Gordon Brown's ineptitude in allowing a journalist to trap him into comparing himself to Heathcliff, a fictional character described as "a fierce, pitiless and wolfish man," had the compensation of making me want to re-read Wuthering Heights, a book I hadn't read in over twenty years. Returning to it left me breathless. It is strange and brilliant.
The narrative is melodramatic, the sadistic violence pervasive, the theme of cruelty, grief, hatred and revenge is overpowering. Yet there are none of the artifices that alienate George Szirtes from the novel as a literary form. There are no convenient coincidences, no neat closing of circles. There is a resolution, but it is one of the real world; the new generation struggling to repair the damage of the old after death has removed their passions.
What allowed our Prime minister to be drawn to a casual comparison with someone so ferociously cruel? Ignorance is one factor, but another is that both he and his interviewer were not thinking of the Heathcliff of the novel, but of the stereotype of romantic fiction; the dark, brooding man waiting to be redeemed through love. The erotic power of this fantasy figure was beautifully explained in Scribbles' memorable post here. I rather fear that Brown might have fancied the idea of being a sex symbol.
The Bronte sisters all played with this fantasy. Charlotte subverted it within the genre. In Jane Eyre there is a neat conclusion, though reached in a bizarre manner, that redeems Rochester from sin through a marriage based on absolute equality. This was not Emily's way. She took the stereotype and celebrated it with a shudder. What is more, her female heroine is no redeemer. Speaking to the narrator, Nellie Dean, Cathy says, "...he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same ...". She shares his savagery. Instead, it was she who faced a choice between redemption and damnation. She chose redemption, but desired damnation. Her choice led to an unquiet death. And Heathcliff's revenge was remorseless. Somehow I always feel that Emily Bronte's sympathy lay, in truth, with the damned.
Could this book be a metaphor for Brown's premiership? Perhaps. Brown faced a choice when he acceded to the leadership between continuity and change. In his brief period of popularity he flirted with change, but then retreated into the comfort of continuity and a formulaic Blairite strategy. There is no point to his premiership if he is not to be the candidate of change. Will he be redeemed? I doubt it. I think that he is facing an early and unquiet political death.
A pastiche of Wuthering Heights is so much part of popular culture that this incident will do little other than to confirm Brown's personal awkwardness. If he really wants us to like him, maybe a little sing-a-long will help.
(Thanks Doc D)