Friday, September 21, 2012


When I was nearly fourteen years old, I tried a couple of times to read WUTHERING HEIGHTS but always fell asleep. Maybe it had to do with how I read the novel: in my grandmother’s room, my hand propped up to my ear for support, as I lay (too comfortably) on her bed which was bedecked in an old pink chenille bedspread. I’d begin to slog through old Joseph the manservant’s Yorkshire dialect, faithfully rendered by Emily Bronte, and that drone as he said,Owd Nick” would send me into dreamland. Maybe it had to do with the darkness I innately and intuitively sensed in the novel, of the moors at night, as inky, awesome, impenetrable a darkness as Heathcliff’s mind at the end.

One day, I had to read this peculiar work, for we were to write a critique/paper for my ninth grade English class. I resolved to read past Joseph and his brass pans, into the world of Emily’s dreams. For two days—one weekend—I was in the novel’s thrall. I quietly read much, as I kept to myself in my room. Since then, I have read WUTHERING HEIGHTS—a perfect Gothic novel, I think—once a year, each year that’s elapsed.

This experience with WUTHERING HEIGHTS illustrates that reading is an activity, an exercise—neither passive, nor effortless.

If you’re willing to be won over by a novel’s irrepressible beauty or by its luminous other-worldly darkness, then the task is well worth it.

Briefly, WUTHERING HEIGHTS—a 19th century novel--is the poignant, haunting, dark and eerie story of Catherine and Heathcliff’s love for each other, from childhood. It is also a generational tale about the Earnshaw family and their descendants.

In my ninth grade class, all the girls were mesmerized by WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I remember one tall, big-nosed, not very pretty girl—let’s call her Mala—would often lament how Charlotte Bronte, Emily’s sister, had burned Emily’s poems and, sigh, how sad it all was.

For some reason, young women—even today—claim Catherine as their own. They bemoan their Catherine’s fate. To me, it means that the novel’s story, and Emily’s life, lit a flame in Mala’s mind so that, months after we’d read WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Mala would insist Charlotte had done irretrievable wrong. Indeed, the novel had set all our minds aflame. WUTHERING HEIGHTS had formed an impress on our minds, like the impress of a leaf-fossil on the loamy earth. One can trace the shape and history of a leaf years after the leaf’s death. The impress remains. So too with a good novel, especially when read in childhood. The reading forms an impress of feeling, awe, and inspiration.

Every novel read and loved forms a leaf-fossil.

I will share with you two leaf-fossils from WUTHERING HEIGHTS: The first is evoked by Joseph, the persnickety old man as he boiled huge portions of porridge on the kitchen hearth at the Heights. Two instances I remember: One when Isabella, Heathcliff’s bride, offers grudgingly to make the porridge, spurred on by Joseph’s haphazard method of plunging his hand into the oatmeal as he made the porridge:

“Joseph was bending over the fire, peering into a large pan that swung above it; and a wooden bowl of oatmeal stood on the settle close by. The contents of the pan began to boil, and he turned to plunge his hand into the bowl; I conjectured that this preparation was probably for our supper, and, being hungry, I resolved it should be eatable—so, crying out sharply—‘I’ll make the porridge!’ I removed the vessel out of his reach. . . .”

The second instance occurs when Catherine Heathcliff causes Hareton to giggle by tossing primroses into his porridge. But the leaf-fossil echoed childhood memories, as I ate the porridge my grandfather made. Steamy and disliked by me, the porridge was boiled for at least two hours until so thick it was scarcely stirrable. I loved watching my grandfather pour the porridge, in seesaw motion, from one pan to another in order to cool it. Then, we would spice the porridge with nutmeg and cinnamon, as I poured in all the milk I could without being reprimanded.

The second leaf-fossil formed from Heathcliff’s young sassy Catherine, who wrote a make-shift diary in book-margins, as she sat in the lattice-window. There she revealed Hindley’s wicked behavior toward her and Heathcliff:

Hindley hurried up from his paradise on the hearth, and seizing one of us by the collar, and the other by the arm, hurled both into the kitchen . . . and so, comforted, we each sought a separate nook to await his advent. I reached this book, and a pot of ink from the shelf, and pushed the house-door ajar to give me light, and I have got the time on with writing for twenty minutes; but my companion is impatient and proposes that we should appropriate the dairy-woman’s cloak, and have a scamper on the moors, under its shelter.”

As a child, Emily Bronte created an elaborate imaginary world of complex characters and their families that infused her adult writings. As a pastor’s daughter, she led a solitary life, along with her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, and brother, Patrick. Each sibling wrote stories to entertain himself/herself and each other.
Later, as adults, each sibling wrote poems and a novel which they scrimped and saved to publish.
Emily’s novel was published in 1847 under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell” to negative reviews, some might say because of the book’s other-worldly quality.

Today, however, WUTHERING HEIGHTS is regarded a classic.

When I read this novel, I am transported into that dream landscape—a place that has fascinated me since that weekend I read the book in my room, while silvery rainwater drenched the mango tree outside my window.

The impress of WUTHERING HEIGHTS remains.

--Yolanda A. Reid

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