OK, Bitches, this is it. In honor of Charlotte Brontë's birthday (April 21, 1816), it's time to fulfill my long-time goal of establishing what I believe may be a universal truth:
You cannot passionately, deeply, own-multiple-copies-of, take-to-a-desert-island-as-your-one-book, love both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Love one, hate the other. That's the deal. You may appreciate the quality of the writing in both books and their historical significance, but on a visceral level you will love only one.
How have I come to this conclusion? Well, to start with, I currently own at least three copies of Jane Eyre, one of which is wrapped in plastic and stored with my earthquake survival kit (along with a copy of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, in case you're wondering.). Jane is my role model, my friend, my faithful companion and guiding light. On the other hand, I've read Wuthering Heights three times out of a perverse sense of duty to Literature, and I can't stand that whiny, nasty Catherine with her tantrums or Heathcliff, also known as the king of collateral damages. I have also noticed that when I sell books at our Library's Annual Jane Austen Tea (check it out if you live in Sacramento, CA) people mention liking either Wuthering or Jane, but not both. This is scanty evidence towards my theory, so I turn to the Bitches to expand my sample size. Prove me wrong, so we Brontë fans may live in harmony!
Jane and Wuthering are both gothic novels, set in England, written by sisters Charlotte and Emily, respectively. But despite the shared atmosphere and setting of the books, they could not be more different. Jane is a romance novel (best one ever, says me). Not only does it provide an HEA, it provides an HEA that is complex and earned. Jane (the character) goes through many challenging circumstances but she never loses her sense of who she is – a human being worthy of respect. She holds to this sense of self as an abused child, as a shy young woman with a painful crush, as a vagrant and dependent, and ultimately as a woman of means, a wife, and a mother. Her relationship with Rochester is ultimately defined by mutual respect, affection, and love. Until he respects her autonomy, no amount of him swooning over her can win the day. Even when she is most powerless, or when she is at her most romantically passionate, she holds to saying, “”I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”
In contrast, Wuthering Heights is all about people who are so obsessed with each other that they have no sense of self as individuals. Catherine famously says, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff!” Heathcliff says of Cathy, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” Wuthering Heights is not a book I enjoy, but the fact that I loathe it on a visceral level is not actually a criticism of its fine (if somewhat hyperactive) use of language. If anything, the fact that it inspires such passionate dislike is almost as much of a complement as the fact that I so passionately adore Jane Eyre. A book that inspires deep feeling must hit a nerve and must strike something in the imagination. Lord knows I can't stand the book, but it certainly is packed full with vivid atmosphere, gothic psychological horror, desperate passion and, in Heathcliff, the ultimate Byronic Asshat Hero. It doesn't get broodier than Heathcliff, and emotions don't get any more raw than his do. If your thing is tragic people wandering the moors wailing in heartbroken anguish and concocting terrible vengeances in gloomy halls, while swept away with consuming passion and being mean to each other and every one around them, then it doesn't get better than this.
As a long-time defender of Jane Eyre, I'm always having to remind people that the point of the book isn't that the poor governess gets the rich guy to marry her. I hate Wuthering Heights because the characters are universally loathsome with the exception of a few who are simply spineless, and yet I'm constantly hearing about their great love. I'm thinking maybe I (and, ironically, many of Wuthering's admirers) am missing the point – maybe the whole point of Wuthering Heights is not to glorify the Catherine/Heathcliff relationship, but rather to point out the destructive quality of romantic obsession (in addition to, and arguably as a result of, generations of abuse).
So tell me, everyone, if you are a huge devotee of either or both of these novels. Is there room in the human heart for both, or, they say in the movies, can there be only one? I am desperately curious as to whether my theory is true. Happy [belated] birthday, Charlotte, and thanks for providing me with a character who has reminded me to stay true to myself from the day we, two ten-year old girls who liked to hide away from the world and read, became best friends.