by Janice Keefer
At crucial moments in Jane Urquhart`s new novel, windows
are wrenched open to let in the whirling blizzards
and wild winds of Wuthering Heights
LIKE HER FIRST NOVEL, The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart`s latest work of fiction plunges us into a world of passions and marvels and intricate obsessions. Changing Heaven opens with a meditation on wind and weather, invoking those tempests of mind and heart without which we cannot achieve our full stature or understand our true nature as human beings. Urquhart`s new novel is, in large part, a love affair with another novel, Wuthering Heights, one of the strangest, most powerful texts in the English language. At crucial moments in Changing Heaven, climactic scenes from Emily Bronte`s novel are echoed: lightning strikes, windows are wrenched open to let whirling blizzards in, the wild winds of the Yorkshire moors river through the hair and heads of those whose souls are large enough to welcome them.
Within this doubled structure, Urquhart develops two interrelated love affairs: that between a 19th-century balloonist, Polly Smith (a.k.a. Arianna Ether), and her Svengali, the Arcticenamoured Jeremy Unger, and that between a 20th-century, would-be Catherine Earnshaw, Ann Frear, and her elected Heathcliff, an obsessed art historian named Arthur Woodruff. During the painful working out of her passion for Arthur, Ann also becomes involved with John Hartley, a Yorkshireman who combines a love of Greek and carpentry: eventually the two establish a temporary idyll similar to that enjoyed by Catherine Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw at the end of Wuthering Heights.
Yet to complement the elemental, infinite, and eternal "weather" of Emily Bronte`s novel, Urquhart creates an "ordinary" fictive world, giving us vignettes of Ann`s girlhood and adolescence in the Toronto of Hurricane Hazel, and evoking the desperate but dreary world of motel-room trysts on the outskirts of Toronto the Good. She is uncannily good in her illumination of the densely furnished recesses of certain
characters` minds. Her account of the genesis of Arthur`s passion for Tintoretto is as much a tour de force as her depiction, in The Whirlpool, of the extraordinary coming-into-speech of the undertaker`s child; in one of Changing Heavens most powerful extended metaphors, Arthur burns his hands in his attempt to emulate Tintoretto`s techniques and vision, and subsequently loses the capacity to feel and touch, if not to hold. It is Ann`s misfortune to fall violently in love with the married Arthur (during an electrical storm, of course) and to attempt to make him into that soul mate for whom she`s yearned since her girlhood devouring of Wuthering Heights.
Urquhart`s prose is poetic, in Virginia Woolf`s definition of that term: it is not lyrical so much as metaphysical, concerned with "that side of the mind which is exposed in solitude ... its thoughts, its rhapsodies, its dreams." Urquhart is a master of perceptual realization; remarkable for the fineness as well as the acrobatic quality of her intelligence. But as far as the actual structure of her novel is concerned (its ability to support and carry through the magnificence of her conceptions), important doubts must he raised. For this reader, at least, one aspect of this novel that simply doesn`t work is the sequence of interludes between the ghosts of the rather bubble-headed Arianna Ether and on Emily Bronte who has been stripped of her fierceness and mystery, and turned into something of a girlish prattler, expounding on the writing of Wuthering Heights
and the queer twists of her family life. For
anyone unfamiliar with the mystique of
the Brontes, and with the tantalizingly
small amount that is known of Emily in
particular, the information Urquhart`s
Emily provides will undoubtedly be inter
esting. It may he useful for appreciating
those resonances of Wuthering Heights
that Urquhart has worked into her own
fiction about the effect of Emily Bronte`s
fiction on Ann and her lovers. But those
acquainted with the exemplary power
and scope of Bronte`s vision in Wuthering
Heights, and its concentrated focus, may
end by being puzzled and dissatisfied with
the ghosts raised by Urquhart in
Changing Heaven. Perhaps she is trying to
demystify the figure of Emily Bronte, to
Jane Urquhart make her an approachable semblable and
Beatrice figure not only for the rather slow-witted Polly/Arianna but for the reader as well. But the demystification of Emily Bronte is an uphill, and I Would think self defeating task, one which seriously weakens the structure, and therefore the power of Changing Heaven.
Ingmar Bergman`s enormous admiration for Andrei Tarkovsky derived from the Russian directors ability to move with superb ease in and out of "the room of dreams." The secret of Tarkovsky`s genius, Bergman suggests, is that he never explained; that in works of the highest imaginative order, the logic of image and desire is such that explanation is superfluous and diminishing. Having Emily Bronte explain to Polly and the reader so much of what is already implicit in Urquhart`s re-envisioning and invoking of Wuthering Heights is a substantial miscalculation. In addition, the detail and arcana that Urquhart pours out in the course of an increasingly freighted narrative, as well as the fictions-within-this-fiction prompted by another fiction -- the stories told by that rustic beau-ideal, John Hartley -- may strike the reader as unnecessary amplifications and as digressions instead of developments. One may feet that Urquhart failed to be sufficiently selective in her use of that wealth of material she uncovered in the course of writing her novel: that by simplifying or compressing the structure of her novel, she might have achieved a form to match her splendid vision.
Yet the intricacy and ardour of Urquhart`s prose combined with the dazzling ambition of her imaginative conception; her preoccupations with aesthetics -- for example, the arrangement of objects on a windowsill, the play of light on surfaces -- as well as with our darker and deeper emotions, make her one of the most compelling and accomplished voices in contemporary Canadian fiction. She is a writer who not only takes enormous risks; she offers us, as well, extraordinary rewards