Thursday, 10 January 2013

Can't Live with you, Can't live without you

A very Brontëite notion. It's most noticeable in Wuthering Heights, which most fans glorify as romantic (blurgh!) or cynics denigrate as stupid romantic fluff. I think Emily Brontë was having the last laugh over us. Now Wuthering Heights is not my favourite Brontë novel (I prefer Charlotte and Anne) because honestly, the language is over-abusive, many circumstances unrealistic and the characters not the best-developed. But then Emily was only in her twenties. Still, I thought over it and actually some things begin to make sense to me.

For example, the can't live with you, can't live without you element. Yes, it sounds like romantic crap, but look again. Does Emily romanticise it? Not at all. It is our sick and morbid generation that insists it is romantic or romanticised (and shame on the cynics who claim it is romanticised!) but the contemporary Victorian reviewers were (rightly) disgusted by the pure evilness of the thing. Of course it was meant to be awful and unhealthy, not romantic. Early Victorian novels (not the classics) would romanticise consumption, etc. but Emily Brontë does not do this. There are many deaths, not particularly touching, but treated as matter-of-fact incidents. This would reflect the high mortality rate in certain parts of Yorkshire at the time. So what's the fuss about the can't live without you thing? Having written epic poetry with lots of passion, it was only natural Emily would incorporate it into a more standardised English novel.  This passion can be exciting in the distance to a reclusive girl with an active imagination, but Emily was analytical. She might have shrewdly judged that the passion expressed by these characters, while exhilarating, was unhealthy.

I mean, look at Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. If they were romanticised, surely they would have been more "attractive" to a Victorian audience? Angelic saintly girl and handsome saintly hero. Or alternately witty vivacious girl who is loved by everybody and highwayman gallant. No. Heathcliff is NOT charming. (Well, he is to Isabella Linton, but only to get her money). Both characters are basically unredeemable. Emily wisely chose to have the passionate, otherworldly characters have horrible temperaments with the real world. Perhaps she understood this fact of life: people with elevated notions can be horrible to live with. Look at heroes, who often affect their family standing with their principles. (No offence to political martyrs  but their families suffer for their noble principles. Seriously).  But I haven't said why Catherine and Heathcliff can't live with each other and yet can't live without each other.
a possible inspiration for Thrushcross Grange
Emily Brontë, noted recluse

Has anyone noticed that every character in Wuthering Heights seems to be a recluse? Wuthering Heights marries Thrushcross Grange. They seem to have no choice in other mates. Which indicates they must be very isolated people. This is my main ground for complaint. It is not like this in the real world. Two reclusive families living nearby? But accepting this fact of reclusiveness, it explains why Heathcliff and Catherine can't live without each other. They don't feel comfortable anywhere else or with others (except the in-laws). Emily, hating school and anywhere away from home, would understand this. Victorian reviewers also noticed that the love between Catherine and Heathcliff was startlingly chaste. Someone wrote he does not doubt her virtue as she embraces Heathcliff. Perhaps their wild passion is also a strong, family-like love. Not the most stable love, but an idealisation or desire of stable family love that they don't feel with anyone else. With no one else they cling to each other. And yet two strong temperaments can clash, which is why they can't live with each other. Catherine also won't marry anyone beneath her socially. When they grow up it is accepted that when you love someone the idea is to marry them because Catherine would have married Heathcliff if he had been of sufficient social standing. But this love is very strange. Catherine seems to be fine with the prospect of being friends with Heathcliff and inviting him to the house after her marriage, and trying to get Edgar to be friends with him, something which doesn't really sound adulterous. She seems to take it for granted that she doesn't have to be married to him or have an affair with him to be happy so long as he is close. Only Edgar objects to this, naturally. Their love seems to be more akin to wanting a sense of home and comfort rather than mere uninhibited wild passion. Of course being thwarted by fate makes it all the more passionate and despairing.  The "I am Heathcliff" declaration is supposed to be a romantic thing, but I think it's actually pathetic. It is the cry of an egotist who is only comfortable with another fellow-egotist, with a similar temperament.

The younger generation is never really brought out in the films for some reason. They are nicer and more stable people than their parents, which makes you wonder why they don't. But I guess lack of passion is the reason? Observe that nice people here don't indulge in crazy wild passions and elevated notions. I wonder if Emily was trying to make this point, which makes her even more Victorian than we would suspect.  Mrs Dean, the so-called protagonist of the story (Cathy the second would be another contender for the post) prefers young Cathy to older Catherine, and while she's unreliable as a narrator, Mrs Dean represents sanity. Young Cathy is more likeable as a child, and is more likely to be likeable to the world, except for the fact Heathcliff ruined her life and made her bitter. She is also better taught than her mother, always a good thing in Victorian novels, and for Emily, a well-taught lady herself.  This makes her a saner, stabler and more refined person.  She loves her father dearly, and so her love is more familylike than the elder Catherine, who doesn't seem to have cared for her family. I wonder whether family love is the love that is idealised here? Emily loved the family circle and hated to be parted from it, which would explain it.

