In which I reread an old classic

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I’m currently rereading Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. It’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read the book – the first was when I was about 17, and the most recent was seven or eight years ago when I read it as part of my Creative Writing degree course. Having read it so many times and studied it at university I would have said, with confidence, that Wuthering Heights was a novel I knew pretty well, but here’s a newsflash from the current rereading: it’s absolutely nothing like I remember it. There are whole sections that I don’t remember at all, and some of the bits I thought I did remember are quite quite different from how I remembered them. This is odd, because it’s, obviously, still the same book. In fact, in this case, it’s physically, literally, actually the same book that I’ve read before, but the experience of reading it is completely different.

I think there are reasons for this, and I don’t think any of them are that aliens have come to earth and rewritten bits of Wuthering Heights, which is a shame, because that would have made an awesome blog post.

The non-alien related reasons are twofold:

1. I’ve changed

Well given that the book hasn’t changed, that leaves the reader as the only remaining variable, so if the thing I’m looking at isn’t different, but the experience of looking is, then that must be down to me. The things I’m picking up on during this reading are far more to do with the characters and far less to do with the brooding atmosphere and oppressive moor. This might be because I’ve moved on as a writer since I last read the book, and am currently fixated by character in terms of how I plot and revise my own writing. I’m noticing, for the first time, how complex, and essentially unpleasant, the minor characters are. Joseph, Nellie Dean, Mr Lockwood are all astonishingly self-involved in their own different ways.

I’m also noticing how dated the prose style is, and how slow the opening chapters are, which I don’t remember picking up on before. I’m actually quite impressed with my seventeen-year-old self for sticking with it. Again – that’s the writer in me coming through, and noticing deviations from the contemporary received wisdom about how to start and pace a novel.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a book change in front of me on rereading. I started Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day about eight times and couldn’t get past the first chapter, until one random day when I sat down and read about two-thirds of the book in one sitting. The book hadn’t changed, but something about my mood on that one given day married with the story and away we went together.

2. Some novels end up bigger than the novel itself

Wuthering Heights is the poster book for novels that exist in the public imagination in a completely different form from how the are on the page. Wuthering Heights has been adapted and retold in films, on TV, in musicals (thanks for that Cliff), and nearly all the retellings underplay the bleakness of the original novel. Somehow that perception of Wuthering Heights as a romantic story of star-crossed lovers on a windswept, but ultimately picturesque, moor, seeps into our consciousness, even if we’ve read the actual book and know it isn’t really like that. The idea of Heathcliff and Cathy as a slightly more consumptive Romeo and Juliet is stuck in our collective memories, even if none of us actually remember where it came from.

So there you go. Wuthering Heights – it’s not at all how you think you remember it. After this I shall be going to see Romeo and Juliet again with fingers crossed that I might have misremembered that ending. In the meantime, feel free to chat to me in the comments. What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Are there any books that have surprised you on rereading, or have turned out to be completely different from your expectations?

And finally, a quick reminder that my new Christmas Kisses novella, Cora’s Christmas Kiss, is out now for kindle.

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6 thoughts on “In which I reread an old classic

    Janet Gover said:
    December 11, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I’m always really surprised when people talk about Heathcliff as a romantic hero – he’s a thoroughly vile human being… Yes, there are reasons for that – but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s not Romeo. But once you get past that misconception, (and the dated writing style) I still find it a compulsive read – and a gripping story of obsession and revenge.

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      Alison May responded:
      December 11, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      I agree. I found the opening quite slow, but once you’re into it, it’s compelling even though it’s so bleak.

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    MarinaSofia said:
    December 11, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    And Catherine (Earnshaw) is also a thoroughly unpleasant, selfish person. Their one redeeming feature is their love for each other, but is that love or obsession? You are so right, it is a different novel from what our collective memory makes it out to be. And you make me want to reread it right now…

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    Helen Harron said:
    December 11, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    I’m impressed you didn’t have to read it until you were 17. We did Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in 3rd year secondary school (i.e. aged 13). I didn’t complete either of them and am still mildly surprised that people read the Brontes for pleasure. Way to go school for putting people off English Literature for life! I have The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on my kindle on your recommendation but I’m still eyeing it suspiciously!

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    Helen said:
    December 11, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Yes! I’ve had a similar experience. I think we’re near contemporaries because I did “Wuthering Heights” at A-level too. I’d originally tried reading it when I was 15 (my mum bought it for me) and I couldn’t get into it at all (I really battled with that first chapter and was pleased by the ghost, but then Nellie and Lockwood’s sickness and… no), then when I started again at 17, I finally “got it” – or so I thought.

    You’re quite right about the opening, it takes a while (I suppose because of the multiple narrators). When I first read it through, I felt really sad for Heathcliff, but when I read it again for my English degree a couple of years later, I thought, “What the heck is this? Heathcliff is horrible!” I ended up having a “strong disagreement” with someone in my seminar about it – “But Heathcliff is a victim!” “He’s ‘orrible, goddammit!” (I think by then I was reading it in context as a Romantic novel – with a big R. I was seeing Byron, and James Hogg).

    I read it again a couple of years ago and that time, Catherine leapt out at me as a complete pain in the butt. I was actually quite relieved when she died in the exact middle of the book! I was much fonder of her daughter, and how she rallies against Heathcliff’s maltreatment of her. Interesting analysis of the book by one critic who says that Catherine’s ghost returning at the end of the books is when she arrives in the role of mother, to defend her child from Heathcliff. Because her haunting of him at that point forces him to stop his horrible plot of revenge. It’s such a shame that adaptations have focused on the first half of the novel but I think we have Laurence Olivier to blame for that (dishy though he is as Heathcliff…).

    When I saw them trying to “Twilight” the Brontes, I was very amused, remembering my own bewilderment on trying to read it aged 15! Saying all that though it’s still one of my most favourite novels. I love how Emily Bronte writes – you can see the influence of her poetry-writing in her prose, but she doesn’t end up churning out purple prose, which is a very difficult balance. Same too for Charlotte Bronte. I find Ann Bronte a bit stodgy, alas. “Tenant” is a such a good story, but the writing is a bit turgid – makes for a good tv adaptation, though.

    I had a similar issue to yours with “Remains of the Day”. Tried several times to read it, couldn’t get into it, then tried *again* and – bam! – couldn’t put it down. I think it’s Stevens’ narrative voice – it’s quite opaque and he faffs about so it’s difficult getting into the story. I was perhaps not paying attention on the first reading because I ended up very confused, thinking the tiger under the table was happening to *him*… then I realised it wasn’t, then I gave up!

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    electronicbaglady said:
    December 12, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    Another WH A level student here! I loved it but I never liked Heathcliff or Cathy or any of the characters really. I just fell for the bleakness and drama. I was thinking of rereading it the other day, having downloaded a copy. So maybe this is the blog to make me get on with it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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