I got myself my first smartphone recently, and my most-abused app so far is its little ebook reader, for which I have downloaded a delightful gloop of free classics. It’s a pleasingly tidy thing to be able to sit in the canteen in my office, reading chunky novels using only my right palm and thumb.
“Must be a bloody long text message,” said one of our managers, the other day.
“I’m reading a novel,” says I, pleased as a caramelised glutton. “I’m reading a novel ON MY PHONE.”
“Well, would you look at that! What are you reading?”
“Ah, classic. Speaking of literature, apparently Howard Jacobson’s just won the Booker for The Finkler Question.”
“Yeah, haven’t read it. I’m reading Wuthering Heights.”
“You’ve read it before?”
“Eight or nine times. Never ON MY PHONE though.”
Wuthering Heights, at this stage in my novel-gobbling career, has become rather a cosy duvet of familiar words and themes and characters that I’m loathe to cast off for unproven tomes. It’s an unhealthy thing; one should reach for the contemporary stuff when one intends to be a bit of said stuff herself one day. Wuthering Heights is a classic, true, but it’s also a guilty pleasure, and saying that about a standard of English literature comes across as mightily pompous.
“You enjoy chick-lit, you say? Love and romance and squishy stuff? Interesting. I suppose to well-read ladies such as mise fein, the classics are the no-brainers. Like, I consider the archetypical antihero Heathcliff to be my very own … er … my own *ahem* … Mr. D’Arcy.”
Because that’s what’s happened. As I’ve grown older, and stopped hanging around outside University libraries hugging my colour coordinated notebooks to my perky bosom and looking all intellectually adorable, the “flaws” of Wuthering Heights have become as apparent as janitors’ plans in a Scooby Doo adventure. I considered myself quite the little clever clogs when, at eighteen, I could genuinely nominate Emily Bronte’s gothic classic as my favourite book. While my friends succumbed to Marian Keyes and Ursula Le Guin, I scrambled up my own towering intellect and stood undulating in the hot air of its summit. I was an insufferable wally, in other words. Eleven years later, I’m starting to see cracks in the thing. Fissures. Christ, yawning chasms. And it upsets me greatly.
Where once there was a powerful story of oh-so-rosemantic consuming passion, now there is a deeply sinister tale of sociopathic vengeance. Where once was my deep respeck’ for the feisty Catherine, now festers an irritation at what an irrational hussy she was. Where once stood Heathcliff-my-Heathcliff, there now lies crumpled a right nasty fucker who you wouldn’t let clean out your eaves, let alone take pride of place in your boudoir. I once knew that Catherine and Heathcliff were the very best in star-crossed lovers, and now it seems that they were a right pair of selfish, whingey little sods with more money than sense and unfortunate access to damp, injurious weather whenever they wanted to prove a selfish, whingey point.
Don’t get me wrong; had I the detachment to intelligently critique Bronte’s masterpiece, I would still admire it, for Wuthering Heights is beautifully written, brilliantly plotted, and deep as any other novel you could care to mention. But I don’t have that detachment, and the result is that I’m terribly peeved by all I missed when I first devoured the thing. Who knew that Heathcliff was such an epic dick? Not me; I thought he was faithful love personified! No violent boor my Heathcliff; he was misunderstood, that’s all.
When I was eighteen, I thought of Heathcliff as proof positive that Bronte knew more about true love than anyone who’d ever lived. She knew my kind of man was a tortured saucepot who’d be unable to stop himself ravishing my waiflike self, even after all of the proud ice storms I fecked his way (he’d also have lots of mysterious money and a great big house). Now that I’m all growed-up, I dither between believing Bronte was a genius birther of characters superhuman in their flawed humanity, or that she was a wannabe sex kitten who’d have run away with the gypsies if her tuberculosis hadn’t hobbled her. I still can’t decide whether Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights as art, or masturbatory catharsis.
Plaster the plot of Wuthering Heights into a contemporary setting, package it and send it out for review, and you’d get some horrified squawks from the likes of me. There’s nothing sexy about petulant suicide and domestic violence, so redo that bodice, thank you very much, Ms. Bronte. For shame!
The moral of my story is: don’t read much-loved classics after coming of age. Those delightfully solid assumptions you made about the author’s intentions turn out to have iceberg arses. Those characters you befriended and made precious start to kick lumps out your insides. You start picking holes, and a duvet full of holes is no longer a cosy comfort, and certainly not suitable reading for break times in the canteen.
For God’s sake, I was reading Call Of The Wild the other day, and found myself wondering whether Jack London was into bestiality. That can’t be right!