Town & Country (UK)
THE FABLES OF EMILY BRONTË
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