Wild, windswept solitude; a place where the spirit runs free. That, for me, was the original attraction of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I was a young teenager when I first read the book and was gripped from the start. My English teacher had asked that we read just a few chapters at a time so that we could discuss it as we went along. However, I finished the book within a couple of days, apparently no more capable of restraint than some of the characters I was reading about.
Earlier this year, when I was too ill to do much else, I decided to read it again. I could remember almost nothing of it: A vague impression of wild and windy moorland and a ghostly Catherine crying through the window at night was all that I could recall, so I wanted to remind myself of the story and find out whether it still held the same magic as it did nearly forty years ago.
It began well. Emily was a great storyteller, of that there is no doubt. However, the more I read of the story, the more I began to lose sympathy with its characters, continuing to read only out of a somewhat morbid fascination as to how it would all turn out. Whilst I had been dimly aware that there was a darker side to the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff, I was completely unprepared for the depth of ugliness into which the tale descends. For me, it began to read like a nineteenth century version of Twilight in which Edward is rejected by Bella and spends the following years taking long, slow and painful revenge on everyone with whom she is connected.
Perhaps because of this, I found the end a little disappointing at first. Having painted such a remarkable portrait of her anti-hero, it felt almost as if Emily was disposing of him simply in order to set the young people free and hence bring the story to a satisfying close. That such an apparently strong and focused individual should end as he did, didn’t feel entirely believable. As Nellie puts it in the penultimate chapter:
He was neither in danger of losing his senses, nor dying, according to my judgement: he was quite strong and healthy; and, as to his reason, from childhood he had a delight in dwelling on dark things, and entertaining odd fancies. He might have had a monomania on the subject of his departed idol; but on every other point his wits were as sound as mine.
On further reflection, however, it occurred to me that this is exactly how depressive illness can look from the outside. Those looking in often have no idea what is going on in the mind of the person who is ill until the depression overwhelms them.
The book was written at a time when mental illness and suicide were very poorly understood. It wasn’t until 1823, for example, when Emily was five, that those who had taken their own life could be buried in consecrated ground. Even then, it was far from generally accepted that they would ‘rest in peace’ and they were frequently buried, without ceremony, in an out-of-the-way corner of the churchyard where there was little risk of anyone encountering their unquiet souls.
It’s against this kind of background that Emily is using her characters to explore the tensions between true love and the restraints of early Victorian society; between suicidal ideation and popular belief, taboo and superstition. Catherine, for example, does not marry below her station and Heathcliff – an orphan – is shunned. Similarly, Catherine is buried, ‘to the surprise of the villagers’, in a neglected corner of the churchyard. Of Hindley, it is said that, by rights, his body ‘should be buried at a crossroads without ceremony of any kind’ and of Heathcliff that his burial was ‘without ceremony’.
In the light of this, the words of Lockwood in the closing paragraph of the book are worthy of note:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
Ultimately, perhaps, Emily uses Heathcliff’s demise not so much to bring about the redemption of the young people as to provide for the possibility of his own redemption and that of Catherine, Hindley and (by extension) all those who are tempted by suicide? If so, it’s a more powerful book than I ever realised.
‘The soft wind breathing through the grass.’
As I have said, it was the wild, moorland beauty that originally captured my imagination in Wuthering Heights. Some years later, I was to end up living for a short time in the village where Emily Brontë wrote the book. This was not by design. I had no idea that Haworth was the home of the Brontë family before moving there. Nor did I know anything about the area. Yet of all the places I have lived, it remains my favourite. My love for the moors has never died.
A week ago, my youngest daughter graduated from York University. This is a good few hours away from Somerset by car and the unforgiving nature of the ME/CFS meant that there was no way I was going to make it to the graduation without some careful planning. So we elected to spend a week in the Yorkshire Dales – Nidderdale to be precise – and to break the journey both there and back with an overnight stay half way. This worked well. So, after more years than I care to count, we found ourselves back in the Yorkshire Dales. (Some may have noticed my absence from the blogs).
Nidderdale was beautiful, though not as wild and bleak as Haworth Moor:
Not quite Wuthering Heights revisited, then 😉 However, on the way home, I just couldn’t resist a visit to the village we once called home: