It was my birthday last weekend and my wonderful partner surprised me with a trip to the village of Haworth – the famous home of the Brontë sisters! This was an incredibly thoughtful treat especially since I’ve been reading the Brontës more in recent years as part of the celebrations marking the bicentenaries of the births of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. I love visiting these historic locations and museums such as a trip we took to Virginia Woolf’s residence Monk’s House a few years ago. And anyone who has read the Brontës knows the important role the location and environment plays in the their novels – as Kate Bush so aptly describes singing about “the wiley, windy moors”. So it felt really special to see this landscape myself as an immersive experience and to discover how Haworth has capitalized on its famous literary sisters since the 1800s. It’s an endearing mixture of quaint English village and a kitch kind of Brontëland.

Bronte1.jpg

While I know it’s geeky, I got fully on board with this as we stayed in Dr McCracken’s bedroom in the Ashmount Country House (the old residence of Charlotte Brontë’s doctor), bought baked goods from the Villette coffee house, toured the Brontë Parsonage Museum and roamed for hours through the moors on public paths that the Brontës themselves once walked. I resisted indulging in drinking any of the Brontë beers offered at one pub! All this really brought the atmosphere of the novels alive and even if you haven’t read the novels the landscape is absolutely beautiful. The museum is fascinating and so thoughtfully presented with many of the rooms containing the Brontës’ actual furniture and many displays of their clothing, letters, artwork by Charlotte and the writing boxes that belonged to each of the sisters. In addition, there are many explanatory notices about the Brontë family, the context of the sisters’ publications, the tragedies of their early deaths (there’s even a morbid bracelet on display that Charlotte made from the hair of her sisters Emily and Anne after their deaths!) and information about the village life itself. Apparently disease was so prevalent in this area of the country during the Brontës’ time that the average life expectancy of villagers was only 25 years!

Walking through the moors has its own special pleasure and the atmosphere was heightened on the weekend we visited since the weather was so changeable. The skies frequently switched from stormy grey to blazing sunshine in the space of a few moments so it became confusing to know whether we should be cowering under umbrellas or stripping down to our t-shirts. The first stop we went to was the rather grandly labelled Brontë Falls (more like a trickling stream than a waterfall) and from there we ventured onto Top Withens, a dilapidated farmhouse which is widely considered to be the inspiration for the house in “Wuthering Heights”. Although there’s no actual evidence that Emily based her fictional house on this location, it’s easy to make the assumption it inspired her for its remoteness and position on quite a weather-beaten hillside.

Bronte2.jpg

Walking along the paths there’s gorgeous rocky terrain covered in colourful heather, fields of grazing sheep and carved stone books periodically appear along the way. As part of the #Bronte200 celebrations in recent years, there are also four specially commissioned stones dedicated to each sister and the Brontës as a whole with original poems written by Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, Jackie Kay and Kate Bush. These are set in different remote locations and it’d require a 9-mile walk to see them all. We only stopped to see The Anne Stone (written by Jackie Kay) which is conveniently set next to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. And we also took the perilous journey to see The Emily Stone (written by Kate Bush) which is set in a particularly wild part of the countryside that Emily apparently loved to roam. Although we bought a special map marking the location of each stone The Emily Stone is very hard to find (even though it’s on Google maps). Kate Bush’s words are carved into the cliffside of Ogden Kirk located near a deep gully. Once you get to the location there are no signs directing you to where the stone actually sits. Instead we had to clamber down the steep cliffside to find it. I’m sure many hikers miss this stone because it’s so hard to locate. Nevertheless, it made quite a fun adventure.

I’ve not read any books about the Brontës as a whole or any bios on the individual sisters. It’s not surprising they’ve become so legendary as their story is so irresistible and grimly marked by their early deaths. But I find it curious how many people like to “pick sides” as if it’s necessary to pick one sister as a favourite. The museum gift shop even sells badges advocating your support for Team Charlotte, Team Emily or Team Anne. I suppose the tone of their books marks distinct personality types so people feel inclined to “cheer” for one sister or another. I’m glad to have read a novel by each sister including “Jane Eyre”, “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey”. Out of these probably “Jane Eyre” is my favourite but I feel more spiritually aligned with Emily Brontë. Please let me know if you have recommendations of which other books by the Brontës I should read or if you have any good suggestions for nonfiction about the Brontës.

Bronte3.jpg

I loved this weekend trip and would heartily recommend visiting the village. While you can get a train to Haworth, we rented a car after getting a train to Leeds since this makes it much easier to travel around the area and venture out to some of the more remote parts of the moors without hiking for hours on end. Let me know if you’ve ever gone to Haworth or if you’re a Brontë fan what your favourite book is.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
WutheringHeights1.jpg

Reading two major classic novels written by women for the first time felt like the perfect way to bookend my reading of the entire Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist. I started with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and now I’ve ended with “Wuthering Heights”. These novels are also both included in the ‘Rediscover the Classic’ campaign I’ve curated and overseen for Jellybooks. Although both these novels and their famous characters are so ingrained in our cultural lexicon, I’ve been taken aback by the way their powerful narratives still gripped and surprised me. This is also the third novel I’ve read by the Brontë sisters after reading “Jane Eyre” for the first time several years ago and “Agnes Grey” last year. It’s interesting to think about how some parallels can be drawn between them but also how each author employs such different writing styles and has their own unique outlook. “Wuthering Heights” felt like it had the most complicated narrative form of all these books and some of the darkest content, but its made a big impact on me.

