Project Bronte Report: WUTHERING HEIGHTS with BONUS UNSPOKEN THOUGHTS
Internets, I finally finished Wuthering Heights. It is a work of genius and I hate it.
Fortunately, while I powered through the last two hundred pages, I had my brand new copy of Unspoken, by my bud Sarah Rees Brennan, who has written an awesome Modern Gothic Romance trilogy. This livened up the Wuthering Heights reading immensely.
Now I hate Wuthering Heights, and I love Sarah and Unspoken both. I read Unspoken when it was a baby manuscript and I read Wuthering Heights as part of a New Year’s Resolution. NEVERTHELESS, I am going to embark on a Objective* and Totally Unbiased* Comparative Review of these two Gothic novels.
I really recommend not reading this review unless you have read Unspoken, because I am going to spoil the heck out of everything. I think I reveal nearly every mystery the book holds, including the ending. You don’t have to read Wuthering Heights first, though, you probably picked it up through cultural osmosis.
What Are The Plots?
SPOILERS SPOILERS I AM NOT KIDDING SPOILERS.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
There’s a framing narrative device here, but I don’t care about it, so whatever. Dude hears a story told by Faithful Servitor Nelly Dean about the two families she served, and the story is this:
Mr Earnshaw, the owner of Wuthering Heights, brings home a foundling he picked up off the streets, you know, as you do. His son Hindley doesn’t like little Heathcliff much, but his daughter Catherine does. When old Mr Earnshaw dies, Hindley gets married and downgrades Heathcliff to farmhand. Cathy and Heathcliff are still fast friends and roam about the wild and windy moors of Yorkshire.
A posh blond family called the Lintons turn up and inveigle Catherine away with the temptation of pretty dresses and not being muddy. Hindley’s wife dies after the birth of their son Hareton, and Hindley hits the bottle and Heathcliff. Edgar Linton proposes to Catherine and she accepts, because although Heathcliff is the OTHER PART OF HER SOUL, there’s no way she can see herself marrying a wretched laborer.
Heathcliff runs away, returns immensely wealthy three years later, and proceeds to ruin as many lives as he can. He lends money to Hindley until the entire Wuthering Heights estate is mortgaged to him, so that when Hindley dies he inherits everything. He keeps Hareton around as a laborer – as Hindley did to him. He then seduces and elopes with Edgar’s sister (and Catherine’s sister-in-law), Isabella Linton, which puts him in place to potentially inherit the Linton estates too, through any heir she gives him. He verbally and emotionally abuses Isabella before and after knocking her up. I think it pretty likely that he raped her, but it’s possible the impregnation took place with Isabella’s consent, while she was still genuinely into him. Not particularly informed consent, though!
Catherine gets sick, and Heathcliff turns up to clutch at her and bewail his anguished state. They are distraught together, and then she dies after giving birth to Cathy II. Isabella runs away to give birth after Heathcliff hits her. She keeps her son Linton Heathcliff (THE NAMES, EMILY, COME ON) with her until SHE dies and he’s claimed by Heathcliff. Heathcliff then plots to forcibly marry the teenaged Linton and Cathy II. He does! Edgar Linton dies! Linton Heathcliff dies!
HEATHCLIFF NOW OWNS EVERYTHING. Moreover, Hareton and Cathy II, the children of his enemies, are wholly within his control. His revenge is complete!
But his life is a shambles, because the OTHER PART OF HIS SOUL is missing and has been for seventeen years, and he longs only to die (but for some reason won’t kill himself, I still haven’t worked that one out). Fortunately, the ghost of Catherine is still hanging around and starts haunting him to the point where he stops eating and sleeping and one cold night she slips through the open window and kills him/takes his spirit/whatever, it’s a Gothic. Heathcliff is buried beside Catherine. (Oh, there was a gross/awesome episode where he recounts digging up the body to look at her). Cathy II and Hareton fall in love, and it’s cute, and all is well at Wuthering Heights.
Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan.
Kami and Jared have known and been solidly there for each other literally all their lives, but they’ve never met, because Jared is Kami’s imaginary friend. Kami is kind of the lovable outsider of her small English town, because she’s incurably curious and part-Japanese and talks to this person who lives in her head and wants to be a top-notch investigative journalist. First assignment (that she gave herself): uncovering the mystery of the Lynburns, that Mysterious Family of the Mysterious Manor, Aurimere House. The Lynburns used to be a big deal who apparently ruled over Sorry-in-the-Vale with feudal authority, then they went away, and now, apparently, they are back! Kami wants to know why!
Ash Lynburn shows up and flirts with her, and she is like, excellent, you are now our photographer, also I will get the secrets of your family out of you, huzzah! She goes to the library to do some INVESTIGATIN’. And meets Jared in the elevator.
He is real.
