So large and so significant is English as a literature that you never really lose sight of the need to learn and study more. Additionally I was brought up to suspect the idea of being just a specialist ( though specialists are obviously necessary) so I never wanted to concentrate my efforts on one period or one genre or one extension. It is a subject in which you want, even as you focus on one of its parts, to keep a sense of the whole.

That said, one feels a certain resistance to the contemporary. To keep up with the sheer volume of modern fiction is both an impossibility and from my point of view not specially desirable. One keeps ones eyes on the reviews; one looks -with decreasing hope- to hear of a new writer who will take the literature and the language-and re-direct it -as Eliot or Lawrence or Joyce did a hundred years ago.

This, however, is one of the irritations. I am surrounded by insatiable readers of the latest Booker Prize winners, or the latest young discovery (we’ve moved from Zadie Smith to Ali Smith to Sally Rooney).

Here I imagine a conversation with a young enthusiast.

Me : I’m interested in Literature too. I spent much of my life teaching it for the Open University and now I write blogs on the subject.

She: Fascinating. I’m looking forward to studying in third year. We’ve concentrated on modules on post-colonial stuff, as well as plenty on how lack of diversity and lots of racism is shown in the in the writing of the past.

Me: Anything on Chaucer or Piers Ploughman?.

She: No they have ditched all that medieval stuff as irrelevant and not sufficiently marketable.

Me: Oh no! Shakespeare?

She: Yes a lot on the Merchant of Venice and anti-semitism in the module on racism. Also Othello came in as the Moor.

Me: So you say you are finishing third year with a dissertation. What do you hope to focus on?

She: Definitely something on Sally Rooney.

Me: But she is still only in her twenties or so isn’t she?.

She: So what, she matters!. She’s the modern voice of fiction.

Me: I am afraid I read Normal People and found it dreary.

She (shocked): Dreary!

Me: Ok the main relationship , the on and off and then on relationship is sharply observed and well-done. It is very immersive as if the author is very personally involved but there is little or no attempt to set it in the perspective of another kind of reality. The novel shows a young writer hopelessly confined to the non-descript land of “anywhere”: depictions of council-house estate, school grades, the emptiness of youth culture, the nonentity of the lives of the rich, condemned because they are rich. Outside the two Connell and Marianne the family relationship is so unexplored. Connell is better with his mother; she at least gives him some moral direction. Of course there is no father and that is just taken for granted. But with Marianne it is as if the brother is a given as a bully and a weakling and the mother is contrived to be opposed to Marianne without sympathy at any point. She is only rich and mean.

She: But this is linked with the father’s abuse of her. Women have to fit in. And the brother learns from that too.

Me: Yes. it is a too easy given. It’s not really explained or developed

She: But the writer cannot include everything.

Me: Perhaps, but apart from that there is no sense of a real other Ireland, Nature, only the naive Marxist reading of spoilt comfortably-off rich and cheated poor. He offers her “The Communist Manifesto ” to read when they are at school for goodness sake. The writer is so caught up in her lived-in world and has no resources to get her beyond being miserable about things. To be so young and dreary! Young creative life shout be a kick against misery not a lament.

She: But that is the world of the young, the world they know. She writes about it and makes it art.

Me: I agree that if you want to learn about the sexual mores and the ways in which the young socialise she is an excellent source allowing for the slant she is taking. As to “art” she gives fine short impressionistic glimpses of the effects of say rain, or as she looks through a window misted by her breath. But then there are other descriptions of her taking a shower and you ask “Why is this here?” So what.

She: Is it not connected with giving a sense of the ordinary, like normal people?

Me: I don’t know. For me art is there to make significant. Too much of the description is just detached observation that does not go any where. The detached objective view, neutral.

She: It often runs as if for a film.

Me: Yes , that’s a really good observation. The narration is like the neutral eye of the camera viewing things. I say “neutral eye” but it is apparently neutral-it is still chosen. It’s like it is being prepared for the cinema or the televising it got.

She: Yes, it’s our way of seeing.

Me: But we need to go beyond our common-sense way of seeing rather than just refining it here or there with fine impressionistic glimpses and I don’t think she does that.

She: Perhaps but she is still young and it is not just dreary. There is a slow movement towards hope.

