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From Classic to Contemporary: Wuthering Heights to Catherine

2013 January 17
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Classics — whether they are novels, plays, or epics — offer us great characters, interesting plots, and lots of things for discussion … but sometimes they can be a little tough to tackle. Sometimes we adore them, but sometimes we can’t get past page 3, let alone the requisite 50. That doesn’t mean that we should give up what they have to offer, though, does it? Many of today’s authors try to use these classic works as a starting-off point to write a more modern version. If done well, these contemporary versions can have a huge impact and impart the same wisdom that made the earlier story gain its classic status. Jessica Miller and I decided to find and examine some great pairs of classics and their contemporary rewrites to see if they are successful … or maybe not.

The Classic: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!

wuthering heights emily bronte coverWhether in the voice of Laurence Olivier, Tom Hardy, or someone in-between, you’ve likely heard this soundbyte before. It is an exclamation made part way into Wuthering Heights by the passionate Heathcliff. Taken into the Earnshaw family at a very young age, Heathcliff, misunderstood and angry at the world, can’t help loving his adopted sister Catherine. But if there’s one thing Wuthering Heights tells us, it’s that love doesn’t make everything okay. There’s no fun in this huge, dysfunctional family affair. Much like one of those reality TV shows, Wuthering Heights is impossible to turn away from, just so you can find out what any of these hateful, miserable people across two generations might do to make their lives and the lives of those around them even worse. But it doesn’t all end in tragedy, which is perhaps what doesn’t leave you completely despairing of the potential for humankind.

I’m not sure if that’s what Emily Bronte wanted me to get out of it, what with Catherine and Heathcliff’s passionate, immortal love; but I couldn’t find any redemption in this novel without reading it with Heathcliff as less anti-hero and more villain.

catherine april lindner coverThe Contemporary: Catherine by April Lindner

My first post on The Hub was about Jane, April Lindner’s first novel and a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Catherine is Lindner’s sophomore work, and is an update of the most popular work of another Bronte sister, Emily. Catherine is the story of two girls: Chelsea, a girl in the current time, and Catherine, a girl living at the height of punk rock in her father’s nightclub, The Underground. Chelsea, who lives in Massachusetts with her academic father, discovers a letter from her mother, Catherine, with a New York City address — written more than ten years before. So on a summer day, she travels to New York to see what happened to her mother. There she meets Cooper, a young man who works in the club, and Hence, a grumpy man who might have known her mother. Through an alternating narrative, we see how Chelsea searches for the truth about her mother as well as how Catherine and Hence first meet, and how their relationship develops and depletes.

What do I think?

April Lindner says in her author’s note that she fell in love with Heathcliff as a teenager. This, along with a few other aspects of the story, is probably why I felt that this was not quite a successful update of Wuthering Heights. I enjoyed the alternating point of view for a while — and it was a bit easier to understand in regards to who was speaking than some of the narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative moments of Wuthering Heights, but somewhere, about 75 pages in, I grew really weary of reading. I don’t know why, but I was bored. Hence is grumpy, but not incredibly villainous, and the circumstances that are at the forefront of Heathcliff and Catherine’s troubles have little place in New York City. April Lindner’s Catherine is a wonderful, smart girl, and Chelsea much the same. The utter spite that leads to most of the decisions in Wuthering Heights is simply not there, and the outcome of Catherine doesn’t feel quite so much of a drastic change as the last 20 pages of the original sourcework.

Something about Catherine didn’t work for me the way that Wuthering Heights did. But you should read it and see what you think!

— Jessica Pryde, currently reading Titanic: Voices from the Disaster

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3 Responses
  1. Jessica M permalink
    January 17, 2013

    Huh. I’m amazed that this one did not seem to work as well as JANE did as a modern retelling. Eventually, I’ll have to try it out….

    • Jessica Pryde permalink
      January 17, 2013

      I think it’s really difficult to make a modern relationship like Heathcliff and Catherine’s without making it Blue Valentine. So the de-intensification of the characters makes it feel less genuine.

      Of course, I also read Jane years after Jane Eyre and had just re-read Wuthering Heights the day before I sat down to read Catherine. So maybe I was suffering from book hangover and nothing else was going to match it. Maybe I’ll try it again in a couple of years.

  2. Sarah Debraski permalink
    January 18, 2013

    I read Jane after you wrote about it and liked it quite a bit. Curious to see how I respond to Catherine. It’s hard to imagine a Wuthering Heights without the moors!

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