! – but it was not the story I had thought it to be.

It wasn’t all about Heathcliff’s passion, for a start. This time I found him neither to be a romantic hero nor an antihero. I found a Heathcliff who was violent, avaricious, begrudging and most disappointingly of all, charmless. The heady teenage version of him gone up in a puff of smoke! I saw him now as the classic abused-turned-abuser who Brontë, cleverly, makes hard to hate outright, and maybe that is what makes him so intriguing. Lily Cole, who is currently a Brontë Society ambassador, made a short film inspired by Wuthering Heights that premiered at the Brontë Parsonage, in Haworth. After the screening, a man in the audience spoke earnestly in defence of Heathcliff. Yes, he was aware of his failings, he said, but he couldn’t disregard how strong an impression this outsider figure had made on him as a boy, and how deeply that mark remained.

And Catherine! I wondered why I had paid her heroism so little attention the first time around. She is the real rebel of Wuthering Heights, with everything to lose by defying convention, and yet she defies it. Even after she decides to marry the insipid but socially respectable Edgar, she never becomes pliant, slapping her husband-to-be and making it clear, after their marriage, that Heathcliff will remain in her life. She is everything a 19th-century woman is not supposed to be: strong, outspoken, aggressive, and full of pleasingly hard edges. Even when she describes herself as Heathcliff’s other half – “He is more myself than I am” and “I am Heathcliff” – it has allegorical echoes, as if she is declaring him as the embodiment of the the dark, angry, masculine side of herself.

The biggest shift in the novel as I had known it, though, was in the central love story. There was now something deeply selfish and self-regarding in the havoc that Cathy and Heathcliff wreaked with their pronouncements of love above all else. It sparked family dysfunction down the generations and all of the book’s children were brutalised because of it. Had I become hardened in my disapproval of these lovers? Or just plain middle-aged?

Another relationship, between Cathy’s eponymous daughter and Hindley’s illiterate son, Hareton, won me over instead, and again, I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it in my reading before. Both Cathy and Hareton are horribly mistreated and yet they do not become bitter, vengeful or deranged. Towards the end of the book, they fall in love, and once they do, they become each other’s protectors. Their love doesn’t resound across the wind-blown moors but it doesn’t burn out either, and it holds both mutual respect and tenderness.

Maybe this second love story is not really a love story but an ending latched on as an afterthought by Brontë. Maybe it doesn’t convince everyone but it touched me in a way that it didn’t at 15. I liked how temperate their love seemed, how real and rock-steady the growth of their affection felt, and I imagined how they might have lived and aged beyond the bounds of the novel. Neither seeks destruction nor ownership of the other. She helps him learn to read, he worships the ground she walks on. Love without the melodrama. A lesson waiting to be learned by me, perhaps. And a happy ending, after all.

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