When a friend of mine and I were discussing a title for his book, he jokingly responded, ‘What about Wuthering Heights? Or Les miserables‘? It was quite the coincidence since I’ve had the above copy of Wuthering Heights sitting on my bedroom table for about 6 months. On May 4, this year I presented Gabriel Garcia Marquez ‘Of Love and Other Demons‘. That was the last time I presented a book here on ‘Wednesday’s Literature Extract’. I have been in a reading hiatus for all this time and just the mere mention of Wuthering Heights gave me enough incentive to blow the dust off this old English classic and pick up from where I left off 6 months ago.
This 2000 Modern Library edition has extensive forward entries like Emily Bronte’s bio, Introduction and Bio’s of Ellis and Acton Bell. ‘What does Ellis and Acton have to do with the price of eggs?’; I hear you say. ‘Well, those names were in reality the production of one person‘ writes Currer Bell who in reality was Charlotte Bronte. You guessed it Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell were the pseudonyms used by the 3 Bronte sisters, respectively Emily, Anne and Charlotte.
Charlotte wrote in these notes:
‘We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors…We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and if possible, get them printed. Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell…We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weopon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.‘
Since today’s literature extract from Wuthering Heights is the first of foreseeably others, I will not divulge too much information here, but it should be understood this novel is widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written in English, but contemporaneous reviews were polarised. It was controversial for its depictions of mental and physical cruelty, including domestic abuse, and for its challenges to Victorian morality and religious and societal values.
I will set the scene for this excerpt in the opening stanza which I found chucklesome: In 1801, Mr Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire, pays a visit to his landlord, Heathcliff, at his remote moorland farmhouse, Wuthering Heights. There he meets a reserved young woman (later identified as Cathy Linton), Joseph, a cantankerous servant, and Hareton- an uneducated fellow, who presents himself as such.
I took a seat at the end of the hearthstone opposite that towards which my landlord advanced and filled up an interval of silence by attempting to caress the canine mother, who had left her nursery, and was sneaking wolfishly to the back of my legs, her lip curled up, and her white teeth watering for a snatch. My caress provoked a long, guttural gnarl.
“You’d better let the dog alone,” growled Mr. Heathcliff in unison, checking fiercer demonstrations with a punch of his foot. “She’s not accustomed to be spoiled—not kept for a pet.” Then, striding to a side door, he shouted again, “Joseph!”
Joseph mumbled indistinctly in the depths of the cellar, but gave no intimation of ascending; so his master dived down to him, leaving me vis-à-vis the ruffianly bitch and a pair of grim shaggy sheep-dogs, who shared with her a jealous guardianship over all my movements. Not anxious to come in contact with their fangs, I sat still; but, imagining they would scarcely understand tacit insults, I unfortunately indulged in winking and making faces at the trio, and some turn of my physiognomy so irritated madam, that she suddenly broke into a fury and leapt on my knees. I flung her back, and hastened to interpose the table between us. This proceeding aroused the whole hive: half-a-dozen four-footed fiends, of various sizes and ages, issued from hidden dens to the common centre. I felt my heels and coat-laps peculiar subjects of assault; and parrying off the larger combatants as effectually as I could with the poker, I was constrained to demand, aloud, assistance from some of the household in re-establishing peace.
Mr. Heathcliff and his man climbed the cellar steps with vexatious phlegm: I don’t think they moved one second faster than usual, though the hearth was an absolute tempest of worrying and yelping. Happily, an inhabitant of the kitchen made more dispatch; a lusty dame, with tucked-up gown, bare arms, and fire-flushed cheeks, rushed into the midst of us flourishing a frying-pan: and used that weapon, and her tongue, to such purpose, that the storm subsided magically, and she only remained, heaving like a sea after a high wind, when her master entered on the scene.
“What the devil is the matter?” he asked, eyeing me in a manner that I could ill endure after this inhospitable treatment.
“What the devil, indeed!” I muttered. “The herd of possessed swine could have had no worse spirits in them than those animals of yours, sir. You might as well leave a stranger with a brood of tigers!”
“They won’t meddle with persons who touch nothing,” he remarked, putting the bottle before me, and restoring the displaced table. “The dogs do right to be vigilant. Take a glass of wine?”
“No, thank you.”
“Not bitten, are you?”
“If I had been, I would have set my signet on the biter.” Heathcliff’s countenance relaxed into a grin.
“Come, come,” he said, “you are flurried, Mr. Lockwood. Here, take a little wine. Guests are so exceedingly rare in this house that I and my dogs, I am willing to own, hardly know how to receive them. Your health, sir!”