It's a good time to get swept up in Brontë fever with 'Brontë 200' happening. This is a five year programme celebrating the bicentenaries of the births of the four Brontë children (2018 marks Emily's 200th birthday). Recently it was announced stones engraved with new writing by Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Kate Bush that commemorates the sisters will be placed in the walk between the sisters’ birthplace and the family parsonage. Not only does The Women's Prize organize events celebrating new authors, but they create opportunities to celebrate women's writing in general. So this week I also went to a wonderful event they held with a number of authors who paid tribute to the legacy of “Wuthering Heights” and they discussed the personal impact its had on them. It was so fascinating hearing the different perspectives on how much they were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” as teenagers and how their reading of the novel has changed over time. It was also noted how the themes, violence portrayed and style of the novel still feel so bold today.

Since I'm discussing “Wuthering Heights” in the context of The Women's Prize, I'd like to briefly draw some parallels I can see between Brontë's novel and books that were on the longlist. I have no idea whether these current authors were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” or not, but it's still interesting to look for connections. The way Brontë explores the line between romance and obsession/abuse and how it portrays the real bloody violence that results in a destructive relationship made me recall Kandasamy's extraordinary portrayal of an abusive marriage in “When I Hit You”. The rift between classes with the Lintons and the Earnshaws/Heathcliff and the question of who will control this rural land and houses felt reminiscent of the class struggle evident in Mozley's “Elmet”. The intense sense of claustrophobia and a family that hates each other trapped inside the farmhouse that is Wuthering Heights made me recall the toxic atmosphere in the house in Schmidt's “See What I Have Done”. The continuing impact of history that manifests in the presence of ghosts was also portrayed in Ward's “Sing, Unburied, Sing”. I don't know how much an in-depth comparison between these novels would yield, but it's nevertheless worth noting how Emily Brontë wrote about themes which are still relevant and being written about today.

Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

It feels odd in a way coming to “Wuthering Heights” as a 39 year old man as this does seem like a novel that I ought to have first read as a teenager. In the discussion the other night, Juno Dawson noted how “Jane Eyre” seems like the perfect young adult novel but she didn't appreciate “Wuthering Heights” as much until reading it now. I might have had a similar reaction, but I like how the reality of reading Emily's novel defies the common conception that it is a great love story. The reality of Heathcliff and Catherine's lifelong romance is so much more twisted and bitter than a Romeo and Juliet story. Built within it is a rift between the born privilege and class aspirations of Catherine and the resented orphan Heathcliff. Rather than a love story, “Wuthering Heights” is more an extremely elaborate revenge tale where Heathcliff plays the long game to enact the wrath he feels at being so mistreated as a child and then slighted by the woman he loves. I sympathized with Heathcliff's anger over his outsider status, but of course I was also horrified by the monstrous way he acts and schemes to dominate the houses and all who inhabit them.

I must confess that I found the convoluted narrative structure a struggle for most of the first half. There is so much story within story where in some instances the present tenant Lockwood is being told a tale by the servant Nelly who is recounting a letter written by Isabella who is recalling an encounter she had. It made some parts difficult to follow, but this is a reason why it feels like rereading would yield a lot more and how it's worth really knowing the characters and the dynamic between them going into this novel. I know that this style of narration raises lots of interesting questions about how trustworthy the narrators are, but it does make it challenging to follow. In a way, I much preferred the second half of the novel which has to do with the second generation of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Here I could feel the resonance of all that came before and how children are drawn into and absorb the quarrels of past generations. It's also fascinating how the roles of characters are switched around in the new generation and how you can feel the internal battles these younger individuals have to reconcile the past. There are also passages which are deeply meditative with characters contemplating their positions and struggling to see how to carry on. The second half of the novel gives “Wuthering Heights” an epic feel and made it much more emotionally resonant for me than if the story had stopped at the end of the first half.

It struck me that as an orphan story “Wuthering Heights” is much bolder and more daring than a book like Dickens' “Oliver Twist”. Oliver is so wholly good and moral whereas Heathcliff becomes an embittered and destructive monster. It feels like Emily Brontë presents a much more complicated and nuanced portrait of good vs evil and she shows how, though there is a lot of reprehensible action and other people's resentment is taken out on innocent people, there are understandable reasons for such violence. I could empathize with the struggle of many characters in “Wuthering Heights” and particularly admired the way she portrayed Isabella. She could be dismissed as a superficial or comic individual, but I felt for her conflict, the way she gambled and lost, and the way she resolutely decided to remove herself from a toxic situation where everyone else remained. I'm excited now to look at some film adaptations of the book (although I know most only portray the first half of the novel) and one day I look forward to reading Emily's story again.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Bronte