Sunday, 9 September 2018

Wuthering Heights' Half Life

There are two views of Wuthering Heights.

One is gained from reading the book, from which flow reactions of at least admiration, analysis, astonishment, criticism, cynicism, emotional engagement, disbelief and vituperation in a variety of measures.

The other is gained from a general cultural impression of an abiding and tragic love story set on wind-swept moors, something which in the end is quite detached from the book itself.

Lauren Livesey, a member of the staff at the Bronte Society, drew attention to this divide in a lively talk at the Parsonage Museum last week.

She located the 1939 film starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as the turning point.  Everything  from the film’s primary focus on the two characters of Heathcliff and Cathy to its omission of the second half of the book created the new cultural impression, she suggested, which others have closely followed since.

She pointed out that this happened half the way back to the publication of the book.  Not quite so - 1847-1939 is 92 years and 1939-2018 is 79 years - but the basic point is illuminating; basically, the alternative Wuthering Heights is a television-era product and dominates all living memory.

She spoke of the Monty Python 1970 sketch which turned the book into sweeping semaphore signals between Heathcliff and Cathy (and then her husband and others), a spoof which would simply not have worked if it wasn’t referencing a recognised culturally embedded image.

She also spoke about Kate Bush saying her song (which the Monty Python sketch was not referencing as the song was actually produced later in the 1970s) emerged from her awareness of the story rather than from her having read the book.

So some of those who react emotionally to Emily Brontë’s burial place in our church have been engaging with the book at many levels over a long period.  And others are doing so because they resonate with the second Wuthering Heights.

I’m grateful to the talk for making sense of this to me – previously I had been much more puzzled about what model of marriage could possibly be in the mind of those from far away who even request we conduct or bless their weddings in our church.

Lauren also showed us a long clip from a film of Pride and Prejudice which she said serious Jane Austen fans found mystifying as it has Elizabeth Bennet stand on a rocky promontory on a wind-swept moor amidst swirling music – the viral form of Wuthering Heights somehow infecting the more genteel home counties’ story.

It did mean we could exchange stories.  Lauren’s was simply of the tour guide telling people that Pride and Prejudice was written in the Parsonage.  Mine was of a recent visitor to Emily’s Brontë’s grave telling me she had also recently visited Winchester Cathedral and seen there the grave of Jane Eyre.

The picture is a further view of Chiharu Shiota’s installation at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

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