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Book Review: Wuthering Heights

May 28, 2018

I hated this book. I mean, I don’t hate it now, but it took me 40 years to read it.

When I was in high school, well back in the last millenium, I was a terrible student, except when it came to English. I loved English classes. I once scored 250% of the total possible points in a short story class. The teacher, to encourage students to read outside of class, gave 10 points extra credit for every short story we read. I loved short stories, (still do) and I read books of the collected short stories of Clarke, and Twain and several others. My extra credit was much more than my base points.

I still remember many of the titles I first met as a young high schooler; The Most Dangerous Game, A Separate Peace, Winter of Our Discontent. As part of Advanced Placement English, we had to read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

I hated it. Remember, I was a kid who loved reading. I devoured the Lord of The Rings trilogy at least 8 times in high school, and read everything Mark Twain ever wrote.

But, Wuthering Heights was horrible. I struggled through it like one would taking a dose of nasty medicine, or a visit to the dentist. I was happy to have completed it mostly so I never had to touch it again.

Fast forward about 40 years.

My grandmother, Venda Castleberry, had been a high school English teacher. When she passed away, some of her books came to me. I’ve written in the past about the joy I got out of reading a book she had annotated. (Book Review: The Grapes of Wrath.)

I received her copy of Wuthering Heights. It’s an impressive looking volume. Published in 1943, the book is almost closer to Emily Bronte (who died in 1848) than it is to me today.

The book took it’s place on my overstuffed bookshelves more as a kind reminder of my dear departed grandmother than as a volume that I had any intention of delving into.

I tried it once. . .didn’t take.

But, recently, I decided that maybe I was being overly harsh. And it had been such a joy reading her notes in Steinbeck’s masterpiece, that perhaps, with grandma’s help, I could find what I’d missed in this “classic” all those years ago.

I found more than I ever expected.

Before I talk about the story itself, the introduction was fascinating. It was written by Emily’s sister Charlotte Bronte. She explained not only the short life and tragic death of Emily, but how the three sisters, (including their younger sister Anne,) assumed male pseudonyms to write and publish in the mid-19th century. It was a window into a completely different time.

The story of Heathcliff, one of literatures true bad boys, started out better than I remembered. And it continued to get better. I was immediately drawn into the story of the Yorkshire countryside with its eclectic cast of old and young, good and bad and those in between. Each page included underlined passages or margin notes in my grandmother’s hand, guiding me, the reader.

And then I discovered, tucked into the pages of the book, a treasure I never expected. I found her teaching notes. Two pages, front and back with questions, answers, insights, comments.

The book, which was already proving to be entertaining, suddenly opened up in a whole new way.

I knew what I thought of poor Mister Lockwood’s condition, but here was someone who had studied the story offering her view on it. I loved it. And I savored the chapters after that.

It was with no small amount of sadness that I came to the end of the tale. I even spared some sympathy for Heathcliff in his final days, a tribute to Ms Bronte’s extraordinary talent at painting a rogue that we can feel sorry for.

I came away from Wuthering Heights, obviously, with a much different view than I approached it. Once again, my grandmother opened up the wonders of literature to me.

What I liked

The personalized notes were, clearly, a huge blessing. But, even aside from them, the story was engaging, thrilling. Bronte’s prose is as fresh and exciting as if it were written in the twenty-first century rather than two centuries past. The character development was amazing. Like worried grandparents, watching a troubled child from afar, we see Heathcliff from his earliest beginnings and a bad start, through to his ultimate end. Bronte takes us to live in the moors and paints the beauty and the starkness with equal clarity.

What I didn’t

The names and relationships. Bronte starts the book by having Lookwood, the narrator, pushed into a situation where he doesn’t exactly know the relationships between the characters. He eventually figures it out, but it’s challenging as a reader at times to keep them straight. If I were reading it again, I’d print out the cast of characters from the Wikiepedia article and use it as a guide. And while the prose is brilliant, it’s also nearly 200 years old. At times, it squeaks like an old door that’s not been opened in years.

What it means to you

My kids have AP English this year. They’ve never heard of Wuthering Heights. There are so many great works of literature, that schools and teachers have to pick and choose, and at least in our district, Bronte didn’t make the cut. And Bronte would have difficulty competing with today’s style of “action-packed, with a big reveal” style of writing. Still, if you decide to reach back into a different time, and want a windows into a different century, while also being entertained with a gripping story, Wuthering Heights has stood well the test of time. (And if you happen to find handwritten notes from your grandmother, that’s just an added bonus.)

My Rating

Three out of four stars

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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