Friday, May 31, 2013

Revisiting Wuthering Heights

I hit a bit of a block in the story I've been working on when I realized it had to be a romance. It was already supposed to be sort of a romance, in that it had a happily ever after ending, but I was so focused on all the plot stuff of getting everyone in the right place at the right time that I sort of forgot about the developing relationship and realized I needed a big, romantic episode. And that got to be pretty tricky because I'm doing a gender reversal in a standard fairy-tale setting, so I've got a princess and a servant guy. That's actually the more common pairing in the actual fairy tales -- the princess and the woodsman's third son who wins her hand and half the kingdom by doing some seemingly impossible task with the help of the animals and old people he helped earlier -- but the original fairy tales are pretty thin on relationship development (it boils down to "she was beautiful and he fell in love instantly"), and the stories that tend to get fleshed out more in current pop culture, so that we have those images in our heads, are more like the Cinderella story, with the prince and the ordinary girl. In those stories, we generally get some kind of "swept off her feet" scene, in which the prince awes the girl with something fabulous from his life, like the Beauty and the Beast scene where he gives her the library. It's really tricky to reverse the genders without it coming across as her being patronizing and without him looking like either a rube or a golddigger (and that's made me look at the prince and ordinary girl scenes in a different way). I don't even want this to come across as her dazzling him with her wealth. These two have made an intellectual connection by working on a problem together, and while they know they can't be together for good, she wants to show him one evening of fun and luxury, knowing that his life is usually one of toil. This is where a lot of current books would rely on sex, but I think that's out of character for these people and unlikely in the situation, and besides, it's lazy storytelling because it's an easy way out. I need to come up with something for them to do that's unique to their relationship, that brings out their characters and that makes the fact that they can't be together (they think) that much more heartbreaking. There's something kind of tacky about "Here, have a book/bon-bon/fancy outfit, I've got plenty." I think they need to do something on neutral ground, where it briefly doesn't matter that she's a princess and he's a servant, but I don't want to do the Roman Holiday thing where it's about her slumming.

But perhaps Wuthering Heights wasn't the best thing to read before trying to write something romantic. I read it the first time soon after I finished college, mostly out of curiosity, and I was deeply disappointed in it. The popular impression of it is that it's supposedly wildly romantic and that Heathcliff is some kind of romantic figure (probably because he's generally played by hunks in movies). But I found nothing romantic in the book. This time, my expectations were different, and I liked it a lot better. I also don't think the book is supposed to be romantic. There's never any hint that Heathcliff is anything but a monster. The only hint of romance is in the connection he had with Catherine, but it was more of a case that they were both such awful people that they deserved each other. Maybe they could have been happy and spared everyone else from being collateral damage if they could have just spent their lives running around the moors together, but there's still something rather toxic about a love that results in so much damage and that leads to such an impulse to hurt and destroy.

There's even a mention in the book that Heathcliff's rewarding quality wasn't his love for her, but rather his regard for the man who took him in and brought him up like a son, so I don't think Emily Bronte was under any illusions about Heathcliff being a romantic hero. There's a funny cartoon of the Bronte sisters with Emily and Charlotte swooning over the dark, dangerous guy and Anne rolling her eyes, since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shows what it would be like to be married to a Heathcliff. But Wuthering Heights shows what it would be like to be married to Heathcliff in Isabella's story, where she's so abused and miserable that she runs away. There's even a scene in which Heathcliff essentially tells her, "Duh! I hanged your puppy right before you ran away with me. What kind of person did you think you were marrying?"

Generally, this book could be subtitled "Woman Who Have Lousy Taste in Men" because Heathcliff isn't the only nasty piece of work. Or maybe you could call it "No, You Can't Change or Save Him with Your Love." There are different kinds of tyranny. There's Heathcliff's knock you around and lock you up tyranny, but then there's Linton's "I'm so weak that if you don't give me what I want I'll die and it will be your fault" tyranny. And they all fell for both varieties, believing that love could tame the dangerous man and strengthen the weak man.

One thing I find amusing in 19th century novels (and this includes Jane Austen, as well) is the idea that being really upset can send one into a fatal physical illness. One big temper tantrum can drive someone into a fever that lasts for months. Walking in the rain while sad is a good way to commit suicide. I suppose in that era a lot of people had underlying conditions that could be worsened by a bad emotional state. If you already have tuberculosis, then maybe walking in the rain while sad could do you in. Still, I can't help but think of all the medical studies showing that being wet and cold doesn't make you any more likely to catch a cold.

Now I need to walk to the library and it's cloudy. But it's warm and I'm in a relatively good mood, so even if it rains on me, I should be okay.

No comments: