I started reading Henrietta Sees it Through & I’ve almost finished reading The Bride of Lammermoor but they’ve both been overtaken by my umpteenth re-reading of Wuthering Heights. For me, a good adaptation of a classic novel sends me straight back to the book.
The 1967 BBC adaptation of Wuthering Heights has just been released on DVD here & I bought copies for my library. I watched it last weekend & I loved it. I was too young to have seen this the first time around & I haven’t been wholly satisfied by any of the other adaptations of Wuthering Heights I’ve seen, whether for TV or the movies. I have a soft spot for the 1939 movie with Laurence Olivier & Merle Oberon but mostly for Geraldine Fitzgerald’s performance as Isabella & the gorgeous music by Alfred Newman. I’ve also enjoyed the 1970s BBC version with Ken Hutchison & Kay Adshead, mostly because of John Duttine’s Hindley. This is an adaptation of the whole novel, not just the first half, & it’s a very moody adaptation with good performances. There’s another adaptation from the 1990s with Robert Cavanah & Orla Brady which is also excellent. I couldn’t get through the first episode of the most recent TV adaptation & the less said about the movie with Ralph Fiennes & Juliette Binoche, the better! Ralph was a very good Heathcliff but poor Juliette was completely miscast.
Wuthering Heights seems to be much harder to adapt than other classic novels & I can understand why. The structure of the story is confusing with Lockwood’s visit to Wuthering Heights at the beginning of the novel coming at the end of the story. Two heroines called Catherine, neither of them wholly sympathetic characters & a “hero” whose behaviour ranges from cruel to sadistic, from homicidal to suicidal, is hard enough to read about let alone portray dramatically.
The 1967 version stars a very young Ian McShane & Angela Scoular playing both Cathys. I thought this was an excellent adaptation. Most of the dialogue was straight from the book. The story was presented chronologically, with Lockwood’s visit to the heights coming in the final episode rather than at the beginning. Ian McShane was fantastic. I remember him as Benjamin Disraeli in a 1970s TV series & as Lovejoy in the 80s. He looks sullen, moody & dirty as a young man & very sardonic & handsome when he returns after his mysterious absence. Angela Scoular was also very good, although sometimes a bit hysterical as the elder Cathy. Apart from Anne Stallybrass as Nelly, I didn’t know the rest of the cast but they were all effective. It’s shot in black & white but I think Wuthering Heights needs to be in black & white. It’s a dark, Gothic story. There was no music but the wuthering of the wind was quite haunting. I’ve read somewhere that this was the adaptation that inspired Kate Bush’s beautiful song.
So, after watching this over a couple of nights, I had to read the book again. I had to buy myself a new reading copy last year as my original old paperback that you can see in the photo above, is too fragile to carry around with me. It may sound silly, but I took that book & my copy of Jane Eyre on my trip to the UK about 10 years ago & I made sure I had them with me on the day I visited Haworth Parsonage. There are very few books I can say I’ve read more than 15 times. Probably only Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre & Persuasion. I’ve been fascinated & haunted by Wuthering Heights & the story of the Brontes since I first read the book as a teenager. The language of the book is so beautiful. From the first description of the situation of Wuthering Heights,
Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there, at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few, stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.
An image of the stout farmhouse & those thorns, is there, in the reader’s mind. The use of myths & folk stories adds to the power of the story. Nelly, singing Hareton to sleep with this gruesome ballad,
It was far in the night, & the bairnies grat,
The mither beneath the mools heard that
and Catherine telling Nelly her dream, whether she wants to hear it or not,
I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; & I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; & 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.
My favourite scene is when Catherine has worked herself into hysterics after a fight between her husband, Edgar Linton & Heathcliff & has locked herself in her room for three days. When she finally unlocks the door & takes some food from Nelly, her mind wanders between Wuthering Heights & her married home, Thrushcross Grange, & between her life as a girl & her life as the wife of a landed gentleman. This scene is full of myth & superstition,
A minute previously she was violent; now, supported on one arm, & not noticing my refusal to obey her, she seemed to find childish diversion in pulling the feathers from the rents (in the pillow) she had just made & ranging them on the sheet according to their different species: her mind had strayed to other associations. “That’s a turkey’s,” she murmured to herself; ”and this is a wild duck’s; and this is a pigeon’s. Ah they put pigeon’s feathers in the pillows – no wonder I couldn’t die! Let me take care to throw it on the floor when I lie down.” …
There was no moon, & every thing beneath lay in misty darkness; not a light gleamed from any house, far or near; all had been extinguished long ago; & those at Wuthering Heights were never visible… still she asserted she caught their shining. “Look!” she cried eagerly, “that’s my room, with the candle in it & the trees swaying before it…Joseph sits up late, doesn’t he? He’s waiting till I come home that he may lock the gate…Well, he’ll wait a while yet. It’s a rough journey, & a sad heart to travel it; & we must pass by Gimmerton Kirk, to go that journey!
It always surprises me that Wuthering Heights is seen as a romantic novel & Heathcliff as a romantic hero. There’s so much violence in the novel, most of it performed by Heathcliff in his quest for revenge. Beating Hindley almost to death, setting traps over lapwing’s nests to starve the chicks, hanging Isabella’s little dog as they elope, his sadistic behaviour to Isabella after their marriage & his treatment of their son, Linton, when he goes to live at Wuthering Heights. He’s not a sympathetic character after his earliest days but he’s certainly compelling. Nelly, nurse & housekeeper at the Heights & the Grange, tells most of the story & it’s her voice & the matter of fact way she tells of these strange people & their thwarted lives that’s so fascinating. The story is told in Nelly’s mix of superstition, folk tale, speculation & plain common sense & she’s not above interfering in her employer’s business if she feels it’s warranted.
This won’t be the last time I read Wuthering Heights & every time I read this wonderful book, I read my favourite passages again & marvel at Emily Bronte’s genius. Maybe it was just as well that her sister, Charlotte, destroyed the manuscript of her second novel (if she did. There’s no evidence but I think it’s likely). Wuthering Heights is unique.