by Alison Case
A re-telling of the events of Wuthering Heights from the point of view of the family servant, Nelly Dean. Nelly also tells the story in Wuthering Heights, but as the story comes from Lockwood’s sighting of Cathy’s ghost, the original focuses on Cathy and her strange and terrible relationship with Heathcliff. In Nelly Dean, the focus is square and plainly on Nelly herself, and told by means of a letter to Mr Lockwood, which works nicely in its context (which I can’t tell for fear of spoiling). By these means, Alison Case brings an interesting, tangential view of the family and their deeply tangled, dysfunctional relationships. The perspective of the story is entirely different, being centred on Nelly’s obsession with Hindley Earnshaw, pivoting the focus away from Cathy and Heathcliffe, who are ill-focused, peripheral characters for much of the book. It’s a refreshing take and an interesting viewpoint that completely changes the emphasis of the story.
It’s a big book – 474 pages – but extremely readable (much more so than Wuthering Heights) and cleverly done. Anyone who has read the original can see all the points at which the story crosses, but the telling from Nelly’s – far more earthy and practical – perspective gives the well-known story a whole new spectrum of colours and emotions. I found it a surprisingly compelling read considering it branches from the original narrative so much, with tremendous detail about domestic life – dairying, sewing, shopping, cleaning, cooking a stew on an open range, conventional mid-Victorian medicine and the herbs of the wise women, the time it took to travel everywhere and etc. Alison Case has done her research, but it doesn’t show in anything other than these frequent excursions into Nelly’s daily life. There are no info-dumps or long, dreary discourses; most of these side-trips are engagingly told and Alison Case gifts Nelly with a strong, believable voice that makes the thing spin by smoothly. I can’t describe it as a page turner – it wasn’t a novel I rushed to read at the end of the day; this is a re-telling of a very well known story, perhaps one of the best known in English literature, so there are few surprises. It is a quietly good tale, absorbing and engaging, that draws the reader into this lost world of 1850’s Haworth (a place and landscape I know very well as it is my own native landscape; Haworth is just 30 miles from where I live). Considering that the author is American, I found some of the local rhythms of speech well done (though some were awful; two characters ‘sounded’ more like Geordies to me). A few Americanisms creep in here and there and they did leap out at me, but they are fairly minor and few and easy to pass over and some readers won’t notice them at all.
Of course, it is not (and never could be) Wuthering Heights. It’s a comfortable, smooth and easy read; a diverting accompaniment to the original, but it stands alone too. If you haven’t read Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, you can still enjoy Nelly Dean. Who knows, it might even inspire some who haven’t read it yet to give the (rather more daunting) Wuthering Heights a read.