I recently read (or rather, listened to – thank you Librivox) Wuthering Heights, twenty years after my first reading of it. The first time round I was rather puzzled by it, I think because I was expecting Heathcliff to turn out in the end to have a magnanimous soul hidden under his harsh exterior: the same mistake that Isabella Linton makes about him, in fact. This time I was able instead to read the story that Emily Bronte wrote without expecting it to become a novel by Jane Austen.
What struck me was how consistent it is. Writing at such a pitch of intensity, it was almost inevitable that she should have fallen at some points into melodrama or bathos. But she never does. From chapter to chapter she proceeds, with never a false step, until she reaches the climax of all. And when she has told her story she stops, ‘abruptly as an epic ends’.
How did she do it, this girl living in her Victorian parsonage? How did she manage to write something so imposing, unforeshadowed and self-consistent that one spontaneously looks to the ancient world to find some analogy for it – the plays of Aeschylus, perhaps, or the Great Pyramid? I am glad that she never wrote another novel, for what could she have written that would not have been an imitation or an anti-climax? Chesterton says somewhere that the Bronte sisters came into a literary tradition which consisted mainly in writing ‘novels of manners’, and responded by writing novels in which no one, good or bad, has any manners at all. But Emily Bronte surpasses her sisters. I think it was Lord David Cecil, a superb critic, who wrote that Rochester is a pantomime villain in comparison with Heathcliff. It was certainly Cecil who said that if any other novelist had described two persons as locked in an embrace so close that the spectator wondered if they would come out of it alive, we would have found it merely comic, but that when Emily Bronte says it, we accept it quite naturally, just as we accept Jane Austen’s statement that Mr Collins was a clergyman. Yet she can use humour, too, as in the narrator’s dream about the dreary Puritan sermon on ‘the seventy times seven, and the first of the seventy first”; though this very humour only serves to quicken our horror when the dream turns to Cathy’s spectral presence at the window and the scraping of her wrist backwards and forwards over the broken glass.
If it is a love story, it is perhaps the most philosophical love story ever written. She has very little interest in describing anyone’s feelings. The kind of love that existed between Cathy and Edgar Linton, the theme of so many other novels of the time, appears unreal or trivial. We are impatient with it. Between Cathy and Heathcliff one might almost say that there is no love, in the usual sense of the word. They never make tender speeches to each other. They don’t go out of their way to do kindnesses for each other. Often they don’t seem to like each other very much. St Thomas Aquinas tells us that ‘mutual inhesion’ is an effect of love, and it is as if Emily Bronte had come across this statement in the Summa Theologiae and decided to write a novel simply to describe this property of love and no other. Cathy’s famous line, ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff’ sums it up.
David Cecil described Wuthering Heights as ‘the one perfect work of art of the Victorian period’. Yet does it have a flaw: not an artistic one, but a theological one? We are given to understand, or at least we are meant to feel, at the end of the book, that Heathcliff and Cathy will be re-united by the former’s death, and that whatever pains that may cause them both, it will still be the true fulfilment of each, and the deepest pleasure of which either is capable. Yet Heathcliff, as things look, is headed for hell. All his life he has been vindictive, unforgiving, cruel; he deliberately drives Hindley Earnshaw to kill himself with drink; he ruins Isabella Linton’s life as a way of spiting her brother; he seeks to ruin the younger Cathy’s life for the same reason, and only desists in the end because he is distracted by her mother’s ghost; he refuses Nelly’s Christian admonitions; he never repents. If he is to be reunited with Cathy, it can only be in the way that Paolo and Francesca are re-united in the second circle of Dante’s Inferno, forever clutching at each other and tearing pieces off each other.
Or has Emily Bronte here also seen a truth – a truth which it is perilous to consider apart from other truths, but which is nevertheless true in itself? I mean the truth that the lost also receive good things from God; they receive not the one great good of which their common human nature was capable and which they have eternally forfeited, but such goods as they have made themselves capable in their individual natures. “God, considered in Himself, communicates to all beings according to their capacity”, writes St Thomas in the De Malo. This is a truth of universal application, and holds good even beyond those doors where all hope, alas, must be abandoned. The lost too, therefore, receive from Him the perfection of which their maimed and stunted souls are capable. Does it bring them happiness? No: but it brings them less unhappiness than they would receive elsewhere. The greatest torment for a lost soul, were it possible, would be, still hating God, to receive the Beatific Vision.