Charlotte Brontë would later write this not only in Jane Eyre (where the main obstacle is Rochester's mad wife) but in Villette. Though it is more inclined to "can't live with you," in a sense. Lucy needs affection to live, and is depressed because no one really cares for her. Oh sure Mrs Bretton is nice, but she cares for her in a universally indulgent way because it is her nature rather than because she enjoys her company. And she is Mrs Bretton's goddaughter.  She does eventually fall in love with M. Paul Emanuel, and trusts his friendship. When Madame Beck tries to part them she rebels.  And yet Charlotte Brontë insisted on killing off M Paul instead of letting them live together happily ever after. Why oh why Charlotte?! She told her publisher George Smith that it was better to let Paul die than let him live with that difficult person, Lucy Snowe. Death would be a far more merciful option. We have old Mr Brontë to thank for the ambiguous ending.

This is the "can't live with you" part, in contrast to her former agony that she was to be parted from Paul. She was happy in the 3 years he was away in Antigua. She cultivated plants, taught pupils and lived a happy and useful life (I imagine it must have been lonely, though if she was happy it means she had Paul and Paulina to write to). And she does state, unlike in real life when M. Heger refused to write to Charlotte, Paul does write to Lucy because he likes to, and it makes him happy. Not out of pity for her solitude.  But why is she happy? Wouldn't she rather have Paul by her side? You could say she is contented for settling for less, but I think Lucy also knows (or Charlotte knows) that Lucy needs solitude to think and be herself. She could not always have people beside her. Charlotte was prone to fits of solitude. Much as she hated her loneliness, she knew that she could never break into the London circle and couldn't wait to be home.  This seems revolutionary in light of the recent introvert movement.  Paul in the book is said to live alone and to have few close relations,  which might draw them closer. But he is still a more social being than Lucy, and we know in real life M. Heger was a pillar of the community, and he had several close friends among his pupils. Charlotte could not fit in Heger's life, even if Madame Heger wasn't in the way, and so Lucy can't fit into Paul's life. He gives lectures, goes to concerts, etc. She sees these as occasional treats. Lucy fears loneliness but she also fears crowds. She loves going to galleries alone, to the horror of Paul Emmanuel. Paul has some proper notions. He would want to accompany his wife, and while she loves him Lucy needs space.  And so the balance between being together or not is never really resolved, not even by Paul's death because it means more years of solitude.

Charlotte Brontë eventually married Arthur Nicholls out of fear that her father would die before her and she couldn't earn more money as a novelists as no new novels were coming out. Nicholls would provide for her. Besides, she liked the idea of being loved more than the man himself. Anyway she was comfortable with his presence, I suspect more than with George Smith. While she liked Smith and was certainly comfortable with him she knew she wasn't his very good friend. Polly's lament that Graham preferred his schoolfriends to her is mirrored by Lucy saying she was nothing to Graham compared to his friends, just as Charlotte wasn't George Smith's bosom buddy. That is why even if they wanted to they could never marry. Charlotte was a little in love with him, but when she suspected him of wanting to marry her she tried to avoid him. She knew their temperaments wouldn't suit. Wise woman. This is thinking long-term. Whereas with Nicholls she knew she was comfortable in his presence and the Yorkshire community. But after she married Nicholls insisted she did her parish duties, which she did. But she never had time to herself as such, which annoyed her. Had she lived on the marriage might have become unhappy. But she was grateful to Arthur for his concern.

Arthur Bell Nicholls, Mr Charlotte Brontë
A letter to Ellen Nussey I think shows that Nicholls did go for some church functions of parties, leaving Charlotte at home, where she didn't have to be with people she wasn't fond of. While she liked having time to herself one wonders whether after some time she would have tired of being alone, feeling impotent like Mrs Pryor in Shirley that Nicholls could do all these functions and she couldn't, and the thought he preferred others' company to her own. For someone who wrote such convincing characters in Shirley it is hard not to come to this conclusion.


  1. Fascinating post, especially what you said about "family-like love." While Paul does seem to be based on Heger, it seems debatable whether Charlotte regarded him as anything more than a close friend. In a Victorian context (and combined with the isolation you mention), her four letters don't necessarily come across as love letters.

  2. Thank you so much for this fascinating discussion! I'm partway (about 220 pages) into Villette and still trying to figure out what the overarching narrative structure is. I appreciate your analysis and can't wait to see how it all plays out. I really enjoyed reading this post.