Today’s nominally liberal, permissive society regards the romances of Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence) a tad patronizingly. What was shocking as recently as the 1960s is blasé to our “enlightened generation.” Yet both these romantic novels, controversial in their times, still have much to teach us today. And, in today’s world of unrealistic Hollywood romances, we need them more than ever.
In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence rejects the trope of a purely intellectual romance, masterfully representing the ‘stimulating’ conversations of the intelligentsia with an eloquence so oozing it’s repulsive. The book’s pacing slows to a crawl whenever Constance Chatterley is alone with her husband, and only attains a feverish urgency when Constance is with Oliver Mellors, the titular lover. The apotheoses of Lady Chatterley’s transformation occur at the moments of sexual release; it’s in the physical manifestation of her emotions that she finds meaning. Not freely published until 1960, the novel quickly sold three million copies in Lawrence’s native Britain; many were transfixed by Lawrence’s elegant, raw descriptions of sublime physical passions. Constance’s departure from her empty bourgeois existence to the exalted sensuality of her relationship with Oliver represents the triumph of the natural body over intellectualism. Something we should keep in mind today.
Wuthering Heights is so different that I hesitate to even call it romantic, though it is. The story of Heathcliff, long-lost step-brother to Catherine and Hindley, returning to wreak vengeance on Catherine’s family in memory of his infatuation with her, is one of darkness and cruelty. It is perhaps all the more frightening for its nuanced portrayal of Heathcliff as one driven not by malice but by love, a love so all-consuming it has become poisonous. The slow destruction of Catherine’s sanity and her family’s integrity is framed by Brontë’s brilliant writing, stark in language, yet powerful in effect. Wuthering Heights is a message, a warning against obsession. Love is a powerful force that can turn vindictive, a fact that our storybook romances seem to forget—but one that Brontë never did.
Perhaps, in our Nicholas Sparks-fueled craze for a “perfect” romance centered on intellectual and not physical compatibility, we forget the sensual; we forget that what we see as an impolite topic for dinner conversation is in fact the purest expression of romance. Perhaps we are too fixated on the positive possibilities of love to recognize its dark side and the Heathcliff that lurks in every unrequited romance. We even glorify such single-minded obsession—just look at the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey or Mrs. Doubtfire.
Wuthering Heights and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are no longer shocking to us, but, going into Valentine’s Day, I felt their extraordinary nature needed recognition. Nowhere will you find clearer statements on human romance; and entering an era where the committed relationship is going the way of the pterodactyl, perhaps we need reminding.