The next two texts in my DIY MFA are Elizabeth Bronte’s 1847 book Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen’s 1813 book Pride and Prejudice. I think of these texts as grandmothers to the modern Young Adult genre, and I wanted to read them through the lens of comparison to contemporary YA texts (especially romance stories).
The shape of these 19th century stories closely resembles contemporary YA narratives. Just as modern YA romances do, the older stories focus on women in their teens and early twenties, their search for love and romance, and the troubles that romance brings into their lives.
In Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff are childhood friends, deeply connected souls who are passionately devoted to each other. Because Heathcliff has no property or social standing, Catherine knows she could never marry him, so she marries a kind, caring, though rather boring man named Edgar. Devastated, Heathcliff launches a vendetta against Edgar that brings about the ruin of almost every other character in the book. Catherine’s misery is equally destructive; she has fits and makes herself ill in order to manipulate those around her.
I had never read the story before, but I knew of Catherine and Heathcliff; their names are synonymous with passion. So, I was surprised to find that the book doesn’t show why Catherine and Heathcliff loved each other so strongly, except for the fact that they’d grown up together and knew each other so well. Their love is stated as a fact, rather than developed throughout the book. Not only was their love not explored and shown clearly in the story, the characters weren’t shown either. Readers don’t know much about either character except that they are in love with the other. Romances of this kind aren’t satisfying. It’s not enough for me to simply know that the characters are in love. I don’t care about love as a concept; I care about love as a specific feeling between two human beings. Without the specificity, without the humanity of the characters, my investment in the outcome of their story is very low.
Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters, who must secure their futures by marrying as well as they can. Because Austen has created a character in Elizabeth who is warm and intelligent, it is not hard to see why Mr. Darcy becomes fond of her. And, over the course of the book, Darcy’s actions reveal a goodness and generosity of spirit. Though I’d read the book years ago, the language and characters drew me in again, and I was moved by the satisfying conclusion of this beautiful book.
The richness of the romance in Austen’s book makes me think of Rainbow Rowell’s recent novel Eleanor and Park, in which the love and the characters are believable and unique. Other books which do a lovely job of developing authentic romantic connections are Grave Mercy, The Impossible Knife of Memory, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, and Graceling. (This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recently read YA books, but they could be a good place to start for studying what make for good book romance.)
This is everything: to make sure the reader has reason to believe in the relationship at the core of the romance. It’s not enough simply to state that there is deep passion. There have to be reasons for it, and it’s better if readers see those reasons.
As I read Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, I noticed a big difference between them and their modern counterparts: the narration itself. I’ll explore the narrative voice more in a future post.