Me: Mm, I’m reminded of that quotation “The individual condition is tragic yet there is social hope. “- that might describe Rooney with her rather detached Marxism. They moan at what they call capitalism and say yes to activism but remain detached waiting for things to happen elsewhere. But if there is a vague social hope I am reminded of what F.R. Leavis said about that quotation: “Where if not in individuals is, is what is hoped for to be located?” Especially in the young and creative but I don’t get that with Rooney. Connell ends up doing Creative Writing: play around with Creative Writing while you wait for the debacle: it’s not inspiring.

She: The lovers do get themselves sorted out. Marianne overcomes her dependency on being trampled on. He gets to the point of commitment. She is freed by his belief in her.

Me: There is something there perhaps. But put the novel in the tradition. One hundred and ten years ago Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers autobiographically based discovering in himself the problem with finding a relationship with a woman that gets himself beyond the hold on him with his mother. In one relationship he and a secondary girlfriend find a kind of sexual togetherness that connects them with the Nature around them, the “wheeling peewits etc..” There is hardly any sense of Nature in this work certainly not impinging on the world of the lovers. They -or at least Marianne wants to make love in a derelict building. Ok that fits with the theme of her self-negation. But there is also a lack which Lawrence shows in his work: wonder. In The Rainbow the young farmer character looks for a woman with a kind of religious intensity. It isn’t piety it is an understanding his sexual longing belongs to his religious urge for wholeness. I don’t get that with today’s young writers. For these young writers sex is too easy in our world and has become a quagmire.

She: That’s interesting but I think she had to clear the ground first and she did that with this novel. It will be interesting to see how she will progress.

He: Well Lawrence did say after writing his autobiographical novel: ” one sheds ones sicknesses in books -repeats and presents again ones emotions to become master of them” . Then he became free to write his best stuff. Perhaps Rooney will do the same.


I have just been reading Orwell’s essay entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy”?” it sounds a challenging title, particularly from a writer of the Left who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Interestingly Orwelll was encouraged to ask the question by comparing the writings of Charles Dickens with a number of more recent writers who had tried to make Utopia convincing. He discusses H.G. Wells who wrote among other things science fiction including Utopian novels (eg. A Modern Utopia, The Time-Machine, War of the Worlds, Men Like Gods).

Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries that we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear. overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that it is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things that Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia?

Well perhaps Wells is the wrong writer to read to make Utopia appealing. So Orwell looks wider. He tries the early Fabian Socialist William Morris. But Morris’ News from Nowhere is as unattracive as it sounds : “It is a sort of goody-goody version of a Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a kind of watery melancholy.”

What about the further-back past? Orwell turns to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The early parts are ” “probably among the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written”

claims Orwell- a judgement to ponder- but he goes on:

In the last part, in contrast with the disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the heroes of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, “reasonable ” lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from “passion”, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic priciples, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the early parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and the scoundrelism lead him, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

Against these Utopias Orwell points to Huxley’s Brave New World as actually reflecting the fear we might have of these organised Utopias: A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which is within his power to create.

Huxley’s “rationalised hedonistic society” is a society in which sex is so readily available that it has become vacuous; in which promiscuous relationships have taken the place of marriage and the requirement of raising a family is state- provided. The living connections between what Burke pointed to as the unborn, the living and the dead have become severed. Meaningful living is unavailable to a generation uprooted from the past dwelling in such a society.

Readers can make up their minds how close we are to this whether we desire it and the kinds of alternative to it.

But to get back to the title. In showing imagined Utopias as undesirable Orwell. asks where in literature we find a living sense of happiness to pose against these failed Utopias. It is Dickens he points to: the Dickens of Pickwick and the concluding scenes of Christmas Carol where the Cratchit family are shown enjoying their Christmas dinner.

the Cratchit family do give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance,the citizens of William Morris’s News From Nowhere don’t sound happy. Moreover -and Dickens’ understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power- their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat…. The steam of Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour…

Dickens is master of showing human enjoyment and happiness. This may surprise readers who also know his novels -the later ones- as dark. But as Orwell points out the two go together. He prizes the creative enjoyment and revelry of the poor because he knows how hard won it is.

So if Utopias are to be desired but yet fail where does this leave us?. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Judaeo- Christian narrative begins with a kind of perfect world- the Garden of Eden which cannot last. Ever since humankind has had to take account of sin and death and also the difficulties of earning bread (“In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread” Genesis 3:19).

