The Brontes’ Men: Heathcliff & Mr. Rochester

true-novel-mizumuraAlthough I didn’t rush out and buy Joanna Trollope’s new novel, Sense and Sensibility, a modern version of Austen’s novel, or Ronald Frame’s Havisham, a retelling of the story of the misanthropic spinster of Great Expectations, I am very keen on retellings of Victorian novels.

And tomorrow a new one will be published, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, a modern Japanese version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, translated by Julie Winters Carpenter.

Wuthering Heights used to be my favorite book, though for that reason I am a little reluctant to go near it again.

But I feel I should reread it before A Modern Novel.

On the other hand, I read it often in high school.

According to The New Yorker,  “like Emily Brontë’s classic story of stormy love, the events in Mizumura’s novel are relayed through layers of narrators….Mizumura, who moved to America with her family when she was a young girl, then moved back to Japan as an adult, injects elements of autobiography into the story’s primary voice, a novelist named Minae who grows up in New York. ”

It sounds fascinating.

wuthering-heights-emily-bronte-paperback-cover-artBut what does Bronte’s Wuthering Heights mean to a woman in her fifties?  I am no longer willing to fall in love with every dark, difficult, charming, tortured romantic character who comes my way.

Nor would Heathcliff be able to see me at my age. Cardigans and a string of pearls?  (Well, I’m working on the string of pearls thing.)  Gray hair?  I now belong in a Barbara Pym novel, flirting with curates.

And will Bronte’s prose stand up?

When I was 15, the year I lived with my father after my parents’ divorce, I read Wuthering Heights  several times.  He didn’t get it.  “Are you reading that again?”

Silence.

“That moldy thing?”

Silence.

“Shouldn’t you be out stealing cars or something?”

Silence.

That year, I probably rode in a car once.  I would never learn to drive. People didn’t think I was serious.  I was.

And though I did have some happy times with my father–once he bought me used ice skates at Novotny’s, and we had a happy day “skating” on the pond at City Park, i.e., my friend and my father held me up on the ice because my ankles weren’t strong– we were very different.  I belonged in a Bronte book; he belonged in an episode of Happy Days.

While he worked nights, I sat around the apartment and read. Charlotte and Emily were two of my favorite writers.  They had bad taste in men.  I just thought that’s the way it was.  My soulmate would be intense, ardent, and fierce.

Somehow I really wanted Heathcliff to dig up my grave.

When Catherine dies:

May she wake in torment!” he cried with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion.  “Why, she’s a liar to the end!  Where is she?  Not there–not in Heaven–not perished–where?  Oh!  you said you cared nothing for my sufferings!  And I pray one prayer–I repeat it till my tongue stiffens–Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living!  You said I killed you–haunt me, then!  The murdered do haunt their murderers! I know that ghosts have wandered on earth.   Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad!  only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!  Oh, God!  it is unutterable!  I cannot live without my life!  I cannot live without my soul!”

Gorgeous writing!  But this would never happen to me.  Really, honey (talking to my younger self now), this isn’t your kind of thing.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a book I can no longer read, Mr. Rochester is a less emotional, slightly more believable version of Heathcliff.  When he falls in love with Jane, the governess, and tells her that beautiful Blanche, his guest, is “a strapping wench,” we are thrilled.  Though we don’t doubt Mr. Rochester should be in love with Jane, we’re appalled in retrospect by the mad wife in the attic and can’t help but think he was after Jane because he thought a young woman would tolerate this better than the Blanches of this world if it ever came out.

He was wrong.

I was always wildly in love with dark, moderately good-looking boys and men who unfortunately were somewhat unkind.  Once I borrowed a bike from a boy I was in love with, and when I did not lock it upon returning it–it had been unlocked, and I wanted to make sure he had the key before I locked it again–he berated me.  (By the way, this was just a lock and key, not a symbol.)

And, yes, some of my boyfriends later had a hard time celebrating my successes.

Did the Brontes influence us?  Or is this an archetypal cavewoman’s idea of men?

I will read Wuthering Heights today and let you know.

7 thoughts on “The Brontes’ Men: Heathcliff & Mr. Rochester

  1. I was never that keen on Jane Eyre (I think I distrusted Rochester even then) but I loved the dramatic in Wuthering Heights. They’re not realistic of course – I’ve never come across anyone who behaves like that!

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  2. I’m the other way around. I yearned for Rochester — mad wife and all — but was somewhat repelled by Heathcliff. Both books were and are important to me. The Bronte sisters wrote about real female emotions, the strength of passionate attraction rather than the prim and proper assessment of prudent marriage opportunities.

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  3. Karen and Nancy, I loved Jane Eyre when I was young, and it was probably the first adult “classic” I read. In recent years have gone over to Villette, a more realistic novel where the teacher heroine does NOT land a Mr. Rochester! But it wasn’t till my 30s that I admired Jane Eyre less. It is a very great book: I can’t read it now, though. Karen, I think all of us were in love with Mr. Rochester, so you’re VERY sane. We like him because we were not the most beautiful, and yet he chose Jane (which meant Paul McCartney would someday marry me, or perhaps Herman of Herman’s Hermits).

    But then there’s that whole “castration” scene in Jane Eyre where she reunites with Rochester and he needs her. At least that’s how it was taught back in the day, though I had read Jane Eyre long before I read it for a class. This Freudian criticism is probably gone, gone, gone now.

    Wuthering Heights is poetic, crazy, symbolic, full of beautiful metaphors, and–well, I’m just beginning, but I think I’ll last.

    Nancy, I adore the Brontes! They are special. Smart women are so important to them.

    But I can’t read Anne. I loved her, too, once, but I started to reread The Tenant of Whatever Hall, and didn’t think it well-written. Still, I had a taste for it once.

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  4. I loved Jane Eyre best as a girl: I read it age 15, and like Austen’s books read by that age (P&P, S&S, MP) I read and re-read it. I knew whole sections by heart; could picture the death of Helen on the page. Ditto for Gone with the Wind: I read and reread until my copy fell to bits. It was GWTW my father objected to: as not worthy such attention (!). I associated the Brontes with one another and saw that the first couple at the heart of Wuthering Heights was wild romance (and used to quote sections as applicable to Jim and I), yet it seemed to me heterosexual romance was not its point, wild nature was. I confess I also thought it crude: I still do. I couldn’t read Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a girl; couldn’t get past its opening as so stern. Now I love it, and also the bitterness of Agnes Grey. Finally nowadays Villette is too masochistic but when I listened to it read aloud, the opening where Lucy looks for a job and wanders the city alone I found my daughter Izzy listening intently and utterly inidentifying with Lucy as a modern young woman. i like their poetry too, all three of them — the women. And DuMaurier’s Infernal World of Branwell Bronte. I have a hard time believing any author could come up to them in corrosive passion but I am interested in Joanna Trollope’s S&S: now that she’s mined her several times removed ancestor, Anthony, she moves to other Victorians.

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  5. Ellen, I should reread a biography of Charlotte. What was real and what wasn’t real in Villette? I think Mr. Rochester demands a certain degree of masochism, too, but since I haven’t read the book in years I can’t say. (Now will probably reread it since you-all are talking about it!)

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  6. If you want to hear Charlotte Bronte’s own voice, read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her. The title may be Life of Charlotte Bronte (not sure). Gaskell knew Bronte and met her family; They gave her permission to quote extensively from family letters. Gaskell skates rather quickly over some of the family problems, but it is a wonderful and moving account.

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  7. Nancy, I read Mrs. Gaskell’s biography long ago and loved it. We have an old Penguin, falling apart, but I’m sure I would prefer this to the other biographies.

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