H: The Story of Heathcliff's Journey Back to Wuthering Heights
If Lin Haire-Sargeant’s gothic dreams are disturbed one of these nights by a rattling at the window, it may not be the hail lashing against the casement or the north wind howling across the moors; more likely it will be the ghost of Emily Brontë come to haunt her. Even the most phlegmatic ghost would feel compelled to get up and do some fairly strenuous haunting if goaded by a travesty like this one, and Emily’s ghost can be counted on to be both passionate and headstrong. Brontë’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, is the greatest work to come out of the gothic side of English romanticism, and the mists, storms, moors, crags, and phantoms that surround the doomed love of Cathy and Heathcliff belong to a self-contained fictional world that seems to prohibit trespassing. But that didn’t deter Haire-Sargeant, a professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts, from committing this ham-handed homage. A horde of academic literary critics in full deconstructive frenzy couldn’t do more damage to the spirit of Brontë’s classic than Haire-Sargeant has done out of callow infatuation. In H: The Story of Heathcliff’s Journey Back to Wuthering Heights, she moves into Wuthering Heights, installs fluorescent lighting, and turns it into a Brontë theme park. (There is a contagion of cashing in on classics with misconceived sequels; H is just the first of those following on the heels of Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett.)
Emily unwittingly left a small opening in her plot for some future Haire- Sargeant to slip through: Heathcliff runs off for three years when he overhears Cathy say it would degrade her to marry him. He returns with his ”half-civilized ferocity” intact but with the clothes, manners, and money of a gentleman. The book’s narrators, Mr. Lockwood and Nelly Dean, speculate on what he has been up to, but the missing three years are left in the dark. Which is where they belong, since Heathcliff is meant to be mysterious. So Haire-Sargeant’s scheme of letting him chatter on about the three years in a 200-plus-page letter to Cathy is hopelessly misbegotten. Her betrayal of his character turns farcical when he gets in mushy touch with his feelings: ”Cathy, imagine my emotions as I traveled thither….For, though calm on the outside, inside I was all turmoil,” etc.
Haire-Sargeant has Heathcliff stumble through the moors toward Liverpool, where he is taken in by a rich, eccentric patrician called Mr. Are, who puts him through a strict course in gentlemanly diction and decorum. Mr. Are is, for a few chapters, Haire-Sargeant’s one failure to be embarrassing. Witty, sententious, and hectoring, he’s a passable English comic character.
But his momentarily clever creator goes ape. She has already made the mistake of framing Heathcliff’s story by putting Emily’s sister Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre) into a train compartment with Emily’s character Mr. Lockwood, who hands Charlotte Heathcliff’s telltale letter for perusal. It gets worse. Before the dust settles, Mr. Are has become, more or less, Rochester of Jane Eyre, and Jane Eyre herself has been given a minor role in the melodrama. Heathcliff has been given a bargain-basement showdown with Edgar Linton (Cathy’s future husband). Finally Emily herself is dragged in to make hash of her own novel by contriving an alternate plot line out of a drippy romance. Here is the cute couple, having made their escape to Louisiana, spooning amid the lush, aromatic clichés of the Old South: ”Then they might row out onto the lake in a red-canopied boat…Heathcliff trailed his hand in the lapping water while Cathy strummed a mandolin and sang to him.” On second thought, Emily’s ghost can rest in peace. She may have considered avenging her traduced book by driving Lin Haire-Sargeant to distraction, but that, she must have realized by now, would be coals to Newcastle. F