Literature grad students specializing in the English novel have long given thanks for Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm (1932) -- and even more so for the BBC 3-part 1995 adaptation, which had a theatrical release in the U.S.
Cold Comfort Farm parodied a genre popular then, sometimes called the 'Loam and Lovechild' novel. Among the writers well-known for their efforts in this sort of specifically located rural life were Mary E. Mann, the Brontës, Mary Webb, D. H. Lawrence, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Thomas Hardy. Some will include the George Eliot of Adam Bede in this earthy school.*
Wuthering Heights doesn't have characters with redeeming features, except perhaps Mr. Earnshaw's own honor, and his compassion for this foundling. This is what fascinated me. Heathcliff's and Catherine's great struggle for dominance -- their so-called romance -- never spellbound me, as it seems to have so many. It was destructive to the players and everyone around them -- and perhaps even to the land, their shared passion for the land, supposedly the foundation of their passion for each other.
It's a very strange book. What's even more strange is how so many readers have persisted in reading it as something it is not. But then, the film versions are what most of them are referencing anyway, which have generally glossed over how severe, cruel, amoral and hard it is. A fitting composition of a woman who refused treatment or assistance while dying in terrible pain for months, a woman who was able to beat her obstinate, fierce dog, Keeper -- not only into submission -- but into absolute loyalty to herself -- when Keeper committed the crime of sleeping on a white counterpaned bed.
What has fascinated me about Wuthering Heights was the Heathcliff tale -- what is not said about him, what is implied through Brontë's word choices, -- and its parallel to Charlotte Brontë's Rochester and his mad wife in the attic, brought back from the Caribbean, in Jane Eyre. Additionally to consider, the Victorian deus ex machina of plot resolutions, the unexpected legacy from a distant relative that Jane Eyre receives comes from an uncle who exported wine to the Caribbean colonies.
This why I've so liked Patricia Rozema's 1999 film version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. She too opened up a classic novel to the reality of slave economy of the time that supported so many of England's wealthy men. Rozema did it, it seems to me, in manner plausible to what Austen would know, and Fanny Price would encounter. They just wouldn't talk about it in a drawing room -- unless in the terms of abolitionism, of which there was a strong movement even in those days in England, with many supporters. Fanny Price or Jane Austen wouldn't talk about this in public, not due to a silly kind of modesty, but because the knowledge of slavery was so awful, it wasn't fit for children to know. Knowing what slavery meant about men you lived with, were dependent on -- you could not throw this out to the winds. You would be so horrified and ashamed for them -- and even more so for they would not be ashamed themselves. They would, however, be angry that you knew of their behaviors. They would blame you for possessing the knowledge, be horrified by you, a female who has knowledge of impurity. Yet they, the men who do these things, are not considered either impure or to be shamed -- it is the slaves who are impure and shameful -- like you are, now that you know. Moreover, women are not allowed to judge what men do, because men are set above women in all things. This is all implied with a very few images and screen shots in Rozema's Mansfield Park.
This is something everyone knew about as part of their world, but conventionally couldn't speak of much, or at all -- if they were nice**. But then, the Brontës were widely considered not nice for writing what they wrote. So here's a paradox: these sisters' books, generally criticized at publication as having gone wildly out of polite and womanly bounds in their expression of experience, are now icons of the apotheosis of the ideal Romance -- at least Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are. Throwing slavery and the slave trade into the mix of any story is the antithesis of Romance.
But Emily Brontë's novel was anti-romance in another way. Wuthering Heights is a portrait of home life as power struggle, the power struggle conducted via domestic and animal abuse.*** It is the trajectory of the abused becoming the abuser, the now widely recognized signals of abusive personality starkly in evidence: the violence against a child followed by tenderness, and, particularly, the many incidents of hurting animals, especially dogs. Heathcliff hangs a King Charles Spaniel as the last thing he does before taking Isabella Linton off to marry, in order to hurt Catherine who married Isabella's brother Edgar and got pregnant by him. (What happens to Isabella and the child Heathcliff gets on her are not included in the film -- the child himself isn't in the film either.) Later, Hindley Earnshaw's son (Hareton, who is never named in this film of Wuthering Heights -- seemingly only Cathy-Catherine and Heathcliff are large enough to receive frequent, articulated naming in this church-invaded yet godless universe of Yorkshire moors) is seen hanging dogs too. These cruelty to animals scenes have been left out of the previous films based on Wuthering Heights. Arnold's camera lingers, in tight frame, on the dogs' struggles.****
Arnold's Wuthering Heights is the mud and cold of Yorkshire, the shit and piss, the obstinacy, the cruelty, the dumbness of animals and humans, the hardness -- and the pointlessness -- of this rural life. Only the wild creatures are free, can live (that is, if they can evade snares, and surely, in season, the beaters for shooting parties). The beauty to be found here, is found in very small things that are enlarged to fill the entire movie screen, so enlarged they frequently transform into shapelessness, losing all identifying markers: a single feather from a lapwing, a drop of the endless rain hanging from a bud of heather, a leaf falling in the endless chill. Or in the vastness of the endless sky. The blood and feathers and wool of domestic animals on stone of kitchen hearth, in the cold muck of cold barn floor, in the buckets of endless offal fed to the dogs, these are mirrors of the blood spilled in domestic violence, the beatings Hindley gives Heathcliff, wounds layered over old slave whipping scars that Cathy kisses in twisted rapture, the beatings that Heathcliff inflicts upon others, and upon himself.
