An Hour’s Uninterrupted Reading: Emily Bronte and Willa Cather

Social media can be draining. I am so  tired of celebrities’ tweets, which newspapers now reprint to entice readers.  These social media platforms promote racism, sexism, fake news, blacklisting, and misinformation.  Enough!

Fortunately, an  hour’s uninterrupted reading of a book puts me back together again. This year I am reading novels, biographies, and letters to prepare for two significant literary anniversaries:  the bicentenary of Emily Bronte’s birth (July 30), and the 100th anniversary of the publication of Cather’s My Antonia (Sept. 21).

I love Emily and Willa.  In my mind I’m already roaming Emily Bronte’s moors and Willa Cather’s prairie.  Whom do I prefer?  I can’t decide.  I’ve been consistent since age 12  about loving the Brontes:  my favorite book used to be Emily’s Wuthering Heights; now it’s Charlotte’s Villette.   And I fell in love with Willa’s books when I was living in a cold, tiny, rented room my senior year of college.  Her novels about the Midwest, written in the early twentieth century,  perfectly captured what I was feeling that very cold winter.

Do you like literary museums?  This would be a good year to visit them. There’s something about old houses, and looking at writers’ possessions.   I’ve seen Willa Cather’s desk, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s desk (and her buffalo robe!), Louisa May Alcott’s desk, Dickens’ standing desk…  But not the Brontes’ desks!

Is it time for me to go to Haworth?  That’s a long way away.   Patti Smith has been to Haworth.  In her introduction to the  Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights, she writes, “In West Yorkshire, in the village of Haworth, behind the village church, stands the Bronte Parsonage Museum.  Passing through the rooms, one may view the humble yet precious possessions of the Bronte family.”  I do want to see the humble possessions.  But at the same time I don’t like crowds, and I imagine that Haworth would be as crowded as Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.  Have you been to Haworth?  Did you like it?

I do love Nebraska, and that’s closer.  If you haven’t toured Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Willa grew up, I must tell you the Willa Cather Foundation gives the best literary tour I’ve taken, and I have taken many.  You can visit Willa’s home, the Red Cloud Opera House, the new Willa Cather Center, walk the Willa Cather Prairie, and so much more. The guides know everything about Willa. They know the background for all her books.   And this year they’re planning many My Antonia events, and are promoting a new 100th Year Anniversary edition of My Antonia with an introduction by Jane Smiley and the original illustrations by W. T. Benda.  (It will be published in March.)

And now I must get back to reading Emily and Willa.  I’m especially drawn to Willa, because it’s very, very cold out.

One of the original illustrations by W. T. Benda for My Antonia

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

The Folio edition of Wuthering Heights

The Folio edition of Wuthering Heights

Last month at The New Yorker Festival, Patti Smith signed copies of the new Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights. She wrote the introduction.

What a brilliant pairing, I thought!  Smith, the iconic rocker and memoirist, and Emily Bronte, the most intense, poetic writer of the nineteenth century.

An illustration by Rovina Cal for the new Folio Society edition.

An illustration by Rovina Cal for the new Folio Society edition.

At the Folio Society blog, the editorial director, Tom Walker, writes, “I’m still not quite sure how we persuaded her to write an introduction to it, but I do know that …she had an unbelievable determination to craft and hone every line of her piece until she was ready to submit. And then craft and hone some more. My kind of writer.”

I reread Wuthering Heights this weekend.  It is a short, perfect novel, with lyrical yet muscular prose, brilliantly narrated by two unreliable narrators:   Lockwood, who rents Thrushcross Grange, spends a harrowing night at Wuthering Heights with his moody landlord, Heathcliff, after he is caught in a blizzard; and Nelly Dean, Lockwood’s housekeeper, tells him the story of “villainous” Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights.


It is a story of doomed love:  Heathcliff, an orphan, is raised with “saucy” Catherine Earnshaw, and they are like one person.  After Catherine’s father dies, Heathcliff is “degraded” by her older brother, Hindley, and denied education, and Catherine ditches him for the refined Edgar Linton.

Before she marries Edgar, she tells Nelly Dean about a dream of leaving Wuthering Heights. 

…heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth, and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s so handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

Heathcliff’s sadistic degradation of the second generation, his own son, Catherine and Edgar’s daughter, Cathy, and Hindley’s son, Hareton, is gruesome.  But there is a twist.

The Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights is pricey at $69, though I would be interested in reading Smith’s introduction.  Amazon is sold out of the book.

Wuthering HeightsThere are many, many editions of Wuthering Heights. I have a hardcover edition, published by Heritage Press in the early 1940s, with lithographs by Barnett Freedman.  (The Heritage Press published affordable editions of classics published by the Limited Editions. Hurrah for the egalitarians!)  I picked this up cheaply at a used bookstore.

Here is the first edition I read (Dell). It fell apart.

Dell Wuthering Heights 5371030484_88cec82eb0This is a lovely White’s Books edition:

Wuthering Heights pretty cover 51fYyXtoWdLThen there’s the old Penguin:

Wuthering Heights old Penguin mO8S9sBtnMTZq6nVhx3DFow

Then there’s the new Penguin:

penguin wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronteThen there’s a new Penguin aimed at adolescents:

wuthering heihgts new penguin 9780143105435There’s a very pretty Modern Library edition.

The Modern Library is pretty.

The Modern Library is pretty.

Here’s the old Signet:

wuthering heights signet blogger-whAnd last of all, here’s the Vintage.vintage wuthering heights
Any edition will do.  It’s a great book!

Which edition do you have?

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?”


“That moldy thing?”


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


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.