Christmas is the time for nineteenth century novels, especially of the English variety. Time to burrow under the eiderdown while the snow falls outside, while you wait for the servants with their charming, incomprehensible accents to bring you your tea. Time to sip that tea while you listen to the raving lunatic gnash her teeth in the attic above your head. Ah, Christmas.
The holidays have me thinking about nineteenth century English novels. I've always hated them. I studied comparative literature in college in part because I wanted to avoid the English writers for as long as I could. As I saw it, Jane Austen was for girls who wanted to play at feminism but really just wanted to get married and wear sweater sets. Dickens and industrialized London? Bah, humbug. I couldn't give two shits about those smudge-faced urchins. The Brontes made me want to slit my own throat, especially that vinegar-lipped proselytizer, Charlotte. And Thomas Hardy? God help me. Hardy was the biggest offender, the one who set me against English lit in the first place.
I should point out that I formed my opinions of these writers in junior high, when I was mostly snuffling through great literature in the hopes that there would be some great sex in there. The British, I decided -- at thirteen -- were a frustrated, neutered people and not to my liking. I didn't even want to visit England, for fear my genitals would wither and harden like a dried pomegranate.
Which makes me think of Thomas Hardy. His novel, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, was the reason I had such contempt for English lit in my teens and twenties.
I don't know where I first heard about Tess, but I knew the story was scandalous, both literary and dirty: a poor young girl, Tess, gets knocked up by a handsome aristocrat; drama ensues. Stories about girls getting knocked up were the best -- exciting in me an unholy combination of teenage lust and Catholic guilt.
I bought my hardcover copy of Tess the summer before eighth grade, while on my first expedition to the novelty that was Barnes & Noble. I went there looking for something scandalous because I had a long car trip ahead of me. We were driving to Montana to visit my granduncle, a bishop. I knew I had a lot of masses ahead of me, and I hoped that Tess would occupy my thoughts during the hours of sit-kneel-stand-pray to come.
We took off in my parents' station wagon the next day. I settled in for the long car ride, eagerly flipping through the first chapter, having heard that Tess's deflowering occurs early on in the story. I'm sorry to report that the first chapter was a bust. The second chapter, not sexy. Pretty soon I started skimming, looking for words like "breast" or "undressed" or "britches," which I understood to be British for panties. Nothing. It was the worst book ever. I went back to the first chapter, thinking I must have missed something; perhaps the sex wasn't as easy to find as it was in Judy Blume's Forever.
Soon I regretted leaving The Diary of Laura Palmer at home. Even my Norma Klein books would have been welcome, dog-eared as they were. But all I had was this turgid, uneventful Thomas Hardy novel. The trip was ruined, and English lit had become my sworn enemy.
In college thirteen years later, I nearly passed out when I glanced at the syllabus for a comp lit class and saw Tess front and center. There is no God, I thought, or if there is, He hates me. I waited until the last possible moment to read the book, giving myself two days to read the entire thing and write the paper on it.
But before I could start, I had to whine. I moaned to my friends that I would rather eat the book than read it. I thought about death, how every moment in life is precious, and nearly cried to think of the wasteful time-suck ahead of me. I couldn't believe I had to read it again, having lost an entire hour, maybe even two, trying to read it when I was thirteen. "I have given up too much of my life to Tess of the D'Urbervilles!" I whined to my sister. "This is why I'm studying comp lit instead of English!"
Eventually I ran out of friends to complain to, and I settled into my then-boyfriend's couch as if for a spiritual battle, armed with a pack of American Spirits, a giant pot of coffee, and Alan Moore's From Hell as a reward to read at the end of each chapter. I cracked Tess's spine, whimpering, and started to read... and was instantly sucked in. The pages turned faster and faster, but this time it wasn't because I was skimming but because I was devouring the book. I barely moved off the couch or even took a break to smoke, I was so riveted. By the time I finished it, it had become one of my favorite books. Oh, Tess, I thought. How will I live without you! Your ending might make every feminist bone in my body rage, but I don't care! I love you! I quickly wrote up my paper and then re-entered the stream of life, a convert.
Which brings me to today, and another 19-century novel. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's tragic ghost story. If you had asked me in seventh grade -- before my traumatic Tess experience -- what my favorite novel was, I would have told you it was Wuthering Heights. I probably would not have elaborated on my love for that book, however, other than to wistfully sigh, "Heathcliff. Cathy. The moor." Then I probably would have changed the subject. Because, you see, I had never actually read Wuthering Heights. I just liked the idea of it being my favorite book. My best friend's mother, Cheri, said it was her favorite book. Cheri gave great advice and made delicious gefilte fish, so I think I decided I would love Wuthering Heights, too, even if I could never get through it. (Again, I had assumed since it was this great tragic love story that there would be sex. But no. Just the moors and a lot of whining. Or no, wait: a lot of whinging.)
Not long ago, I loitered around the Borders at SeaTac, looking for distraction while waiting for a flight to New York. There was a display of cheap Penguin classics right at the entrance, and I got to thinking that maybe a little nineteenth century would do me good. My eye landed on Wuthering Heights. It seemed to be a sign: I was tired of memoirs, looking for a good novel, a classic, something nourishing that in the future I would want to re-read. It was time, at last, for Wuthering Heights.
I read the first hundred pages on the plane, happy to find the story zipping along, loving the creepy-sad moment when the narrator encounters Cathy's ghost. I even began to think that this would be another Tess, that I would get home, call Cheri, and tell her that she was right: Wuthering Heights really was the greatest novel ever written.
But then, around page 120, something happened. I found myself hating everybody in the book. By page 135, I hated Emily Bronte, too. I puzzled over why; was it because Heathcliff was a self-pitying brute? Because Catherine was an egomaniac and the servant Nelly a prig? Because, if I wanted to spend time with miserable wealthy people, I could just watch any episode of The Real Housewives?
It's now been four weeks, and I've only progressed to page 165. Part of the problem is that it's an incredible soporific. I go to bed, thinking, Tonight is the night. I will fall in love with Wuthering Heights and zip through the remaining two hundred pages in no time. And I begin. I read one paragraph, and then I read it again. I space out, think about my new writing project, about publicity for Yoga Bitch, about how I should eat more salads. And then I read that same paragraph again. Soon enough, I'm asleep.
I remember despising the Northern dialect Bronte employs back in seventh grade, but now it's not the dialect that bugs me, but the fact that I'm meant to believe that the characters use it even in letters. For example, the letter sent by the miserable Isabella to the miserable Nelly. Isabella writes:
"Joseph beheld my style of cookery with growing indignation. 'Thear!' he ejaculated. 'Hareton, thah willut sup they porridge tuh neeght; they'll be nowt bud lumps as big as maw nave. Thear, agean! Aw'd fling in bowl un all, if aw wer yah! Thear, pale t' guilp off, un then yah'll hae done wi't. Bang, bang. It's a marcy t'bothom isn't deaved aht!'"
(Note: It took me three hours to copy that bit of dialogue out, because I kept falling asleep.)
I feel like a snotty comp lit student again, full of postmodern contempt for such an improbable conceit. I'm supposed to believe that the miserable Isabella would take time away from being miserable to write Joseph's northern dialect phonetically? As if the miserable servant Nelly didn't already know that Joseph spoke with a northern dialect? Bah, humbug.
I'm going to push on through to the end. But you know what would make it easier to get through? What would make the final hundred-odd pages fly by? Sex. Lots and lots of sex. As the miserable Joseph would say, "Bed-rume! Geet ye t' yon bed-rume!"