My 2019 Reading Stacks #4: Our Dismal Double Date with Heathcliff and Catherine

Wuthering Heights!

I imagine the book designer going to the publisher in tears: “I’m sorry, but there isn’t a single scene worth illustrating on the front cover. Can I just photograph the wallpaper in my grandma’s bedroom?”

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

At the beginning of each year I spend weeks writing year-in-review entries that cover the gamut of my entertainment intake, including capsule reviews for all the books and graphic novels I’ve read. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it.

As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections I’ve read throughout the year in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will pop up here and there, albeit in a minority capacity for a few different reasons. Triple bonus points to any longtime MCC readers who can tell which items I bought at which comic/entertainment conventions we’ve attended over the past few years.

And now…it’s readin’ time. Again, finally, after a plethora of topics I felt compelled to cover first, not to mention dozens of criminal instances of going to bed before midnight instead of writing. Tally-ho!

16. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (edited by Linda H. Peterson). A few years ago my wife Anne found her work life restructured in such a way that she had much more reading time on her hands. (No, this is not a euphemism for “she got fired.” She’s doing well and is the apple of her supervisor’s eye.) Once she’d exhausted her own unread stash, I volunteered my own, far more voluminous piles. An alarming number of mine date back thirty years, including several from my failed, fading English-major days. Perhaps I’m kidding myself, but I’ve optimistically held on to them all this time because hey, you just never know. Fellow bookworms who dedicate entire bookcases to unopened purchases know what I mean.

A few of the books I was supposed to read back then (hence “failed”) were of the kind deemed “classics” by old white guys in centuries past who got paid to wander hallowed institutional halls and proclaim the definitive reading lists that would define literary academia in the cliques they governed. Anne latched onto a few of those and gave them a whirl. I can say without double-checking that Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote was far and away her favorite of my loaners. She frequently summarized, quoted, and highly recommended it to me. It’s quite a thick book, but I intend to take her up on that one day. By stark contrast, Herman Melville’s Fantastic Whales and How to Stab at Them — retitled Moby-Dick by some slick marketing department who feared they had a dud on their hands — was a 3000-page chore that taught her everything she never wanted to know about how to chase and harpoon whales, except it left out how to do so successfully without dying or seeing your entire crew slaughtered. Her descriptions of this overlong how-to manual reminded me of the time Tom Clancy spent over 100 pages pretending to teach his readers how a nuclear bomb worked.

And then there was Wuthering Heights. All we knew — or thought we knew — was the author’s name and gender, and the fervor of its multi-generational, largely female fan base. We had both assumed it was some sort of torrid, prototypical romance or whatever. Possibly a distant cousin to the Austens, maybe even a source of countless ripoffs by Harlequin novelists. We didn’t know. We didn’t research. As asserted above, obviously I didn’t pay attention when we covered it in my Victorian Lit class. The professor may have done so on some of the days I skipped, once I realized she never took, stressed, or mentioned attendance. Or perhaps it was one of the books we were told to buy at the beginning of the semester and then never covered. The prof was funny that way. I threw myself with gusto into one (1) well-regarded project that involved a classroom skit in which I played Algernon Charles Swinburne, never turned in a single assigned essay, don’t recall there being actual tests, and somehow walked away with a D at the end. It was the best grade on my final report card after I dropped out.

But I held on to those books ever after. Thus was my 1992 edition of Wuthering Heights still in my possession, somehow making the cut despite all the books and comics I’d pruned when we moved in 2007, ready and waiting for that moment when the Fates decided Anne should give it a go. Like me, she’d assumed it was “archaic chick lit” and added it to her list.

She hated it. Resented it. Slogged through to the end, but rooted for no one. Waited for something resembling romance to happen. Judged every character as they took turns maligning each other. Refused to accept excuses of familial circles of violence and hate, wishing someone would take responsibility for a single sin. She’s by no means the sort of reader who wishes for violent retribution in her stories, but I think she might’ve been happier if Mr. Lockwood had been a righteous crusader with a spine who slew Heathcliff in a duel, or had at least ordered the former Earnshaw estate righteously demolished.

