Classic Novels


Well, after a great Halloween where I got to run around dressed as a pirate and eat far too many miniature Kit Kat bars (extra hours on the treadmill now, ugh!), I thought it’s time to Get Serious. I’ve been reading a great book called The Things that Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life by Edward Mendelson (a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia). It’s not a super-long book, only about 240 pages, but full of fascinating ideas.

For the record, the 7 books are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and three by Virginia Woolfe–Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Between the Acts. I’m not going to go over all of them–that would make this post waaaay too long! I just want to touch on a few points he makes about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre that I found interesting, and also think apply well to our modern romance genre.

I love both these books, in totally different ways. As Mendelson points out, Emily and Charlotte Bronte grew up in the same family, the same environment, had almost identical educations, and yet “everything that Wuthering Heights says about childhood, growth, and adulthood is contradicted by Jane Eyre.” I read these books first when I was very young (about 9 or 10), and even I could discern something of this difference. I adored Jane Eye, and when I got to the end I just started it all over again! I didn’t love or understand Wuthering Heights–I was too young for it then. It was only later, when I re-read it and could see the complex narrative structure and the layers of the even more complex characterization, that I understood what a masterpiece it was. I still prefer Jane Eyre in some ways, but Wuthering Heights is also a favorite.

Emily Bronte was one of the great visionaries of the Romantic era (and a deeply, fascinatingly weird person!). She followed her own inner belief system built on nature and unity that is so very strong in Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff and Catherine are passionately in love, but it’s not the passion of mere sexual desire–in fact, they show no interest in the other’s sex lives at all. What they seek is Unity, to literally BE each other. Mendelson states that Wuthering Heights is about that Unity; Jane Eye is about Equality. Mendelson writes, “Equality, in contrast (to unity), is a difficult but plausible goal, with profound emotional and ethical meaning in both the private world and the public one.”

I think most of our modern romance novels share this goal and theme of Equality. The hero and heroine face challenges (much as Jane and Rochester did) that in the end put them on an equal footing as they begin their married lives, even if he’s the duke and she’s the vicar’s bluestocking daughter. Perhaps only in some paranormals is there more of that Wuthering Heights-ish theme of Unity. of true soulmates. It’s a fascinating idea.

My question (or questions) to you are: Which do you prefer–Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? Do you agree with theses concepts of Unity vs. Equality? Can you think of any romances where these would apply (I’d love to hear more about this!)? Now, I’m off to re-read some Bronte…

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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