Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 3; 21 December 2020

Reading Wuthering Heights with aphantasia

When I read Wuthering Heights for the first time, I was in my mid 30s, and had gone back to university to study for a degree in English literature (having studied Law the first time around). Emily Brontë’s only novel was on the reading list for one of the introductory modules in the first semester. Before I read it, I had the impression that it was a wild and passionate love story: just upmarket romantic fiction. I’m not sure where I’d got that preconception but, because of it, I thought the novel was unlikely to hold much interest for me.

What I found was not what I was expecting. There is indeed a love story, and a powerful one, but it’s between two characters who are, to say the least, unsympathetic, and one of whom is dead by the novel’s halfway point. In many ways, what happens after Catherine’s death is the most interesting part of the story. That’s when Heathcliff implements his plan to be revenged on the people who have scorned and injured him.

The thing that struck me most on first reading was that the novel revolves around two households, one orderly and disciplined, the other chaotic. The head of the household at Thrushcross Grange is a magistrate, responsible for upholding justice and keeping the peace (aims which are assumed to be compatible, indeed complementary). There are two children, a boy and a girl, who are educated, treated kindly and well behaved. The other house, Wuthering Heights, follows a pattern that is much less clearcut and represents chaos. Again, there are two children, a boy and a girl, but then Mr Earnshaw comes back from Liverpool with an unexplained third child who is known simply as “Heathcliff”, a name which serves equally well as forename and surname. The religion and moral education of the children is in the hands of an eccentric servant who is also a religious fanatic. The expected “order” has been turned upside down.

These two contrasting houses are brought into conflict when a man and a woman from each marries a woman and a man (respectively) from the other. These marriages are not happy but each produces one child. The parents of Linton Heathcliff had been living at Wuthering Heights, until his mother, Isabella, managed to escape, while Cathy Linton is the daughter of the couple who lived at Thrushcross Grange. When Cathy reaches marriageable age, she is held captive by Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and forced to marry his son Linton. So, in the generation following the first two marriages, a third union of children of the two houses highlights the conflict between them.

The name, Linton Heathcliff captures the deceptive quality of the apparent unity brought about by the marriages. As a forename, the boy has his mother’s surname and as a surname the unique name of the father who can just about tolerate his existence. (To avoid confusion with his mother and uncle, and to underline his dissimilarity from his father, I’m going to refer to him from now on as “LH”.) I didn’t at first understand why Heathcliff was so determined that his son should marry Cathy, until he explained to Nelly that it was so he could get control the personal property of the Linton family was well as its real estate.

At the time, real property (i.e. freehold interests in land and buildings) descended according to different rules of inheritance from those governing personal property (i.e. everything other than freehold interests in land and buildings). On the death of Edgar Linton, his nephew (LH) inherited Thrushcross Grange but Cathy inherited all his moveable property including, for example, her pony. When Cathy’s mother (Catherine Linton, née Earnshaw) died shortly after the birth, Ellen “mentally abused old Linton for, what was only natural partiality, the securing his estate on his own daughter, instead of his son’s” (Penguin Classics edition, 1985, p. 201).

In other words, Edgar’s father had settled the estate on Edgar for life, then on Edgar’s male heir and (if Edgar should not have a male heir), on Isabella and her male heir, and so on. When Edgar died, then, Thrushcross Grange descended to LH. I don’t know enough about late 18th century property law to understand where Heathcliff’s plan goes from there. It seems to me that, as LH’s widow and Edgar’s only child, Cathy should have ended up as owner of the house and lands of Thrushcross Grange and all the personal property. If Heathcliff hadn’t insisted on the marriage, he would at least have had the land and buildings, as heir to his childless bachelor son. Perhaps he believed he could bully Cathy into acting as he required, or that he could succeed in destroying her inheritance before she reached full age and take control of it.

