THE FA­BLES OF EMILY BRONTË

Town & Country (UK) - - SUMMER 2018 - BY JUS­TINE PI­CARDIE

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a novel that is ex­cep­tional for its shape-shift­ing af­ter­life, as well as the pul­sat­ing emo­tion within it: for this is a haunt­ing story that has not only pos­sessed the imag­i­na­tion of count­less read­ers, but also in­spired a myr­iad artists and au­thors to cre­ate their own re­sponses to the orig­i­nal nar­ra­tive. Quite aside from the nu­mer­ous screen adap­ta­tions, Wuthering Heights has proved to be fer­tile ter­ri­tory for dozens of other writ­ers, in­clud­ing Vir­ginia Woolf, Daphne du Mau­rier, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; and its tu­mul­tuous power has also stirred mu­si­cal ver­sions – from clas­si­cal opera to Kate Bush’s un­earthly de­but sin­gle.

Yet for all the ex­tra­or­di­nary force of the novel, the young woman who wrote it re­mains one of the most mys­te­ri­ous fig­ures in the pan­theon of great writ­ers. As Lu­casta Miller ob­serves in The Brontë Myth: ‘She was no­to­ri­ously re­served in life, and seems equally un­will­ing to share her­self in death. Aside from her sin­gle novel and her sur­viv­ing po­etry, she has be­queathed her bi­og­ra­phers very lit­tle… She seems to re­pel in­ves­ti­ga­tion as fiercely as Heath­cliff re­buffs those who dare to in­trude upon his soli­tude at Wuthering Heights.’

Not that this has stopped us from at­tempt­ing to fol­low in Emily Brontë’s foot­steps: and here I must con­fess to be­ing one of the le­gions who have vis­ited her home in Ha­worth – now the Brontë Par­son­age Mu­seum – and fol­lowed the foot­path from there onto the windswept moors, walk­ing up to Top Withens, the ru­ined house said to have been the in­spi­ra­tion for Wuthering Heights, the fic­tional Earn­shaw fam­ily home in the novel. I first went as a young woman, and have re­turned in the course of re­search­ing sev­eral of my own books. And I was for­tu­nate to ac­com­pany the artist Cor­nelia Parker in 2006, when she was cre­at­ing works that in­cluded mag­ni­fied im­ages of the ink marks on Emily Brontë’s blot­ting pa­per, and a lock of her hair (most prob­a­bly cut and plaited by her sis­ter Char­lotte, af­ter Emily’s death). Cor­nelia also con­ceived the record­ing of a séance at which I was present, where two psy­chic medi­ums ex­plored the Par­son­age af­ter dark; she had asked me there as an ob­server, rather than a par­tic­i­pant, and yet it re­mains one of the eeri­est en­coun­ters of my life. This was not be­cause of any su­per­nat­u­ral man­i­fes­ta­tions (though the silent re­la­tion­ship between the liv­ing and the dead has long fas­ci­nated me, and the bound­less love that en­dures, even when we are sep­a­rated by death from those we hold most dear). Rather, it was the experience of wan­der­ing alone through the quiet house, with­out the day­time crowds of tourists that flock to the Par­son­age, and see­ing the relics of the fam­ily that once lived here: the lit­tle books cre­ated by the Brontë chil­dren, in such tiny hand­writ­ing that they are im­pos­si­ble to de­ci­pher with­out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass; the toy sol­diers that in­spired their ear­li­est imag­i­nary worlds; gloves, shoes, dresses and jew­ellery (some con­tain­ing in­ter­wo­ven locks of their hair); draw­ings, manuscripts, let­ters and writ­ing desks; brass col­lars from their dogs, en­graved with their names; and all the other lov­ingly pre­served ob­jects, in­clud­ing the pi­ano that Emily played, and the black horse­hair sofa upon which she had al­legedly died.

Yet in the midst of these re­minders of death, there con­tin­ues to be a great sense of life in the Par­son­age – and even more so, on the hills that lie be­yond, loved so well by the Brontë sib­lings. In­deed, to quote Char­lotte’s life­long friend, Ellen Nussey: ‘They lived in the free ex­panse of hill moor­land… its dells and glens and brooks.’ And the affin­ity that Emily felt for this nat­u­ral land­scape re­mains won­der­fully ap­par­ent in her writ­ing. ‘Every leaf speaks bliss to me,’ she said in 1838, con­tin­ued on page 170

Emily Brontë painted by her brother Bran­well in 1833

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