By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In 1978, ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush became the first song written and performed by a female artist to top the UK singles charts. At the time, Bush was still a teenager, aged nineteen years old. Her powerful pop song inspired by a classic Victorian novel struck a chord with listeners and launched her idiosyncratic and remarkable music career. There could only ever be one Kate Bush.
But what is the meaning of this romantic and haunting debut single? And what else connects Kate Bush with Emily Brontë, aside from the fact that they both wrote something called ‘Wuthering Heights’?
‘Wuthering Heights’: song meaning
The lyrics to Kate Bush’s song bear the influence of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, which tells of the tempestuous and doomed love affair (or affair of passion) between Catherine, or ‘Cathy’, and Heathcliff, among the wild and rugged moors of Yorkshire, England. Theirs is a wild relationship, too, and Catherine ends up marrying someone else, Edgar, when she and Heathcliff grow distant.
But then – spoiler alert! – Heathcliff runs away and comes back as a successful gentleman. Catherine falls ill following an argument with Edgar and later dies. Heathcliff dies some years later, having seen visions of Catherine.
Adopting the persona of ‘Cathy’ (usually referred to as Catherine in the book), Bush sings about the times she and Heathcliff (whose very name links him to that rugged landscape) spent frolicking on the moors together, among the elements. Curiously enough, the word ‘wuthering’, a northern English dialect word, refers to the wild windy weather in this part of the world.
Bush deftly delineates the two characters’ personalities, which are similar, but not well-matched because they are both quick to fly off the handle: Heathcliff is often angry and sullen, while Catherine is prone to jealousy. Theirs is a love-hate relationship. Heathcliff ran off so Catherine was unable to ‘possess’ him, which tells you a lot about the kind of relationship they had: one founded on primal ideas of possession and control rather than tender love.
The bridge between verse and chorus alludes to Catherine’s illness before she died: ‘losing the fight’ means losing the fight for her life, the fight against the illness that ravaged her. Indeed, Catherine dies shortly after giving birth to her (and Edgar’s) child, a daughter, who is named ‘Cathy’.
The chorus to Kate Bush’s song is more poignant than many listeners probably realise. For the ghostly Cathy may think she is at Heathcliff’s window, but it is Lockwood, another character in the novel, who witnesses her ghost at the window. Heathcliff cannot hear her and is not going to let her in.
Cathy is lonely on the other side of the grave from her lover. She has come back, even though she acknowledges Heathcliff as a cruel individual. Nevertheless, she views him as her ‘one master’ – again, summoning a relationship founded on power and control rather than mutual tenderness. She wants to grab his soul away – to pull him through to the other side with her, to take him from the land of the living to the ghostly abode of the dead where her soul has become trapped.
If ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a love song, it is also a ghost story – much like Emily Brontë’s original novel.
‘Wuthering Heights’: analysis
Bush’s song broke records, as we already mentioned. Female artists had topped the UK charts before, but never with a self-penned single. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was a first in British pop history.
It’s a deeply satisfying song, not least because of the way melancholy feelings vie with celebratory emotions in the chorus: Cathy believes she has come home (was Bush recalling the well-known title of Ken Loach’s 1966 film of social realism, Cathy Come Home?), her ghost trapped on the moors for twenty years. But Heathcliff will not let her in, because he doesn’t hear her.
And then there is the rather unhealthy nature of the Cathy-Heathcliff relationship in the original novel: a love that is poisoned by hate; a desire to be mastered but also to possess; a jealousy born of selfishness rather than purer devotion. All of these factors – the ‘back-story’ to ‘Wuthering Heights’, we might say – enrich the song’s lyrics and mean that we can listen to Bush’s mesmerising performance of them over and over again, finding new emotions and new depths to the song.
In Behind the Song, Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh reveal that Kate Bush was the first performer to wear a head-mike, before everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga and beyond would adopt one, so that she could use her hands for the memorable mimes she performs when singing ‘Wuthering Heights’. So there’s another first we owe to Bush and to ‘Wuthering Heights’.
Emily Brontë, who wrote the novel Wuthering Heights, and Kate Bush, who wrote the song ‘Wuthering Heights’, share a birthday: they were born on 30 July in, respectively, 1818 and 1958. But there was another nice link back to the Victorian era in the video of the song: Kate Bush wore a Victorian nightdress she’d purchased from a stall on the King’s Road.