August 12, 2007

Wuthering Heights Named Greatest Love Story

From The Guardian:
Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, recounting the doomed affair between sweet Cathy Earnshaw and the brutal outsider Heathcliff, has seen off Shakespeare, Gone With the Wind and everything by Barbara Cartland in a survey which shows the lasting power of classic works.

Almost all the entries in the top 20 choices of 2,000 readers are major works of English literature, with Jane Austen pipping Shakespeare as runner-up and Emily's sister Charlotte coming in fourth with Jane Eyre."It's really heartening to see how these stories, written so long ago, retain the power to captivate 21st century audiences," said Richard Kingsbury, channel head of UKTV Drama, which commissioned the study. (read the rest here)

"Sweet" Cathy Earnshaw? Hmmm. Maybe these 2000 people (and the article's author) read a different version of Wuthering Heights than the one I know or Jane Smiley compared unfavorably to Justine. John Sutherland and Martin Kettle are also skeptical.

The more I think about this poll the odder the results seem. It seems as if, at least as far as Wuthering Heightsis concerned, we have three options: either most of these people have not read Emily Bronte's novel at all and are voting on the basis of some received idea about it; or they have read it and (dismal thought) really find its version of love (obsessive, possessive, selfish, destructive) romantic; or they have read it and completely misinterpreted it. Occasions like this (as the responses from Sutherland and Kettle already make clear) can certainly highlight the gap between "common" and expert readers (though in this case I'd like to think it does not take professional training to find Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship and behaviour at least somewhat troubling), but what's particularly interesting here is it's not a contest of values (it's not, for instance, more about Harry Potter vs "the classics") but a problem of misreading and thus misrepresenting a particular text. As Kingsbury says, it is "heartening" that readers still find these "long ago" stories compelling, but it's less heartening that they don't seem very clear on their content.
It makes me think again about the question of readers' responsibilities--if not to the author, then to their reading (as I recall, Wayne Booth spends a fair amount of time on this issue in The Company We Keep; I'll have to go back and take another look).


1 comment:

RfP said...

I was surprised by the list too. I presume UKTV's survey offered respondents a fixed list of "love stories" to choose from--I would love to see the full list. That might explain a lot.

I also wondered, like you, whether people really remembered those works/authors and intended to select them as "love stories". Often I think surveys tend to get replies that focus on what novels are "the best", not "the best love stories".

If that's not the issue, here's another. I consider myself reasonably literate, and I've only read/seen 16 of the top 20. Of those 16, I consider some rather obscure as novels--though some have been revived as TV miniseries, which may explain their high survey scores. Even so, for some of those books to reach the top of the list, the surveyed group must all have been better-read than I. Which is possible, but in that case it was a very specific type of survey.