She appreciated the chance to experience a well-known touchstone of literature, from the standpoint of adding more olde-tyme pop-culture references to her knowledge base, but her next step after the conclusion was not to go searching for more Bronte works. In fact, in the time since then she’s been avoiding fiction altogether and sticking largely to poring over the nonfiction history sections at our local libraries. There’re other mitigating factors besides merely Melville and Bronte, but their works weren’t exactly her gateway drugs to a 19th-century lit addiction.

To this day, whenever it comes up in Jeopardy! questions — which by my count is all the time — she stiffens a little and her eyes narrow as she growls at our TV, “What is Wuthering Heights?” Alex Trebek is generally a lovely man and a paragon of TV quiz-show decorum, but there are two things he does that ruin Anne’s viewing experience more than anything else: unveil one of those painfully punny “Before and After” categories, and mention Wuthering Heights.

After years of watching these side effects play out, I decided to read it for myself 26 years after it was first assigned. I had to know what had hurt my wife so badly.

My experience wasn’t quite as bad as hers. As a comics fan I’ve read series where all the characters were awful people, though at least back in the ’80s Suicide Squad would give us even crueler bad guys to root against so we had a reason to cheer on the bad-guy protagonists. Wuthering Heights struck me as scathing satire of the hollow people who populated Bronte’s neighborhood, who seemed glossy and composed on the outside but who harbored terrible, filthy secrets behind closed doors, most of which centered around entire generations inflicting physical, mental, emotional, and/or sexual damage upon their inheritors. I interpreted Wuthering Heights as a burst of furious gossip cloaked in class-war vitriol with all the names changed. That inroad worked for me, though it began to remind me of the soap operas my mom and grandma used to watch — daytime and nighttime — where every character was The Worst but I was supposed to want to know what happened to them next anyway. I didn’t quite reach a level of unironic enjoyment, but satire is my jam and I’ll allow for it.

My classroom edition of the book also includes a bevy of extras: two contextualizing intros by original editor Charlotte Brontë reprinted from back in the day, which among other things “outed” her and her sister’s masculine pen names; connective prefaces and intermissions from the editor, a Yale professor who passed away in 2015; and five essays by various scholars approaching the text from differing perspectives as they stood circa 1992 — psychoanalytic, feminist, deconstructionist, Marxist, and cultural critiques. The feminist critique felt dated compared to what I see daily on Twitter, but (as longtime MCC readers might expect) the deconstructionist take appealed most to my sensibilities. The others really varied, occasionally diving into hyper-pretentious collegiate-speak that reminds me of former classmates I don’t miss.

The reading experience, belated though it was, dovetailed into one of those astounding coincidences that keep popping up throughout my life that point toward Intelligent Design. Around the time I got to the 200-page mark in early November, I happened to be reading DIE #9, then the latest issue in a series I’d previously written about here at extreme length when its RPG-writ-large premise and dire otherworldly situations resonated with an integral if somewhat scarring part of my childhood. Lo and behold, the world of DIE intersected with my little timeline once again when that issue’s fantasy world introduced a new character in the form of Charlotte Bronte herself, sister and editor of author Emily, reimagined as a sort of castaway in another realm where the Bronte family’s well-documented history of inventing and running their own private role-playing game made her a perfect fit for the series’ themes. It would’ve been more traumatizing if it had been Emily herself staring back from the printed page and judging me to my face, but as tangential coincidences go, it was sufficiently eyebrow-raising.

I otherwise finished the book and its appendices — admittedly reading two of those critiques a bit more superficially to get them over with — and can now cross another “classic” book title off my to-do list. I don’t know that I’m ready to see a movie or TV adaptation, but if the new film version of Little Women does well this weekend in theaters, perhaps someone can entice Greta Gerwig to make something of it.

I had intended to recount multiple books per entry, not just the one, but this is a lot of words already, right? I’ll pause here, then.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2 | Stack #3]

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