Brontë’s Cabin Fever

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I just finished Wuthering Heights.

I can’t recall when I last read it, but it was a long time ago. I remember thinking of Emily Brontë’s novel as a tale of love—love lost and love lingering, strange love (necrophiliac, incestual), but love nonetheless. But reading this book today, I don’t see love. I see the effects of sheltering-in-place.

Wuthering Heights documents the detrimental effects of staying too long in constrained spaces and remaining too long with the same house-mates. Nearly every character in this novel is trapped: due to weather, illness, class and gender positions, fear of the world beyond, and more. This is a novel about loneliness and anger, narcissism and madness, the surge of imagination and dreams of revenge, desires for human connection and the pull of the natural world. This is a novel about cabin fever. And in May 2020, we know something about that. These days, Emily Brontë’s haunted and haunting tale from 1847 rings eerily familiar.

I turned to the Victorians seeking relief not only from the news but also from my scholarly life. I just completed a book, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (forthcoming from Columbia University Press this November!). I spent the last decade thinking and writing about how books remain part of our lives when we shift to e-readers: through laptop and cell-phone covers made to look like books, art made from books, and literature that turns books into characters, and more. The project had dominated my thoughts, time, and life. I turned in my page proofs, and then I wanted to get as far away from the project as possible.

Victorian literature seemed a safe bet. But Brontë’s novel is strewn with books. And like my focus in Bookishness, in Brontë’s narrative books serve as plot devices not because of the content they contain (or how characters read them) but as physical things. In Wuthering Heights, books are important due to their presence as material objects. They are things that share space, and in very constrained spaces, with the humans around them.

Wuthering Heights begins with Mr. Lockwood shut up for the night, riding out a storm (at Heathcliff’s estate, Wuthering Heights). He becomes fascinated by a book in that room. An inscription on the book’s fly-leaf sparks his interest: “Catherine Earnshaw, her book.”. The words identify the book as a possession of the dead mistress, a thing and relic of importance due to its attachment to a person who once occupied Lockwood’s domicile and whose ghost now lingers there.

This particular book introduces a novel about possessing (“her book”) and being possessed (it is a famous gothic ghost story, after all). The diegetic book (“her book”) sparks Lockwood’s interest: “An immediate interest kindled within me for the unknown Catherine, and I began, forthwith, to decipher her faded hieroglyphics.” Captivated, Lockwood asks Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, to tell him (and thus also us, the readers of the novel) the story of Catherine and Heathcliff. Without that book, there is no telling.

Leah Price remind us, in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian England, that books served multiple, myriad, and layered purposes in nineteenth-century Britain. Wuthering Heights demonstrates this point. Yet, I was still surprised by the narrative and physical space Wuthering Heights allows books to occupy.

Brontë uses diegetic books as tools for constructing and obstructing human relationships. Books serve as a means of hiding from unwanted encounters (“I got a book and pretended to read”), as a medium for flirtation (as Catherine and Hareton discover), and even as shelters from ghosts (Lockwood “hurriedly pulled the books up into a pyramid against it.”

On full display in this Victorian novel is the presence and thereness of books (to use Andrew Piper’s formulation). I found in Wuthering Heights not an escape from bookishness but an earlier manifestation of it. I also found further examples of the importance and persistence of books.

The books in Wuthering Heights are partners in sheltering-in-place, much as books serve similar purposes in our contemporary quarantine; they encourage isolation but also escape from it.

Perhaps I should have known better than try to escape my current research project and our global pandemic crisis by opening a Victorian novel. But, then again, maybe I knew exactly what I was doing when I turned to my bookshelf in April of 2020 and pulled out a book.

Jessica Pressman: A Very Bookish Mermaid