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Paperback Writers: A view from the 'Heights'

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Emily Brontë died in 1848, aged 30, leaving only one published book and some poems. That book, of course, is "Wuthering Heights" (recently issued in new editions, by Penguin and HarperCollins), a novel so strange and powerful that it sinks into the reader's DNA.

"1801. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord -- the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country. In all England I do not believe I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society," the book begins, narrated at first by Lockwood, the rentor of a house, Thrushcross Grange, from that "solitary neighbor" Heathcliff, who lives in nearby Wuthering Heights, an ancient farm situated on a wild and wind-swept moor.

Lockwood finds himself drawn back to Wuthering Heights, and, trapped by a storm, is forced to spend a night there. What follows is one of the most intense and terrifying scenes in all literature. Lockwood, drifting in and out of sleep, hears a tapping on the window and sees a figure, a ghost-girl, pushing its hand through the window and demanding: "Let me in -- let me in." Terror makes Lockwood cruel. "Finding it useless to attempt to shake the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes," he notes.

The apparition is Cathy, Heathcliff's dead soulmate, and the novel soon switches narrative voice, going back 20 years in time as Nelly Dean, the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange, tells Lockwood the story of Cathy's love for Heathcliff, a savage orphan brought home by Cathy's father.

Nelly Dean says of Heathcliff: "I did not feel as though I were in the company of my own species." Yet Cathy and Heathcliff develop a wolfish, almost incestuous passion. They share a bedroom, and dream and play together, and walk the moors together, children of the wind that batters their faces and blows through their hair.

"I am Heathcliff," the willful Cathy declares, but then she marries somebody else, the rich and weak Edgar Linton, then owner of Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff flees and returns years later, intent on revenge and ruining everybody and taking their money. Cathy dies in childbirth, and Heathcliff calls down a curse, demanding that she haunt him forever.

It's wild, gothic stuff, but there's much more going on. "Wuthering Heights," as Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out, is a parable of innocence and loss, of "childhood's necessary defeat." But it presents too a contrasting tale, a story of education, maturing and affection -- that happens in the novel's present-day frame -- observed by Lockwood and the glowering Heathcliff.

This second romance, between Cathy's daughter and the grandson of Heathcliff's foster-father, thought by some critics and many readers to be but a pale reflection of what has gone before, is essential to the novel's conception. Escape from family doom is possible, Brontë suggests, even though the shadow of that doom will always linger, out there on the moor.

"The place of Catherine's interment, to the surprise of the villagers, was neither in the chapel under the carved monument of the Lintons, nor yet in the tombs of her own relations. It was dug on a green slope in a corner of the kirkyard, where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor; and peat mould almost buries it," says Nelly Dean. "Wuthering Heights" is a beautifully wrought novel about passion's destructive force and the blind power of nature. "There was no sound through the house but the moaning wind, which shook the windows every now and then."

This same wind was described by the great American poet Sylvia Plath, who made a visit to Brontë's beloved moors and the huge skies that loom and lean between Haworth and Ilkley in West Yorkshire. In her 1961 poem "Wuthering Heights," she wrote:

There is no life higher than the grasstops

Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind

Pours by like destiny, bending

Everything in one direction.

I can feel it trying

To funnel my heat away.

If I pay the roots of the heather

Too close attention, they will invite me

To whiten my bones among them.

Years later Ted Hughes, a Yorkshireman, who had been Plath's husband at the time, remembered this pilgrimage in a poem that he too titled, "Wuthering Heights":

The moor-wind

Came with its empty eyes to look at you.

And the clouds gazed sidelong, going elsewhere,

The heath-grass, fidgeting in its fever,

Took idiot notice of you. And the stone,

Reaching to touch your hand, found you real

And warm, and lucent, like that earlier one.

Plath cast herself as Emily Brontë, or Cathy, and saw Hughes as her own stubborn, untamable Heathcliff. This was a story that ended badly, with Hughes deserting Plath, and Plath committing suicide in the bitter British winter of 1963, a warning, maybe, about what literature and love can do.

A new film version of "Wuthering Heights," the 15th, recently aired in Britain. Here in the United States, Penguin Classics has just put out a "couture classic" with French flaps and a lovely jacket by the fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo. HarperCollins, meanwhile, has issued new editions of the book with broody "Twilight"-inspired covers, because the characters read and talk about "Wuthering Heights" in the Stephanie Meyer series.

"Wuthering Heights" is a classic that seems infinitely porous, waiting to be rediscovered and repackaged infinitely. "Love Never Dies" runs the tag line on the HarperCollins edition. Really, the book should come with flashing health alerts.

On a personal note: I was born in West Yorkshire, on one side of the Brontë moor, and I spent my teenage years living in a house just on the other side. I first read "Wuthering Heights" when I was 13 and, every couple of years ever since, I have re-subjected myself to its undiminished beauties and oddities and cruelties. Guns go bang, puppies are slaughtered and weak lungs burst, as Emily Brontë's did soon after she finished the writing. "Wuthering Heights" has realism, and tries to tell us that it is only by daylight and reason that love can survive.

But it is the sickly fevered radiance of the remembered Heathcliff-Cathy story line that threatens to whiten our bones. We long for such passion, and gain it at our peril.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age." Paperback Writers appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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