Wowza. So far, 2013 has yielded not one, but TWO reworkings* of Wuthering Heights: April Lindner’s Catherine, which I wrote about in January, and now Alison Croggon’s Black Spring. Despite being cousins—they are, after all, both grandchildren of Emily Brontë—and despite sharing the same tortured, star-crossed love story, the books are completely different: Catherine is set in the modern day, and while there are many, many echoes of Wuthering Heights in it, it is very much a re-imagining of the original, while Black Spring feels more like a direct response to it, rather like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea was to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.Black Spring is set in another world: a world in which vendettas drive entire villages into poverty and desolation, while the ruling class gets rich on the ensuing Blood Tax; a world in which male magic users enforce the law, while female magic users are put to death as children; a world in which the murder of a man requires retribution, while the murder of a woman is viewed as a crime against property; a world in which death is commonplace, but not without devastating consequences. It’s dark, brutal and harsh, and as in Wuthering Heights, it is the backdrop for us to watch the passionate, doomed connection between Lina and Damek play out.
Black Spring shares its basic format and storyline with Wuthering Heights—a stranger rents a place in town, has a run-in with his somewhat terrifying landlord, and then is treated to the back story by the housekeeper, Anna—the setting is similarly atmospheric; while the story has fantasy trappings, Croggon’s prose reads more like historical fiction, and the combination of her vocabulary, rhythm and voice results in a story that feels like it was written in another era; the relationship between Lina and Damek is as stormy as you’d expect; and as in the original, there’s revenge and horrid behavior galore.
Here’s where it diverges: This is Lina’s story, and this is Anna’s story. It’s not so much Damek’s story. He’s an integral part, of course, but yes: For once, Wuthering Heights is about someone other than Heathcliff. Don’t get me wrong! Lina, like Catherine Earnshaw, is not a hugely likable character: She’s entitled and mercurial, prone to tantrums, violent rages, and more frightening, to rageless, borderline-sociopathic violence. But she’s also charming (when it suits), quick to jump to the defense of others (also when it suits) and above all, she’s the product of her environment. While that certainly doesn’t excuse her behavior, it makes her much easier to empathize with: ...while every human being desires to be loved, perhaps we crave understanding more.
Even better, as Anna tells the story of Lina and Damek, she tells her own story. She knew Lina her whole life—Anna is a servant, but she and Lina were milk sisters, playmates and later, classmates—and it’s satisfying and somehow almost comforting to see her regular life play out in tandem with Lina and Damek’s horrible, operatic tragedy: In the end, I was the most fortunate of us all, and that because I was the least important: there is a luck in being born ordinary.
Best of all, despite all of their differences, despite the disagreements they had, I didn’t ever question Anna’s love for Lina...or Lina’s trust in Anna. Their life experiences were hugely different, and their lives played out just as differently, but they were similarly dissatisfied and angered by the unfairness of their gender’s role in their society. Their personalities led them to deal with that anger in different ways—Anna quietly, with continuous education, Lina spectacularly, though tragically—and while only Lina would dare to say the following aloud, it’s clear that Anna not only sympathizes, but agrees: Who make these laws that bend us out of our proper shapes? Why should men be like that? Why should I? I won’t be beholden to those laws anymore. I swear before God that from now on I will be myself, and myself only.
Beautifully written, emotionally intense, lots to think about and entirely deserving of its beautiful cover.
*And, of course, there have been many, many others.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.