Tuesday 5 March 2024

Member talk: ‘Wuthering Heights’ and pop culture

Ana Gauthier gave the Brussels Brontë Group a whirlwind tour through the far-reaching influence of Wuthering Heights on the broader culture, showing how Emily Brontë’s novel echoes through our collective consciousness, sometimes in surprising ways. 

In her talk on Saturday 24 February 2024, Ana touched on Kate Bush, Merle Oberon, Celine Dion, Jim Steinman, Giorgio Armani and a host of anonymous social-media users as she demonstrated the widespread echoes of Wuthering Heights that can be found rippling through our culture. 

Ana recalled trying to explain to a friend about the time the Brontë sisters spent in Brussels in the 1840s. The friend didn’t know Charlotte or Emily or Jane Eyre. But Wuthering Heights registered with him. He didn’t know it was a book – he knew the Kate Bush song. In fact, he started singing the chorus. 

So a novel written more than 150 years ago has reached across a century and a half to make an impression on someone who knew nothing about the book or the author. It got Ana thinking about how the Brontës – their lives and their literature – can have a palpable influence in the wider culture, beyond just us Brontë enthusiasts (aka the Brontë Bubble). Or as she put it: How have the Brontës influenced people who don’t even know who they are? 

Ana – a not-so-closet Jane Austen fan – started by demonstrating the beyond-the-bubble concept with Mr. Darcy’s wet shirt – from the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, but not in the original novel. Images of the post-swim Colin Firth – or parodies of the scene – have shown up in lots of places in the last three decades, including Lost in Austen, Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Bridgerton series. 

“It has essentially become shorthand for ‘This is the person you should be attracted to in this show’,” Ana said. But her main point was: “This trope would not exist if we did not have Pride and Prejudice first.”

You can see a similar phenomenon with Kate Bush, as demonstrated by Ana’s songbird friend. Kate Bush was influenced by Wuthering Heights to write her song in the 1970s, and many listeners were reminded of Emily Brontë – or came to know the author and her book – because of the Kate Bush song and videos. 

Much later, thanks in large part to social media, we have “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” – an annual event started in 2016 and held in different cities around the world where people get together and dance to Kate Bush’s song, usually dressed appropriately in red. Brussels was one of the participating cities in 2018, and Ghent in 2019. Perhaps you went along. 

“The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever”

“It’s an example of how Emily Brontë’s influence, through Kate Bush, is continuing to echo,” Ana said. 

Another echo was seen in the 2016 Armani spring collection, which was inspired by Wuthering Heights. The models wore black wigs to reference Merle Oberon in the 1939 film version and there was lots of lilac – supposedly to suggest the heather on the moors. So Emily’s art has filtered through the movies to affect fashion, even Italian designer fashion, Ana said. 

And then there was a hashtag for Emily’s novel on Tumbler, which, similar to “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever,” brought the Wuthering Heights vibe to a younger generation. Enthusiasts of the Tumbler hashtag #wutheringheightsaesthetic seemed to regard the brooding Heathcliff as their champion, with Fritz Eichenberg’s 1940s illustrations setting the mood. 

Eichenberg’s Heathcliff

“Maybe in a literary way we would say it captures a Byronic hero,” Ana said. “But for the teenagers who were using Tumbler at that time, they would say: ‘It’s just so emo!’ ” 

Someone else who was influenced by Wuthering Heights to write a song was Jim Steinman. You may not know his name, but you know his work. He wrote the Bat Out of Hell album that propelled Meat Loaf to stardom. But Ana focused on another Steinman song, one not originally recorded by Meat Loaf – the power ballad It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, which was made popular by Celine Dion in the mid-1990s. 

Ana quoted Steinman on how he composed the song: 

“I was writing it while under the influence of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favorite books. This song is an erotic motorcycle. It's like Heathcliff digging up Cathy's corpse and dancing with it in the cold moonlight. You can't get more extreme, operatic or passionate than that.” 

Then Ana showed how, with the help of another hashtag – #celinedionchallenge – the Heathcliff aesthetic rippled out to more young people and to a broader audience in general. This time on TikTok, where users posted videos of themselves lip-syncing the song with over-the-top renditions. Ana plays several of the videos, explaining how the emotion of the song, which was originally from Jim Steinman reading Wuthering Heights, is also passed on in the wider cultural consciousness. 

The last video she plays – titled “My mom in the 90s” – shows a young man imitating how his mother danced to It’s All Coming Back to Me Now three decades ago – illustrating the rippling echoes that bring us back to Wuthering Heights again and again. 

Almost without us realizing it, Emily’s novel “is inspiring something in all of us that we feel generation after generation and we continue to pass on and we continue to find something interesting every time we revisit it,” Ana said. 

This was Ana’s second talk to the group. She spoke on The Brontës and Fanfiction in 2020.

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