The Bible suggests however the struggle is not mainly socio-economic (which does not stop the prophets speaking out about exploitation and justice to the poor is a preoccupation) but to do with our relationship with God; so to imagine a society- Socialist or whatever- in which our social problems are resolved is unrealistic. The struggle for meaning and meaningful living is central to our human search; and that search cannot be resolved by a Utopia- socialist or otherwise- that attempts to take the struggle away.


“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of you beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be ; and if all else remained and he were annihilated the universe would turn a mighty stranger. I should not seem part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware as winter changes the trees -my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath- a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff-he’s always, always in my mind-not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself-but as as my own being….”

Wuthering Heights Ch.9

The quoted speech is perhaps the most central of the novel. It has been much referred to and debated by critics. It comes from the time when Catherine, having decided to marry Linton, uses Nelly (the narrator) as her sounding board for convincing herself that she is right to choose him before Heathcliff. For Nelly the distinction between the two possible lovers is clear. Edgar is a gentleman in terms of property but also in quality. Heathcliff at this stage of the novel has been degraded by Hindley ( now master), brutally treated, an outsider whose doubtful background is made to justify his treatment as an outsider.

In the earlier part of the scene Heathcliff has been a listener. He has heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff and after this Nelly becomes conscious of him leaving the room. (Thence he leaves the area for years before returning completely altered from the gauche brutalised adolescent he has been). His later behaviour in relation to Catherine indicates his passion for her is as necessary to him as hers for her.

The intensity of the speech is made to sound religious. She is clearly thinking hard to get the words right: “What were the use of creation if I were entirely contained here?” We see her pointing to herself trying to make clear to Nelly what she means. Yet what she identifies herself with-her extended self-is not God but Heathcliff. The contrasting imagery of foliage and rocks brilliantly contrasts the nature of her feeling. “Foliage” has the potential to be beautiful and attractive but it is temporary; it dies back in winter. The rocks made “eternal” last permanently.

Some see the deep bonding of Catherine and Heathcliff as a kind of solidarity formed out of their mistreatment after Hindley takes command of the house. I noted above the passage from Catherine’s diary describing their rebellion against the oppressive Sunday atmosphere under the assigned control of the bigoted Joseph.

It could also be seen as a primitive kind of religious bonding. There is the freedom they share scampering over the moors as adolescents. Is the feeling sexual? Despite the passion and though Catherine speaks of marriage there is little sign on her part of sexual love. As children they slept in the same bed (she refers to this in the delirium scene) so sexual feeling would be close to incest. On Heathcliff’s side the description of digging up the corpse to hold her has been linked to necrophilia. What it underlines perhaps more , however,is Catherine’s pronouncement “if he were annihilated the universe would turn a mighty stranger” To Heathcliff death must not be allowed to separate them. Existence continues-he has known for years her troubling presence as a ghost-and in death, both physically and spiritually they continue together.

What do you think?


On the morning of a fine June day, my first bonny nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born.

We were busy with the hay in a far away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon, across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go; he says she’s been in consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr Hindley-and now she has nothing to keep her, and she’ll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You’re to nurse it Nelly- to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it, day and night-I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”

“But is she very ill?” I asked, flinging down my rake, and tying my bonnet.

“I guess she is; yet she looks bravely, “replied the girl, “and she talks as if she thought of living to see it grow a man. She’s out of her head for joy, it’s such a beauty! If I were her I’m certain I should not die. I should get better at the bare sight of it, in spite of Kenneth. I was fairly mad at him. Dame Archer brought the cherub down to master, in the house, and his face just began to light up, then the old croaker steps forward, and, says he:- “Earnshaw it’s a blessing your wife has been spared to leave you this son. When she came, I felt convinced we shouldn’t keep her long; and now, I must tell you, the wintere will probably finish her. Don’t take on, and fret about it too much, it can’t be helped. And besides you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass.


D. H. Lawrence uses the phrase “spirit of place” to point to the writer’s gift of rendering the essence of his particular setting. I love this particular passage of Emily Bronte’s great novel because it gives an immediate insight into a society and way of life on the Yorkshire moors around her chosen setting of Wuthering Heights. It also gives a sense of the rich power of the language of the book reflecting the community life of the folk which I shall seek to underline with a comparison of her language with Jane Austen’s.

