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Book review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Remind me to do my research before picking up what I think will be a relaxing romance – Wuthering Heights is a long, long, LONG way from being relaxing or romantic.

Emily Bronte’s classic novel would be more accurately described as a study of obsessive revenge, in which Heathcliff inflicts suffering for a past slight that saw him miss out on marrying his beloved Catherine.

The two had grown up together after Catherine and her brother, Hindley’s, father had found Heathcliff destitute on the streets of the nearby city. The father had nurtured Heathcliff as his own, even at times preferring him to his son.

As a result, Hindley hated Heathcliff and when his father died, he forced his adopted brother to work on the property, a rung or two below the station of he and Catherine.

Instead of marrying Heathcliff, who Catherine adored, Hindley encouraged her to marry the neighbour, igniting Heathcliff’s terrible desire for revenge.

And so begins the bulk of the story, where each character is unrelentingly abused by Heathcliff. And unrelenting it is. Sometimes it is almost unbearable to read about the cruelty that Bronte’s characters endure.

However, like Heathcliff in his quest for revenge, I became a little obsessed with this book. I dreaded to read of what was in store for each character, while continuing to hope for some kind of redemption. Would Heathcliff finally satisfy himself that he had caused enough suffering? Would he spare at least one character?

Heathcliff wasn’t the only character in the book that it was hard to like. Many who passed through Wuthering Heights and the nearby property were mean-spirited and unlikable. There was Catherine herself, who was sometimes shockingly cruel to her husband and her sister-in-law. There was the narrator, who tended to judge even children harshly and failed to give help at times when it was needed most, and there was Hindley, who was envious as a child and weak and careless as an adult.

I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered such an unlikable bunch in any other book I have read.

The setting in the moors of England is both beautiful and haunting, with their beauty one of the few redeeming factors in the lives of those who are trapped on the properties. When Heathcliff’s wife manages to escape outside the confines of the properties, I felt myself taking a sigh of relief.

At first, the language is challenging, but once you get into the rhythm, Bronte has an engaging way with words. I found some of the words used to be quaint – ‘saucy’ is often repeated to mean something like ‘naughty’ or ‘sassy’.  However, one character, Joseph the farm hand’s, language remained incomprehensible to me.

Ultimately, Wuthering Heights is a harrowing read that is as grim as the moors on a blustery day in winter.  While it did nothing to lift my mood, it was a compulsive read and a book that I’m pleased to have read … although I won’t be going near it again.

Wuthering Heights is available at Booktopia. (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).

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