He has, like… shoulders. And a mouth. And a dangerous leather jacket. HE IS PHYSICALLY PRESENT IN THE SAME SMALL SPACE AS SHE IS.
While running away from the HORRIFYING PHYSICALITY of her LIFELONG IMAGINARY FRIEND and MAYBE SOULMATE (???), Kami gets shoved into a well. Jared, of course, shows up to save her. They embark on a messy friendship, complicated by their unease at each others’ bodily presence, Ash’s flirting with Kami and her flirting back, Jared’s Jaredness, and the fact that there is murder afoot in Sorry-In-The-Vale! First of animals, and then attempted of Kami, and then actual of a classmate All this danger and mystery seems to be connected to the secret of the Lynburns, about which Jared knows nothing more than Kami. So what IS the secret of the Lynburns?
They are sorcerers! Jared and his mother Rosalind, Ash and his parents Lillian and Rob. All of them, just as magical as heck. So are lots of other people in Sorry-in-the-Vale, but the Lynburns were the rulers of them all, and they have returned home. Kami and Jared are not soulbonded fated lovers, they are a sorcerer and his Source – the product of a process that makes Jared’s magic stronger, and gives Kami access to it, so that she has power too. Also, if Kami dies, Jared dies (the reverse is not true). Lynburns dun like this whole sorcerers depending on Sources thing. They want Kami to cut the bond, and Kami, to Jared’s horror, seriously contemplates it. But first they have to find out who’s killing people, because that gives sorcerers power too, and Kami rallies her trusty band of misfits to find out what’s going on.
Turns out it’s kindly Rob Lynburn, who would like REVENGE on everyone who’s ever thwarted him, and also to be king of the Vale, as in Ye Times Of Old. But he’d really rather his nephew didn’t die, all things considered, so when he has Kami with a knife at her throat, he gives her a chance to break the bond – which would mean Jared would survive Kami’s intended death. Kami breaks the bond. It’s horrendous for both she and Jared. And then she flings Rob over her shoulder and runs like hell, because that is the kind of girl Kami is. Alas, this is the first book of a trilogy, so we do not expect things to go very well! Our heroes almost overcome, but then Rob starts gathering the sorcerers of the Vale, and all is scary and dim.
Moreover! Jared, now the bond has been broken, is able to look Kami straight in the eye and tell the hitherto most vital person in his entire life that she is “nothing special.” And Kami (and the reader), for the first time, cannot know if he is telling her the truth.
So, those are the stories. How do they comparatively rank, in my Unbiased* and Totally Objective* Opinion? I have decided to compare them in six very important categories.
ONE: How Are The Ladies?
In Wuthering Heights, the ladies mostly hate on each other. Catherine thinks Isabella’s a contemptible silly girl, Isabella thinks Catherine is trying to RUIN HER LIFE, Nelly Dean is a judgmental judgypants, and Cathy II is bright and bubbly enough, but also treats Nelly like a servant. Which she is. But when your servant is saying things like, please can we go back to the house now, we are not supposed to be here, your dad would hate it, I’m going to get in so much trouble, with the undercurrent of AND I DON’T WANT TO LOSE MY JOB, it is not nice to keep willfully indulging your whims. There are moments of affection between ladies but on the whole, not a bunch of fun times. The really affectionate relationships in this narrative are between men and women.
In Unspoken, the three main ladies, Kami, Angela, and Holly, are adorable. Kami and Angela (beautiful, extremely lazy, wards people off so that she will not have to put in annoying effort to TALK to them, ugh) have been BFFs for six years. Holly is a more recent friend to both of them, because Kami has been accustomed to thinking of Holly as one of Those Girls – hot, blond, bubbly, very popular with the boys – and has formed certain misconceptions about her because of this, i.e., that she is stupid. Holly is not stupid, and she has been trying to be friends with Kami for a while, because she likes and respects her. Kami begins to like and respect Holly too, and apologizes for her earlier misdeeds.
Holly and Angela get along very well, and when someone attacks Holly, Angela – the queen of the blank expression – is visibly upset, angry, and caring. These ladies are different, but they like each other a lot. And this is in a book where the main affectionate relationship is between a girl and a boy. Kami and Jared are always each others’ most important person, but Kami has plenty of room for lady feels too.
TWO: Are There Jokes?
In Wuthering Heights, not really, though there’s an occasional blackly humorous observation. In Unspoken, roughly a buttload of jokes per chapter (metric).
THREE: How Are We Doing On Race?
In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is coded as a racial Other. Though his racial heritage isn’t specified, he’s referred to as a dark-skinned gypsy child, and a “little Lascar”. He’s also described as a black-browed devil, a demon, a fiend, and “as dark almost as if it came from the devil”. Oh, yeah, he’s referred to as “it” instead of “he” before his christening. And whatever language he speaks when he first arrived is “gibberish”. And he’s an awful person. Thanks for making your one non-white character a violent, scheming, barely-human devil man, Emily Bronte! Super classy of you.