It’s clear, at any rate, that destruction was his original aim. At the end, he tells Nelly:

I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find that the will to lift a slate of either roof has vanished! My old enemies have not beaten me — now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives — I could do it; and none could hinder me — But where is the use? I don’t care for striking, I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand! That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time, only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case — I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing. (pp. 352–3)

So, the book presents a repeating pattern. Ultimately, the effect of Heathcliff’s efforts is to consolidate the two estates, which are then inherited by Cathy and Hareton. It’s worth noting that Heathcliff does not undertake this arduous task of consolidation out of despair at his loss of Catherine. Rather, the continuation of his previously conceived plan to take revenge is what prevents him from succumbing to despair after her death.

In the end, as a direct result of Heathcliff’s destructive efforts, the two houses are brought together, apparently reconciling the control and discipline of one with (I suppose) the freedom and wild beauty of the other. To tell the truth, I’m not at all sure in the end what it is from Wuthering Heights that tempers the stiffness and restraint of Thrushcross Grange. Clearly, the reader is intended to understand that something does.

Before writing this, I naturally reread the novel. I think that’s about the fourth time I’ve read it. The other three were in the early 1990s, nearly 25 years before I learned that I have aphantasia. That means that I can’t form a mental image of the characters, the rooms in which they meet or the outdoor settings where the drama plays out. I have not the slightest idea what either Lockwood or Nelly — whose distinctive voice pervades the narrative — looks like. We’re told that Cathy (née Linton) does not physically resemble her mother, except for her eyes, and that the former is blonde-haired, so I imagine the latter as having dark hair (and a small face with a pointed chin). But I can’t actually see this: it’s just a vague impression.

And, of course, I can’t picture the two houses. Thrushcross Grange, in my imagination, is just a generic, large country house, with big rooms and plenty of windows. Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, seems to shift size and shape, depending on who is speaking about it. When Isabella goes there for the first time as Heathcliff’s wife, it seems small and cramped, with no room to spare for her. Years later, when LH comes to live there after his mother’s death, there are apparently more than enough rooms for him to move between them when he gets bored of sitting in one. At times, the “house” can accommodate a fairly large number, at others Joseph and Hareton barely leave space for one other occupant. I don’t, in other words, conceive of Wuthering Heights as a fixed space.

It’s only since I learned about aphantasia that it’s occurred to me that not being able to picture these two houses has led me to think of them instead as abstractions: as standing for order and chaos respectively, rather than simply standing, i.e. as buildings. Aphantasics tend to be better at dealing with abstractions — and with formulae, ideas, narratives and summaries — than with concrete images or memories. As a consequence, many of us work in science and technology. There’s no hard data, but I’ve found statements from several aphantasics (e.g. on Reddit) who say they never read fiction because they don’t get any kind of imaginative experience out of it.

Unlike them, I have enjoyed reading fiction since childhood but I’ve long had a sense that my reading of it is not typical. I’ve always liked involved, complex plots, and been slightly mystified when other readers have said that they prefer “character-driven” stories. Indeed, I’ve never quite understood what “character-driven” means. In spite of having read and studied literature over several decades, I’d find it difficult to define what “character” means in this context. That’s a question I may explore in another post.

In rereading Wuthering Heights after a gap of so many years, I’ve been reminded of some other questions that seem worthy of further exploration. In fact, the one I find most compelling touches on the question of character. It has to do with Nelly Dean’s actions and omissions, and her sometimes defensive attitude when explaining herself to Lockwood and others. Some commentators have seen this as reflecting on her “character”, but I prefer to see it as resulting from her (arguably ambiguous, and precarious) class position. I’d like to write about socioeconomic class, and socioeconomic forces generally, in the novel. But that may have to wait some time.

I’ll send the next issue of this newsletter out in 2 weeks’s time. As of now, I expect it to be about Jillian Keenan’s surprising but illuminating reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the first chapter of her book, Sex with Shakespeare.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to forward this or any other issue of the newsletter to anybody who might be interested.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 21-Dec-2020.