From the Bookshelf: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.
This week, The Reader's Head of Teaching and Learning, Clare Ellis, discusses Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.
Words by Clare Ellis
‘The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling,
Can centre both the worlds of heaven and hell.’
From the poem ‘Often Rebuked’ by Emily Brontë
So often in our lives, we are trying to reach a place of balance, an equilibrium. No doubt we all experience extreme emotions at times, the highs of a heaven and the lows of a hell, but there is a sense that if we remain in either emotional extreme for a prolonged length of time, we run the risk of losing our true sense of self; we need something else, a middle ground, the earth, to ground us. Reading literature can also be a way of allowing us to be aware of a vast range of human experiences whilst also being able to remain centred somehow, observing the chaos without having to fully become a part of it, and with that often comes a stronger sense of who we are.
One of the things that is often most difficult for readers of Wuthering Heights, however, is that for most of the time we remain in a world of extremes, without much middle ground to rest upon at all. A few years ago, I read the entire novel, on a weekly basis over about 18 months, with a Shared Reading group in a local community centre. It was already a fairly established group by the time we reached this novel and the group had read quite a range of literature with me. I presented the group with a few choices of what to read next and Wuthering Heights won. Many had seen the 1939 film version with Laurence Olivier or heard the 1978 Kate Bush pop classic: ‘Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home, I’m so cold...’ The group were keen to meet the iconic couple, Heathcliff and Cathy. However, what the group had not realised was just how violent the novel actually is – physically as well as emotionally.
The story is set against the wild backdrop of the Yorkshire moors. An outsider, Mr Lockwood, is told the history of the Earnshaw family, the inhabitants of a house called Wuthering Heights, by a servant named Nelly who has lived as part of the household since childhood. Brother and sister, Hindley and Cathy Earnshaw, hold very different views on their newly adopted step-brother Heathcliff, an orphan found on the streets of Liverpool and brought home by their father. The relationships that develop between Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley are incredibly complex, and become more so as the family circle extends to Thrushcross Grange, the home of the genteel and respectable Lintons. Cathy forms an attachment with Edgar Linton, seemingly the diametrical opposite of Heathcliff. A story of love and revenge follows which is played out to all its awful consequences. This is not a happy read! But it is an extremely thought-provoking and rich one.
There are also other people to explore and think about. While Heathcliff and Hindley, followed by Cathy, may be the people associated mostly with extremities of mood, the other unnerving thing about this novel is how supposedly ‘balanced’ people, such as the visiting Mr Lockwood, can also become violent. Early on in the novel, for example, before Nelly Dean has begun to tell us the story of Heathcliff and Cathy, we are witnesses to a nightmarish scene when Lockwood encounters Cathy’s ghost. He is staying over at the Heights. It is night-time and he reaches out to close the window, but as he does so his ‘fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!’:
‘I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in – let me in!’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied shiveringly... ‘I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!’ As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window. Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, ‘Let me in!’ and maintained its tenacious grip, almost maddening me with fear.’
The question that I always ask myself at this point is why? Why is Lockwood moved to terror rather than compassion by the sight of a crying child outside on a dark night? Is it because he senses she isn’t of his world? Also, why does his terror so quickly lead to his violence? You may now be wondering whether you feel able to let the wild world of Wuthering Heights into your life. ‘This is a shocking book!’ said one of my group members at this point in the story. That feeling of shock continues throughout the story and undeniably it is at times a difficult novel to read. However, there is also a danger in keeping ourselves in the dark and shutting out other worlds and minds, avoiding encounters with what we may be afraid of. If your Shared Reading group is ready to read the novel, they will be repeatedly shocked along the way but they may also come out the other side feeling stronger for it – once we can look upon worlds of both heaven and hell, whilst keeping our own feet walking on the earth. Upon reaching the end of the novel with my group, I recall one reader saying ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to re-read that, but at the same time I am glad we did stick with it and got through it together.’ Once you have read Wuthering Heights, there is a feeling that you can then go on to read anything.
Dr. David Fearnley, a Medical Director and Forensic Psychiatrist at Mersey Care NHS Mental Health Trust, read Wuthering Heights with a Shared Reading group at a high secure unit for mentally disordered offenders. Reading about these extreme characters and the violence they inflict evoked ‘natural’ expressions of shock and concern from people who had themselves been violent in other contexts. The readers in this group had been lost or alienated from the values, codes, and rules that governed behaviour in the world beyond the hospital, but reading this novel helped introduce or reconnect them to original and broadly shared meanings.
In the new mini-anthology produced by The Reader, Frost & Fire, you can read an extract from Chapter 9 where Cathy endeavours to articulate the differences in her loves for Heathcliff on the one hand and Linton on the other:
‘My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.’
If Wuthering Heights is a shocking read, it can also provide moments like this – moments that provide you with stunning and honest articulations of different kinds of love bound up within the same person. If you choose to read this book, alone or with a Shared Reading group, don’t rush it; make the time to listen to the people you and your fellow readers meet along the way. We know that one of the surprising and unique things about reading powerful literature in a Shared Reading group is the opportunity to hear of experiences beyond our own – the experiences of the characters in the novel, but also of our fellow readers. One person might say, ‘This kind of love does not exist – it's not realistic!’ But another might know something of the darker side of love, what it is to feel it as ‘a source of little visible delight, but necessary.’ The novel will provoke strong initial reactions, but it’s worth staying with those reactions and exploring them, listening, re-reading, and asking ‘What would it be like to feel this?’
Wuthering Heights is a bold choice and an even bolder read. But for those who are ready to explore life at the extremes, it will certainly make an enduring impression, and you may find that you – and your fellow readers, if you’re reading it in a group setting – come out feeling that little bit braver for having made such a journey together. If we confront our worst fears in life or take the imaginative leaps that this novel demands, we can often rediscover our own essential core.
Frost & Fire is the first of four mini-anthologies we will be releasing this year, each of which will focus on a book that is on this year’s The Reader Bookshelf. The focus of this first booklet is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. You’ll find an extract from the novel, with reflections from readers and accompanying poems and prose which draw on some of the thoughts and feelings evoked by Wuthering Heights. It’s named Frost & Fire — from Cathy’s description of her two lovers — as both the novel and the other literature collected here deal with extremes and opposites.
If you're a Reader Leader a link to the anthology can be found here.
As we continue to explore The Reader Bookshelf we've asked members of our Children & Young People Team to talk about their…
As we continue to explore The Reader Bookshelf we've asked members of our Children & Young People Team to talk…
July’s Stories and Poems have been chosen on the theme of War and Conflict. At a time when many of…
Contact usGet in touch and be part of the story
You can also speak to us on: 0151 729 2200