According to the Wiki entry for Andrea Arnold, she wrote a paper***** when a young school girl about the evils of the slave trade. Presumably, then, this, as well as Liverpool and Yorkshire's attention to the regional slave trade industry in 2007-08 (2007 was the 200th anniversary of England's abolition of the Africa-Atlantic slave trade) prompted her to cast the young and older Heathcliff with actors of color. However, Arnold does nothing with this casting. ****** In contrast Rozema's Mansfield Park used the fact of the West Indian colonies' slave system to open up the enclosure of the Park. She shone some light on the darkness that supported so many Austen lovers's fantasy of English country estate-and-gentry, to further expose the character of some the principals in the story. She did this without invalidating Austen's novel. Arnold did not do this.
What Arnold does with the overt centering of Heathcliff as a black slave is to treat the actor as a slave, i.e. take his body for her / the camera to do with as she / it likes. She frequently exposes his nakedness to our gaze. No other character in this film is seen even partially nude. Yorkshire is a cold climate. Casual nudity isn't natural. So why is Heathcliff frequently seen entirely naked? This is what we do to people of color in film: we make them naked, we make them kill each other, and make them be killed. Showing us Heathcliff's naked back, with the scars of whipping is one thing. But showing him disrobing entirely before getting into bed in conditions that don't even include a fireplace or much in the way of bedclothes, providing full frontal glimpses, camera lingering upon his buttocks, is exploitation. Further -- it is ridiculous -- see cold climate.
If the camera's micro and macro shots are of natural beauty, the middle ground, upon which the human beings are centered, those shots consistently swirl together the erotic gaze with equal parts grossness and the ridiculous. The longest scenes are of Heathcliff suctioning Isabella's mouth, beating himself in rages, and his necrophilic sexual release upon Catherine's corpse. These scenes are portrayed so grossly they make you sick. Heathcliff's obsession is not awe-inspiring, it's disgusting -- and implausible -- the watcher cannot suspend her disbelief.
Nor does the mere fact that a black man is playing these scenes have a significance. Whoever enacted the script as Arnold and her collaborator, Olivia Hetreed, wrote it, would be equally preposterous and gross, as very little is shown of the characters. Most of the characters are not even provided names, though Brontë names everyone, and the first framing narrator, Lockwood, like so many other characters who make the story, is not in the film. To us, the audience, the constant brutality, which all commit upon each other (which is not the case in the novel, particularly between Catherine and her father), seems unprovoked and mysterious.
This is what we see:
It's dark, Mr. Earnshaw brings home a mysterious fellow who is almost full grown, it's dark, Hindley hates him, it's cloudy on the moors, Cathy takes the youth to some rocks, it rains and blows and is dark, Hindley goes away, Cathy and Heathcliff sit on rocks, Mr. Earnshaw dies, it's dark, it's cloudy, Hindely comes back with a wife, it's dark, Hindley beats Heathcliff some more, it rains and blows, Cathy meets Edgar, it's dark (sometime Hindley's wife dies and there's a baby), Catherine announces she's getting married, somebody gets beaten, it's dark, Heathcliff goes away, Heathcliff comes back, it's cloudy (does Hindley die now? or does he just go poof from the film?), Heathcliff runs away with Isabella, it rains and blows (does Heathcliff own Wuthering Heights now or did he own it before?), Heathcliff and Isabella return, it's dark, Catherine dies, Heathcliff beats himself, it rains and blows, Heathcliff goes (even more) mad, it's dark, Heathcliff beats himself, it rains and blows, Heathcliff beats himself, has sex on Catherine's corpse, it rains and blows, (somewhere Heathcliff howls) Heathcliff beats himself, it rains and blows, Heathcliff digs up Catherine's coffin, it rains and blows, mud. The End.
This is less than satisfying to the movie goer. Even if that's Arnold's objective, that we be dissatisfied, we have no idea why she wants us dissatisfied.
