The Wuthering Heights of Down

We wrote this a decade a go for Northern Ireland’s much-missed Verbal Magazine, when Twilight was all the rage.

Wuthering Heights is back in the book shops! Clad in the black, red and white of supernatural teen novels like Twilight, with a sticker proclaiming it “Bella and Edward’s favourite book”. Perhaps not altogether coincidentally, a new film adaptation is in the making of what has been hailed as the greatest love story ever told. It’s been filmed before, most notably in 1939 with Laurence Olivier and in 1992 with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche.

Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer in Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” (2011)

The latter version opens with Emily Brontë striding over the moors. She’s got the requisite period bonnet and voluminous dress, but as played by Irish dilettante pop artist Sinead O’Connor, we can imagine a pair of Doc Martins underneath. She is everything we expect, all wild eyed and in a world of her own, haunted by the spectres she sees amongst the standing stones. And if we hear a faint trace of the Irish in the prologue narrative, well… the Irish accent of the Brontë sisters has been commented upon!

Their father, Patrick Brontë, didn’t always go by that name, but was born as Patrick Branty (or Prunty; spelling was fast and loose) in Rathriland, County Down. When he moved to Cambridge to study theology in 1802 he Anglicised his name and added an extra flourish, the umlaut on the ‘e’, to make sure people would pronounce it with two syllables. This schoolmaster’s precision stayed with him through life; before escorting his daughters to Brussels he compiled a notebook of “conversational terms, suitable for a traveler” which, he admonished himself, “must be fully mastered”.

Patrick Bronte’s birth ‘house’

Patrick married and became a parson, moving his family to Haworth in 1820. When he lost his wife to cancer, he was faced with not only tending to his flock but also to his 6 small children. He thought to have the perfect solution in a recently opened boarding school for poor clergy children, but living conditions turned out to be poor and when his eldest daughters died there of tuberculosis Patrick decided to tutor the surviving children himself. And, being the peculiar man that he was, he had his own ideas about this.

Unusually, he taught them to think for themselves and he instilled in them a love for literature. Where other girls embroidered and learnt to become good wives, the Brontë sisters, with their brother Branwell, read Wordsworth, Byron and Scott. Their unusual education, lack of family roots in Yorkshire and their social position as parson’s children resulted in them growing up with a sense of themselves as strangers. Charlotte sought social acceptance and instigated the publication of first their poems and later their books, but Emily was happy enough to be on her own and keep her poetry to herself.

From Kate Beaton’s “Hark, A Vagrant!”

Ironically, when the name of Brontë is mentioned, what springs to mind first is not Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, not even Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, but Emily’s Wuthering Heights. And it is the most powerful of the books, dealing with the obsessive bond between the spoilt Cathy Earnshaw and the unkempt Heathcliff, broken when Cathy rejects him for a genteel marriage. Heathcliff then embarks on a generation-spanning campaign for Cathy and for the house of Wuthering Heights itself; beating, kidnapping, manipulating and disinheriting all who stand between him and his desires. This is a story of revenge, not love.

Critics were impressed by the novel’s power, its morals and structure merely raising some eyebrows, though some female writers of a certain standing found it “too odious and abominably pagan”. Emily didn’t care. She had not sought publication, did not depend on the opinion of others, and in any case, she died soon afterwards. Charlotte however wanted to be one of the ‘worthy women’ and believed that her society would never accept a female author calculatedly producing a character as wild and coarse as Heathcliff. It reflected badly on her sister, and by association on herself.

Sinéad O’Connor as Emily Brontë (1992)

Her introduction to the second edition of Wuthering Heights reads like pre-emptive damage control and emphasizes its flaws. She attributed the book to “fate or inspiration”, with Emily as the “Mystic of the Moors”, a sort of literary shaman who had unconsciously channeled the primal energies of that bleak landscape and its inhabitants onto the page. After Charlotte’s death, her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell went one further, launching the image of Emily as a savage, beating her dog to a pulp and communicating in grunts.

This view was probably inspired by Heathcliff’s brutality, and though much of his character was rooted in hers, Emily kept the parsonage going, and tended to her almost blind father, the elderly servant and her wastrel brother who slowly drank himself into his grave. Wuthering Heights exposes her buried urges, the needs that are rejected by circumstance and society. Emily’s displaced identity is in Heathcliff too; it has been theorised that he was an Irish Traveller, and the unknown language he spoke could have been a homage to the accent that marked Patrick Brontë and his children as outsiders in Haworth.

Heathcliff, Wild and Windy!

The crude, uneducated Heathcliff also represents a more personal rejection, and it doesn’t take much to find in the dark halls of Wuthering Heights the unhappy, uncultured life that the former Patrick Branty escaped. Oddly, the dialect spoken by the zealous servant Joseph isn’t quite Yorkshire but owes more to Ulster vowels, and it seems that for this pious character Emily has reached back for the words of her father’s boyhood.

By 1855, Patrick had outlived all his children. He’d always been active on behalf of the community, instigating the building of a Sunday School and fighting against laws that would replace local charity with the dreaded workhouse. The health of his children had been undermined when the adjoining graveyard poisoned their well, and their death now sparked off a new crusade; thanks to his efforts the people of Haworth finally had clean water in 1856. He died at the parsonage 6 years later at the age of 84, to the intense grief of his parishioners.

Patrick Brontë

Patrick was born in a hovel and grew up as a peasant without shoes. He got a rudimentary education but had a passion for poetry, and knew Paradise Lost by heart as a boy. He had a variety of odd-jobs, until his intelligence earned him an appointment as schoolmaster, and when Patrick was asked to go to Cambridge, he jumped at the chance. If his 1811 Cottage Poems romanticized the rough cottages and hand-to-mouth existence of his childhood, it was in the manner of one who enjoys a peek but would not choose to live like that. Patrick himself only returned to Ulster once, upon his ordination, and only briefly at that.

Heathcliff’s brutality in Wuthering Heights may disturb us, but we do admire his infiltration of a class-bound world, his rise from a pauper background to a man of standing. The same admiration we owe this shoeless County Down peasant who became a pillar of Yorkshire society. The 7th of June this year will mark the 150th anniversary of Patrick’s death – perhaps the perfect opportunity to embrace this prodigal son again and visit the Brontë Homeland in County Down.

More information on the Brontë Interpretative Center and the Brontë Homeland trail can be found here.

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