In Unspoken, Kami, her father, and her siblings are part-Japanese, and are Othered because of it. (Kami is also Othered because she has a tendency to talk to her imaginary friend and laugh out loud for no apparent reason.) Which is not to say that Sorry-in-the-Vale people wouldn’t be cautious about the granddaughter of an outsider woman of any ethnicity, but the fact that Kami’s Sobo was Japanese engenders some extra crap. However, Kami is our heroine. Her brothers are adorable, and her dad is the best parent in the piece.
Racism is part of the text, but is not condoned by it – when Jared, our hero, thinks he hears his family referring to Kami as a “half-breed”, he is horrified and furious. (They weren’t. They were referring to him. Nice people, the Lynburns.) Kami identifies as both English and Japanese, and some of the Japanese stories she heard from her grandmother affect what happens when the woods begin to wake. Her heritage matters, in ways that have both positive and negative effects on her life in the Vale.
This is not to say there isn’t potentially troubling stuff with race and ethnicity going on in Unspoken that I don’t see. I am a white lady reader; I miss stuff. But Unspoken is clearly seventeen million times better than Wuthering Heights in this department. Would Sarah have done better than Emily in the same time period? I don’t know, and I don’t really care: I’m reading both books now.
FOUR: Would Karen Have A Cocktail With The Protagonists?
Kami: Sure! Although I’m pretty sure she’d only bother if she thought I could be a source for a story, because she is a busy lady with a lot on her mind. Ahahahaha source, I just got that, nice, Sarah.
Jared: Definitely. He is a sullen, grouchy person 90% of the time to anyone who is not Kami, but he’s also a huge reader. We could talk about books, and that is a surefire conversation thriller for people who love books.
Catherine: Actually, yes, but it would be kind of mean? I like Cathy, who scorned to scream when dogs bit her, but I know very well she is not a friendly or trustworthy person. I’d really only be there for the same reason Cady Herron joins Regina George and the Plastics – to sit there and listen to all the appalling things she’d say about other people for my own amusement at the fact she was saying them.
Heathcliff: AHAHAHAHAAAAAAH. NO.
FIVE: Is The Scenery Awesome?
That depends; do you prefer windy, winding moors or rolling hills where the long fields of barley and of rye clothe the wold and meet the sky? And metaphorical weather; would you like some of that? I thought you would!
Both books do scenery very well, with atmosphere evoking emotion and vice versa. Plot relevant weather, plot relevant locations. Neither of these books could be placed in an Anytown, Somewhere; they both had to be set exactly where they were. I love the use of the setting in both books; it is superbly managed and I learned a lot about technique that I plan to steal for my own work.
Personally, as anyone who’s read The Shattering could guess, I prefer fictional places where beautiful, peaceful scenery gilds hidden horrors, so Unspoken gets my private vote. But from an Objective* and Unbiased* point of view they’re both winners.
SIX: Karen, Stop Fooling Around And Tell Us About The Romances.
Catherine and Heathcliff are incredibly, hurtfully obsessed with each other. When Catherine accepts Edgar Linton, it’s not because she doesn’t love Heathcliff, or loves Edgar more (although she does have an infatuation for him), it’s because she can’t stand the (totally classist but also materially important) degradation of marrying a common laborer who can barely read. It’s a practical Austenian choice in an unpractical Brontean situation; the intensity of the bond between herself and Heathcliff can’t allow for things such as consideration of how she’s going to eat and could they converse about the same things. Choosing Edgar is shown to be a tragic choice that brings heartbreak to everyone involved, and even the next generation of innocents.
Heathcliff’s fierce hatred for Catherine is sourced in his love for her, and her perceived betrayal of that love. Catherine’s pain at Heathcliff’s elopement with Isabella – and his perceived betrayal of her trust – more or less kills her. And when she dies, the anguish nearly kills him:
“And I pray one prayer–I repeat it till my tongue stiffens–Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you–haunt me, then! The murdered DO haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts HAVE wandered on earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad! only DO not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I CANNOT live without my life! I CANNOT live without my soul!”
Catherine’s haunting of Heathcliff becomes more and more real to him, until he dies. Note that to him in his extremity, she is Catherine Earnshaw, not Catherine Linton. His idea of Catherine is of his first companion; of someone who is always his, who never promised herself to another. Heathcliff and Catherine may not ever have physically consummated their fierce attachment. But they feel that they own one another, that they have an absolute right to possession: “That is not my Heathcliff. I shall love mine yet; and take him with me: he’s in my soul.””
A happy ending for them, and pretty much everyone in the book, can only come when both of them are dead. No longer passionately possessive, they are instead “sleepers in that quiet earth”.