She's made a Wuthering Heights that is about the camera. If you allow, the camera divides you from what you are seeing.
The telling element Arnold brought to Wuthering Heights was to tightly frame the brutality embedded in the novel, which perhaps was nurtured by the stark and even bleak beauty of the landscape in Brontë's book. Arnold works transformation of this bleakness into ugliness and grossness. Brontë's transformations were into the formless quietude of the infinite, while still showing a truth of living a life filled work, mud, guts and blood. Arnold left out the deeper context of the novel's universe, despite casting a black man as Heathcliff, despite the rain beaded spider webs and sun shafted cloud giants. She neglected the novel's reconciliation, also a part of the natural world, a coming of peace, to the most non peaceful of personalities.
This why we are grateful there is the witty parody of Cold Comfort Farm to cleanse our palates from this noxious nostrum of a film, that fails to show us the true strangenesses of Emily Brontë's novel, while exposing yet another person of color to an objectifying, exploitative gaze.
* My own critical judgment challenges those who want to include Adam Bede in the Loam and Lovechild tradition. I've finely sifted Eliot's methodist, political reformist movement and science infused text via many re-readings, and do not find the pagan and primitive strands for which some of these novelists, such as Lawrence or the Brontës, are noted. Nor is it a depiction of the desperation of rural poverty that Hardy and Mann have done in some of their works. It shows an honest rural prosperity earned by hard work and common sense.
** Beyond the social conventions of polite discourse, particularly for women, not speaking of 'not-nice' matters -- slaves are not allowed to protest their condition verbally or physically -- further, slaves, like women, are forbidden, in the ideal world of the slave holding economies, to feel sadness or pain from being beaten, sold, losing their families. Forbidding the subject speech, with the associated coercion of violence, are the primary tools of domination. If the subject of abuse cannot speak, then, the surrounding society cannot speak of the abuse either, and thus the abuse -- and the abuser -- is safely protected not only by the legal system that sanctions the violence, but by the even more powerful social system that demands silence and invisibility from those it rules.
*** An excellent analysis (though the author has some of the details of the novel wrong -- Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff are not cousins, as she states, for instance -- Heathcliff is a foundling from Liverpool, not a relative of any sort) of the connection of domestic abuse and animal abuse in Wuthering Heights is:
"Emily Brontë and Dogs"
Maureen B. Adams in Society & Animals Journal of Human-Animal Studies; Volume 8, Number 2, 2000
The connection between those who abuse animals and domestic violence was understood by George Eliot too, as we see in Daniel Deronda. Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt treats his dogs the way he treats his other dependents, including his wife, Gwendolyn Harleth. Unlike his dogs though, his wife does not bond to her abuser, and she escapes. This is a different solution from Catherine and Heathcliff, each determined to make the other a thrall, neither of them succeeding, unless Catherine does, as the first of the two to escape into death from the endless struggle between them. (Why do they struggle for dominance? Why are they obsessed with it? I've never figured it out, and this film doesn't help any.) For that matter, Emily's sister Anne, finds escape from a violent, drunken husband the right solution for her primary character in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Animals also play important roles in Anne Brontë's novel, as they do in her sister's, including precepitating her protagonist's escape, when she sees her son abusing birds, at his drunken father's instigation.
**** This audience member wondered how these scenes were staged to protect the dogs from physical and mental anguish. I stayed until the house lights went up. "No animals were hurt or harmed during the course of filming," was not included in the credit crawl.
***** At first it seemed Arnold would do something to open further the tale by presenting Heathcliff s as an escaped, lost or freed slave in Liverpool. The old house of Wuthering Heights creaks in the wuthering of the wind. The roar is like the constant roar surrounding the slaves of the Middle Passage, chained below water level, as heard in the video simulation in the International Slave Museum. It's an awful video; nothing is spared, from the vomit of sea sickness, the galls from the shackles, the slop provided to eat once a day, the roiling feces and urine. But that's the last thing in the film that might be brought in by the virtue of casting a black actor as Heathcliff. That, and the whipping scars on his back, are all there is -- and the exploitive, objectifying gaze at his nakedness.
****** During my undergrad years the prof of a history of the novel course set us to do a 'creative' project for our final class project instead of yet another paper. I created Isabella's diary of her time with Heathcliff, which included how she learned he'd made his fortune when away from Wuthering Heights and the moors via the slave trade -- which was vigorously pursued during the presumed timeline of the novel, which reaches from 1757 to 1803, when Cathy, Catherine's daughter, makes plans to marry her cousin, Hareton, Hindley's son. (The genealogy of Wuthering Heights's three generations is as hard to grasp as anything else about the book, at least for me.)