Paul Thompson writes:
Having now watched my fifth version of Wuthering Heights (the 1978 Hutchison/Adshead version), I set to wondering why none of the actresses who played Catherine (the elder) quite worked for me. The answer came to me as I looked at the timeline of the novel and I think it boils down to their ages.
If we look at five of the best-known versions and compare the approximate ages of the 'Catherines' at the time, we get:
1939 Merle Oberon aged 28
1970 Anna Calder-Marshall aged 23
1978 Kay Adshead aged 24
1992 Juliette Binoche aged 28
1998 Orla Brady aged 37
In the book, Catherine is 15 when Heathcliff runs away and just 18 when she dies. Even the youngest of the actresses is five years older and the oldest is 19! (although, admittedly, Orla Brady looked much younger). However, each of the actresses appears clearly adult, not the teenager than Catherine was. We should also remember that an 18 year old was not the adult they are considered today: people did not come of age until 21.
If you think of Catherine as a slightly immature teenager rather than an adult, it brings a whole new aspect to the story. Her spitefulness towards Isabella, the "dashing her head against the arm of the sofa", her attempts to make herself ill: these become more believable if we imagine a younger teenager performing them. There is also a deeper pathos to the scene in chapter 12 where Catherine in her delirium wishes she were back in Wuthering Heights. If we think of her as a child then rather than a spoilt adult, we can have more sympathy for her. We could feel the loneliness and sadness of a child forced into an adult's world.
It would be fascinating to see a version of Wuthering Heights with Catherine played by a teenage actress (or one who could pass as teenage). It would be rather like seeing Juliet of Romeo and Juliet played as the 13 year old she was supposed to be. It would need an actress of great skill and subtlety, of course, able to switch from mature love to childish petulance, but what a role. And what a new interest it would add to the scenes with Heathcliff.
(As an afterthought, looking at those rumours of Angelina Jolie being lined up to play Catherine, her age this year will be 33 - not a good omen.)
The Reader’s Guide to Wuthering Heights
Below, Merle Oberon with Laurence Olivier in the 1939 version