I hate Wuthering Heights. It’s like an episode of Jerry Springer. There is absolutely nothing empathetic about these people, their affairs, their makeovers, their vengeance, their larger-than-life issues.
But I just can’t stop watching (aka reading) to the very end, to see what crazy things they are going to do next. Because really, who behaves that that? So unrestrained? So uncivilized?
This debate by Intelligence Squared has done more to make me almost change my mind than anything I have ever seen or read.
Two experts debate who is the Queen of British Literature: Emily Bronte or Jane Austen. They each have 30 minutes to present their argument. A nice twist: they also have a panel of actors (many who have played Austen or Bronte roles) at their disposal. So we the audience have our memories refreshed as we consider the debaters’ particular points.
The audience votes both before and after. Who is Queen?
Of course I cheered for Austen. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen is the best British novelist of her time. The presenter on her side is funny and responds with excellent quips to challenges to his position. (Free Tip for Men: Wanna win yourself some attractiveness points? Quote Austen.)
But the Bronte presenter puts forth a challenge that honors Austen while making Bronte look a bit more. She makes the melodramatic TMI that is Withering Heights (oops, Freudian slip)–Wuthering Heights—seem epic and grandiose and almost godlike in scope.
Indeed, I am ready to concede that I can enjoy Wuthering Heights the way I do Moby Dick. Both are classics that are amazing in CliffsNotes version. (Or shall I say, Heathcliff version?)
I just don’t want to read them.
They are too big, too overblown, too rambling. Which given my usual word count is possibly unfair, but I do not wallow in my emotions quite the same way.
If I were to pinpoint an argument in which our pro-Austen presenter lost ground, it’s this: The pro-Bronte presenter argued that Austen is primarily confined to discussing marriage and courtship, and is sweet and romantic about it, while Bronte is complex and unafraid to show the darker side of marriage. She is about more.
I think this is too limiting. Both authors are about love and marriage, and both are about more.
Wuthering Heights utterly depends on these elements. Heathcliff and Catherine love each other fiercely, but marry other people. Disaster, angst, revenge, and long-winded speeches ensue. Without love and marriage, there is no plot.
I enjoy the romantic element in Austen, and yes, she has a much lighter hand. But I don’t walk away with the message, oo, I really need to get married now. I relate more to Emma’s disastrous Box Hill moment, when she jokes at Miss Bates’s expense, and wonder if I have ever done the same. I relate to Jane Bennet, the elder sister of Elizabeth, and her need to “make everyone good” despite the evidence. I wonder if this affects me as an effective manager in the workplace. I relate to Mary Bennet, eager to show off her accomplishments at the piano-forte, and coming across as stilted. I wonder if I have a need for praise that comes at the expense of a true love of art. I look at Mr. Bennet. I would excuse him anything because he makes me laugh, but is he really a good father given his lax parenting methods, even making fun of his own children rather than correcting them?
I could go on, but my point is that Austen is about far more than marriage, although you cannot deny marriage is a key element. And certainly Austen does not idealize every marriage she writes. If Bronte writes of the consequences when Catherine marries for economic reasons instead of passion, well, what about when Austen writes of Charlotte Lucas? She settles for a ridiculous and pompous man, Mr. Collins. But Austen lives in a practical world while Bronte does not. Catherine can speechify all about her passions in larger than life terms. Charlotte Lucas makes us laugh and shake our heads as she adroitly sends her husband into the garden—away from her—and makes the most of a passionless marriage.
And what of the botched love/marriage examples of Maria Bertram? Lydia Bennet? Mary Crawford? Mr. Elton? Just because something is restrained in its depiction or makes us laugh does not mean it is not making a deeper commentary.
How does this apply to unruly fairy tales? Let’s voice this as a style question. Do you, as a reader or writer, prefer the grand and epic, unbridled passion? Or do you prefer something more subtle, where you have to work harder to unveil the criticism and deep emotions? Do you prefer your books to be larger-than-life, or more restrained?
After watching this youtube debate, I cannot be swayed from the Austen camp, but I at least concede Bronte is better than I thought she was. I admit as a writer I share something with Bronte. I do ramble. I do enjoy a good angsty moment in Waking Beauty. But whenever I go on for more than a page or two in serious philosophic writhing, I have to crack a joke. Or as Jane Austen said,
“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter.”
letter to James Stanier Clarke
April 1, 1816
Now if only the debate had been between Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. Then I might have been truly torn. But that is another story, and shall be told at another time.