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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Charlotte or Emily? Jane or Catherine? Rochester or Heathcliff?

Later this month, the 21st film version of Jane Eyre will his theaters, and later in the year, yet another edition of Wuthering Heights—the 15th—will premiere. Apart from the fact that these are some pretty darn good stories, the twin releases give us the chance to argue, once again, over who was the better writer: Charlotte Bronte (Jane) or her younger sister Emily (Wuthering)? Which herione is more compelligng,  Jane’s Jane or Wuthering’s  Catherine? Who makes you all swoony, Jane’s upright (and uptight) Rochester or Catherine’s moody bad boy, Heathcliff?

Here’s how I see it. Jane Eyre is a much more conventional novel. Its structure is linear, its first-person narrator (Jane, of course) is unglamorous but quite engaging in her no-nonsense way. Rochester isn’t the most alluring of characters, but compared to the other men in the book, especially the duller-than-dirt St John and the various other horrors, he ain’t half bad. There are plenty of twists and surprises along the way, and a massively conventional ending: “Reader, I married him.” (Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but hey, the thing got published llike 170 years ago, so I don’t think I’m giving anything away.)

Wuthering Heights is a different critter altogether. It’s told through diaries and journals and reminiscences, with a structure that’s as cracked and, well, modern as anything we might expect to read in a contemporary book. The heroine, Catherine, is fairly shallow, but she feels things mightily. That’s about all I get from her, though: while Jane thinks a great deal, Catherine is a tempest of emotions. This makes her a great favorite among teenage girls, apparently. Not to be a typical guy or anything, but I never found her to make a tremendous amount of sense. Which I guess is sort of the point.

Finally there’s Rochester, the original bad boy and the object of Catherine’s passion. He is dull. Sorry! He is one-note. Sorry! He is a poseur. Sorry! You can probably tell, I don’t think much of him. This doesn’t make him a bad character; in fact, his resemblence to any number of people I’ve known in my lifetime suggests that he’s actually a rather remarkable character. But I don’t have much interest in spending time with him, or with anybody who thinks he’s the last word in manly appeal, as Catherine does.

So in the Charlotte vs. Emily sweepstakes, my vote comes down solidly on the side of Charlotte. Jane Eyre is the better book by a mile. I’ll probably go see both movies, and to some degree be happy with both and disappointed with both. But Jane Eyre, a book I first read in college in 1981, is a book I fully expect to read again in the future. Wuthering Heights? Not so much.

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