categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence


So I spent some time in the last month on Cape Cod and I also spent some time re-reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  These two facts conspired to get me thinking about a novel I’ve been trying to write for the last 26 years, a novel that is a family melodrama set on the bluff on a fictional neck on Cape Cod.  I’d love to start it right now, to take the advice I’ve been giving you, dear readers, on Bad Advice Wednesdays, and plunge right in.  But in this case it is other writing that is getting in the way of writing, and the likelihood is that my novel will have to slumber again, at least until December when school ends for the term……

In the meantime I’ve been immersed in Bronte’s miserable, beautiful book.  It really is horrible in a way, specifically the way that Heathcliff, regarded as a grand romantic character by those who have not actually opened the pages, sets about systematically destroying the two families who have wronged him.  Despite his sadism, I’ve always been a sucker for a good primal character, and he certainly is that.  He is described by his lover Cathy herself as “an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation….a fierce pitiless wolfish man.”  His rival , Edgar Linton, is the sickly fancy lad who Heathcliff describes to Cathy as “the slavery, shivering thing you preferred to me.”  Heathcliff destroys Edgar, his son, his sister, and most everyone else in the book, before some final page next-generation redemption.

What do I “take” from the book from a writing point of view; what can I steal and put to use in my own work?  I think mostly the way the whole thing comes pouring out in a torrent.  What struck me is that though the majority is literally “told” by the faithful family maid, Ellen Dean, there is really very little “telling.”  Instead the thing comes tumbling out in a headlong rush of dialogue and scene.  Of course I also love the way that place pervades the book–the moors and heather and rocky crags–though of course, being of its time, the place sometimes seems mere backdrop.  But still it points toward possibilities and was one of the first great books where a living landscape was one of the main characters.

Of course I won’t be putting those lessons to use for a few months yet.  That’s a little sad for me, I’m raring to go, but swirling with a melodrama on the moors has served as the next best thing to swirling with my own melodrama on Cape Cod.  And if I need a reminder that we can’t always write everything we would write, in a perfect world, I need only remember that Emily Bronte, published her book in 1847, a year before her death.   That would be sad enough but then there’s this: she was only thirty at the time.  This is even harder for me to take than what happens to her beleaguered characters.  A particular sensibility a unique mental life and way of looking at the world, extinguished forever.  Of course it is some consolation that she left behind a part of that sensibility, and that we are able to encounter it, still, one hundred sixty four years later.








  1. monica wood writes:

    I read WH last year for the first time (never finished it in high school, which is kind of unbelievable). I was shocked at how horrible and horrifying the great romantic Heathcliff is. WH, commonly thought of as a romance, is absolutely a horror story. This woman out-Poed Poe before Poe! Her “hero” is a sick, sadistic bastard, which nobody who read the book in high school seems to remember. I have only one thing now to say when somebody uses Heathcliff as a paragon of sexy manhood: You do remember, don’t you, that he KILLED HER PUPPIES?

    • dave writes:


      I completely agree……he was one mean son of a bitch. Even his big “love” thing seeems barely redemptive since he fucked over everyone he met……until the very end there is no softening. I read King Lear at the same time and the end result is I now have an evil character in the novel I’ve been writing…..DG

    • Bill writes:

      Well, sometimes puppies can get annoying, Monica.

  2. Susan Zakin writes:

    I loved Wuthering Heights, as any woman worth a damn did and does. I outlined it when I was first thinking of writing a novel, and learned that, craft-wise, the thing that is really great about it is that there is not one wasted sentence. (Possibly not a wasted word, but I didn’t get that micro.) Bronte could have been a hell of screenwriter. We can all be grateful that film hadn’t been invented yet.

  3. George de Gramont writes:

    We attended a Class inApril w/Sheila Kohler on Wuthering Heights . So we related well to your wonderful Essay. Also I start your book today.