The narrator is Nelly, a live-in servant whose main employment at this stage of the novel is indoors but who is clearly employed to help as needed with the ongoing life of the farm . Note the rhythm of the opening sentence with its balance of the words “first” and “last” : ” my first bonny nursling and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock” suggests her pride in the association with the family with their long history, her delight in the birth of the new heir and her sorrow at his being the last. The prose renders the excitement of the breathless servant girl pouring out her joy at the the beauty of the new born and the energy of Nelly’s response “Flinging down my rake and tying my bonnet”. But vigour is an element sadly lacking in the condition of the mother. The doctor’s testimony of the mother’s inadequacy brings us to the specifics of place: “the winter will probably finish her……you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass”. The doctor’s brutal realism (rejected as he is by the phrase “old croaker” of the young servant girl) on the physical limitations of the not local wife acts in the passage as a kind of counterpoise to the apparent vigour of the “grand bairn” and the energy of the young Nelly ready to take on her first “nursling”. You do not survive in this kind of place without rude vigour and strength. The breakfast girl’s implicit joy in the beauty of the boy, the pride in the survival of the Earnshaw “stock” is of the celebration of the physical qualities of strength and endurance that make possible survival over generations in a harsh landscape.

In the rhythm of speech we note the strong physical words of common life that stand out : “bonny”, “ancient,” ” stock,” “bairn,” “flinging,””bravely” “beauty,” blessing,” “croaker” “spared””fret” “rush of a lass”. This is language unlike that of Jane Austen. Compare the start of Sense and Sensibility :

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance”.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility

The language here belongs to a different class of gentility -“family, ” long settled” (as against “ancient stock”), “residence”, “respectable” “general good opinion”; gentility which is securely settled, not struggling for survival. We notice the preponderance of longer more Latinate, anglo-Norman vocabulary. The short blunt physicality of the language of Wuthering Heights is absent. It is a contrasting England with a quite different spirit of place.

It is worth noting how the Wuthering Heights passage continues. The doctor’s prophecy is accurate. Yet the wife shows the kind of spirit that shows us why the Yorkshireman was drawn to her. When Nelly approached “She spoke merrily” and in the face of death “that gay heart never failed her”. The language, the merriness and gaiety, reflects a resilience of spirit that can take her so far but not further. It is a resilience of spirit lacking in her husband Hindley. Earlier Nelly had noted “I was very sad for Hindley’s sake; he had room in his heart for only two idols-his wife and himself- he doted on both, and adored one, and I couldn’t conceive how he would bear the loss”. The effect indeed is catastrophic for himself and for his family:

“For himself he grew desperate; his sorrow was of that kind that will not lament; he neither wept nor prayed-he cursed and defied-execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation”.

Again we note the powerful rhythm of reinforcing doubles ( “wept nor prayed”, “cursed and defied” “God and man ” with the force of “execrated”).

Hindley with all his physical strength and his unruly character has none of his wife’s spiritual resilience”. He lacks the moral force to complement his physical powers. His “idol” gone his only recourse is defiant recklessness bringing ruin.


What kind of novel is Wuthering Heights? I ask because the novel blends so many different possibilities within its composite whole. It is a passionate love story of a never consummated relationship that dominates the whole story-even though the heroine dies well before the end and consummation is sought by her lover after death ; it is a history novel to do with life on the Yorkshire moors sixty to forty years before- a history describing class differences between the two houses of its settings; it is a revenge drama, in which the adopted outsider who feels rejected, becomes the usurper eventually taking over the two houses; it is a saga of three generations in which, eventually, there appears to be a restorative process at work whereby characters in the third generation learn from the mistakes of the earlier generation; it is a novel pre-eminently of two dominating characters who are often regarded as over- shadowing everything else in the novel. It is a novel, which is realistic, with very accurate sociological observation, as well as a novel with sensationalist gothic and supernatural elements. As a result of all this blending it has challenged literary theorists to very different approaches. Marxist, feminist, pscho-analytic theorists have found much within the novel to discuss.

In a series of blogs I want to look more basically at what I find in the novel which makes it great reading as literature. What makes it, quite simply, a wonderful book with a life of its own? The critical approach is traditional : to present a passage which is looked at for its particular qualities and which leads the discussion towards debate as to the rich experience the book has to offer. I hope thereby to encourage interest in the novel for those who have not read it and to stimulate further thought in those who have. I shall be delighted to deal with any responses from readers.