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Classics Reissued: The Annotated Wuthering Heights

By (October 13, 2014) No Comment

annotated wuthering heights coverThe Annotated Wuthering Heights

by Emily Bronte

edited by Janet Gezari

The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2014

“Any novel written more than 150 years ago wants annotating for a modern reader,” Janet Gezari writes in the Introduction to her own sumptuously-annotated new edition of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights from the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, “and Wuthering Heights especially.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Wuthering Heights has been winning passionate new converts without a speck of annotation for the whole of its printed life. I first encountered it in a battered, weather-stained hardcover that had no such annotations, and although parts of it struck me as more outlandish than any science fiction (I’d never till then heard of such a thing as an unfriendly dog, for instance), I kept reading – and kept re-reading. Decades later, when I briefly taught the book to a group of young Malaysian girls, one of them clutched to her breast a disintegrating little Minster paperback, equally annotation-free, from which she could breathlessly recite whole passages verbatim. As Gezari herself points out, sales of the magnum easy eye wuthering heightsbook quadrupled once young teenage fans of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series learned that its insipid heroine loved Wuthering Heights – and it’s doubtful those fans all held out for annotated editions (far more likely they scooped up the edition of Wuthering Heights rushed into print by HarperCollins with a “Twilight”-themed cover). If Wuthering Heights were so fragile a thing that its new readers needed to know what a clarionet is, or the difference between a dry nurse and a wet nurse, we wouldn’t still be talking about it over a century later.

No, annotated editions exist purely for the devoted fan, the reader who simply can’t get enough of a certain book, its world, its characters, everything. These are the people who revel in the actual building codes for 221b Baker Street and want to trace the lineage of Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s husband back to the Battle of Hastings, and they’re the ones for whom Gezari and Belknap’s fantastic art department have labored to create this beautiful volume. Gerazi opens the volume by reminding us that Wuthering Heights has been called “the most beautiful, most profoundly violent love story of all time”:

Love is one of the names we give our deepest feelings, but in Wuthering Heights, it is too small a name to encompass everything the novel reaches out to include. To see this, we need only remember Catherine’s claim: “I am Heathcliff!” This is the simplest kind of sentence we can write in English. When we hear it, we know immediately that the formation cannot be literally true. Yet Catherine doesn’t mean that she is like Heathcliff, or that she has more in common with him than with Edgar, which may be true but trivializes her insight.

And it’s instructive regarding the strengths and limits of any annotated volume to consult that famous passage, Catherine’s impassioned declaration of the unruly status of her heart:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem to be a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but as my own being …

The passage gets a long annotation from Gerazi that starts with “This declaration – the climax of Catherine’s most famous speech – is the simplestannotated page kind of sentence one can speak in English, yet it has puzzled generations of readers” – and this, too, is obviously wrong in a few ways, not just because commands in English (“Go,” “Stay,” etc.) are simpler than identity-statements but also because Catherine’s statement has never for a moment puzzled a single Wuthering Heights reader who’s ever been in love. The many experts Gerazi goes on to quote in her annotation of that single line work at great length to explain something that’s been self-evident for over a century, whereas later on, some dozens of scenes go without commentary at all even when they seem to need it – like the moment in Chapter 22 when Catherine and Ellen have retreated sir walter scottto a quiet evening after a troubling roadside encounter with Heathcliff:

The master had retired to rest before we came in. Cathy stole to his room to inquire how he was; he had fallen asleep. She returned, and asked me to sit with her in the library. We took our tea together, and afterwards she lay down on the rug, and told me not to talk for she was weary.

If any of those brand-new Bronte readers Gerazi wants to serve wonder why Cathy would stretch out on the library rug on a winter afternoon, they’ll find no annotation where they need it. Although they won’t need it, since the reading is one of simple, distracted unhappiness, rugs or no rugs.

Such strange moments are rife in Wuthering Heights, and the most dutiful running explanations will doubtless never be able to tame them. But devotees of the work will beam with happiness at all the care and excess Gerazi and her collaborators have lavished on Emily Bronte’s weird, howling book. There are beautiful color photos on almost every page, everything from the faithful Bronte dog to Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, and there are meaty discussions about every single aspect of the world of Wuthering Heights. Newcomers to that world need not splurge on a volume as lavish as this one in order to be thrilled and heartbroken by the story, but every fan of the book, new or old, will want to own it.