Friday, October 05, 2012

Give Emily a Break

Welome to "The Gods Are Bored," dedicated fan of thwarted romantic women writers of the 19th century since 1974!

How many times have you read Wurthering Heights? It's a long sleigh ride if you don't care for big gobs of prose.

I have to confess, I have read the whole book so many times I can't count. Definitely more than four. Probably no more than six. There's a lot of years between 1974 and now, so sorry ... I can't recollect.

Wurthering Heights is one of my favorite novels because the central character, Heathcliffe, is so complex. I don't think Emily Bronte meant to make him as sympathetic as he appears to our modern eyes. But damn, girls, don't you root for him ... and then he does something despicable again. Over and over. It's hard not to feel sympathy for a guy who actually digs up his lover, just to hold her again. But then he treats his wife worse than dirt. His daughter-in-law worse than worse than dirt. He's a mess, our Heathcliffe.

For those of you who have never been tempted to venture into this wordy tome, let me catch you up on one plot point. Heathcliffe is brought to live at the titular home on the Yorkshire moor by a kindly father who found Heathcliffe starving in the gutter of London. Emily Bronte describes Heathcliffe as dark and swarthy, a gypsy sort of fellow. And throughout, various characters comment upon Heathcliffe's base origins, whatever they may be.

There have been at least 10,000 movie versions of this story. (Okay, I exaggerate. It just feels like that many.) Now there's a new film out, a Sundance darling, filmed on location in bleak Yorkshire.

In this new version, Heathcliffe is played by a light-skinned African American man.

Abort mission. This does not compute.

There is some evidence that Emily Bronte (who never stirred from her preacher dad's home) actually either knew of a situation like the one in the story, or she saw the tombstones and heard the legends. This novel was written at a time when Africans were, if not everywhere, then at least well enough known that our Emily would have described Heathcliffe as an African. And then the whole story would have gone straight to Hell, because my guess is that a small community in Yorkshire of that era would not have buried a black person alongside their whiter parishioners.

We forget that there was a time of white-on-white prejudice, when certain dark-haired, dark-skinned people were considered lower than our Saxon and Viking-DNA-encoded English redheads.

The review I read of this new Wurthering Heights film heaped scorn on one of the classic Heathcliffes, Sir Laurence Olivier. Yes, indeed the character was sanitized for the old black-and-white movie, but glowering Olivier is, to my mind, an excellent Heathcliffe. There have been others, too.

In closing this sermon, I would like to point out that, as precisely as the rest of Wurthering Heights is written, it is doubtful that Miss Emily Bronte would have been wishy-washy about Heathcliffe's African origins, if they existed. Casting a light-skinned person of African heritage in that role is a crag too far.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Sir Laurence Olivier is my favourite Heathcliff. I read Wuthering Heights after seeing that classic movie for the first time. As far as I'm concerned, ALL the characters needed a good kick in the ass.

Anonymous said...

So, are there other books you've read multiple times? I've read several repeatedly, though not lately.
What about the rest of you? do you repeat read?

Anne Johnson said...

Repeat reading is my downfall, Kim. I should be reading new stuff instead of Pride and Prejudice for the fifth time. Right now I'm re-reading a Carl Hiaasen novel. When I think of all the books I could have read in the time I have spent re-reading ... well, I'm poorer for it. And thank you for commenting, given how difficult it has become on this platform.