In Unspoken, that level of intense connection, the feeling of living inside another person’s soul, is literalised. Kami and Jared really have been connected since they were born. They can hear each others’ thoughts, sing each other the lullabies they heard in the cradle across an ocean, feel each other’s feelings. (At fourteen, when said feelings turned pretty damn sexy, they started building walls between them, but they still spend most of each waking hour inside the other’s head.) They each thought the other was an imaginary friend, but still the most important person to them, still the most solid and real thing in their lives, despite being entirely made up.
And then the Lynburns return to Sorry-in-the-Vale and Kami and Jared discover that the imagination-only thing isn’t true. The other person actually is solid and real, with a solid, real body. And instead of being a moment of “We are SOULMATES, let us be together FOREVER!” this is complicated and awkward and really very awful for both of them. Jared tries to insist that they are soulmates and should date; Kami is, like Catherine, more practical. She practically suggests that it’s hard to date someone who finds your physical existence incredibly off-putting.
They later discover that their bond isn’t a natural occurrence, but something that was done to them. There are very dangerous consequences to the existence of the bond, but Jared resists any suggestion that they should break it. However, Kami wants to at least think about it, to try the idea of being an individual for the first time in her life, knowing that her emotions are entirely her own. She loves Jared, definitely, but is she in love with him? How can she tell? Her self isn’t entirely her own!
“In love. That’s how it sounds, doesn’t it? His heart is my heart, nobody can ever take him away from me; I keep him in here!” She thumped her breastbone so hard it hurt. “People say stuff like that all the time, but they don’t mean it: they mean they’re in love. All except me. I mean it.”
Kami even thinking about cutting the bond terrifies the shit out of Jared, and no surprise there. Kami is not only the most important person to Jared, but pretty much the only person he feels is on his side. Kami has a loving family and dear friends; Jared has a crappy family and no friends. Is this looking familiar? Jared, like Heathcliff, sees the very idea that Kami might break this bond as the most heinous betrayal. When she, like Catherine, actually does – under severe duress, and to SAVE HIS ACTUAL LIFE – he is a total dick to her.
I disapprove of a romance where both partners only find happiness in oblivion. So for NOW the tentative winner is Unspoken. But this is a trilogy. Whether Jared then goes the Heathcliff route of setting out to ruin Kami’s life and the lives of those he sees as taking her from him remains to be seen! Will Kami and Jared find happiness ONLY IN DEATH? Who knows?
(Actually, I do. But I’m not telling.)
The thing is, in the story so far, Jared isn’t Heathcliff in any aspect other than the depth of his attachment to Kami. If anything, Jared is Hareton, who is wild, neglected and abused by his family, who has a longing to be better but hasn’t quite worked out how. He can be rough and cruel and fixed in his ideas, but he’s a romantic soul!
No, in Unspoken, Heathcliff is better echoed by Rob Lynburn. Abusive, malevolent, totally self-centered, convinced of his right to revenge for those wrongs done him (genuine wrongs; you don’t just kill someone’s parents in front of them and kidnap the child to marry one of your daughters and expect the kid to be cool with this) and absolutely dismissive of any impediment to his long-game goals. Rob Lynburn treats Sorry-in-the-Vale the same way Heathcliff treats Nelly Dean. If the non-sorcerer people of Sorry-in-the-Vale do what he wants and follow his instructions and don’t contradict him, he will regard them with an amused contempt and let them go by largely unmolested. If they attempt to prevent him from carrying out his plans, he will smack the hell out of them.
The passion between Heathcliff and Catherine is often read as romantic, and thus Heathcliff is often read as the romantic hero of Wuthering Heights. In my reading, Heathcliff is a horrifying villain. His feelings, and the genuine wrongs done him, do not give him license to attempt ruin on the lives of everyone around him, particularly the entirely innocent children of the next generation. But he waits years to do just that. In Unspoken, Heathcliff/Rob’s motives are laid bare as selfish and repulsive. He’s very clearly identified as the bad guy.
I don’t know if Unspoken was written with Wuthering Heights echoes in mind**, but I read it like that this time, and it really amplified the reading and increased my enjoyment to see Sarah meticulously take apart the idea of “soulmates” and consider just what that might mean in a setting where it could be literally true. And I love love love Heathcliff/Rob as unequivocal villain, with the next generation getting the spotlight as heroes.
OVERALL SHOCK WINNER: Unspoken.
** On Google Chat, after writing that section:
me: I was just writing about how you wrote Heathcliff as the villain, and that is awesome
Sarah: omg you are awesome
your face is awesome
me: HAH did you do it on purpose?
I wasn’t sure!
Sarah: Oh yeah. 😉
me: I was all, the author is dead, THIS IS MY READING ANYWAY.
So she did do it on purpose! Although, naturally, she could be lying.
Except about my face being awesome.