How does a shut-in consumptive English spinster get to write Wuthering Heights? It is the most intense love story ever written, and Cathy and Heathcliff the craziest lovers in literature. Their relationship goes beyond possession, desire or wanting to live happily ever after: what they call “love” is the stuff of psychotherapy. It’s not just obsessive love—they can’t even be jealous of other people because as Cathy says, “I AM Heathcliff”.
This situation does not make for happy endings, nor do they expect one. Cathy makes an effort at a healthy, “normal” life, marrying a decent man and playing the devoted wife and mother-to-be. Of course it doesn’t work. She basically starves herself to death, but even death will not end her pain. Heathcliff meets her weeping housekeeper and asks if Cathy is dead. The housekeeper says she sleeps with the angels or something, and Heathcliff cries, “May she wake in torment!” Then he bangs his head on a tree, leaving bloodstains. He curses her for leaving him, and then he calls on her to haunt him. He asks her to give him no peace. And the amazing thing about Emily Bronte’s novel is that you believe this extreme emotion could exist.
Writing teachers always advise their students to “write what they know”—what about Wuthering Heights? It is a triumph of the imagination, fueled by powerful feelings that had no other outlet but the written page.
In Abismos de Pasion, Luis Buñuel’s film adaptation from the 1950s, the tale is set in Mexico. This does away with one of the things we love about the Emily Bronte: the atmosphere. Misty moors, howling winds, ghostly faces in the window—it’s not called Wuthering Heights for nothing. (Note that her sister’s novel is called Jane Eyre and not Thornfield Hall, though the sisters both created dark, mysterious, Byronic, unpleasant leading men. We’ve never read their youngest sister Anne—will look up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.)
The Buñuel also dispenses with the “ghost story” and the love story involving the second generation terrorized by Heathcliff, who really is not a nice man. Though if we were to go by national stereotypes, the “passionate” Latin-American nature is a closer match to Bronte’s characters than the “polite, repressed” Brits. Instead of squelching around in the mud and contracting tuberculosis, you’ve got people in arid, dusty farms and blazing sunshine. But the emotion is the same: the passion that drags the lovers to hell.
Writers are already shut-ins by definition, maybe there is something to the reclusive life.
* In Career Girls by Mike Leigh, two friends divine the future by asking a question and opening a copy of Wuthering Heights to a random page.
* * We’re going to read Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own.