‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff!’ Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights Looking back at our weekend in Bronte country with the rosy view of hindsight, the weather was kind to us. We didn’t think this as, after several weeks of a most un-Yorkshire like heatwave, we blinked the drops of torrential rain from our eyelashes and felt them glide down the necks of our waterproofs. And when our guidebook informed us that we would be able to see Wuthering Heights throughout the last mile of our heathland hike, we were thrown into confusion and began to backtrack, because all we could see was a crumbling dry stone wall (though actually, the stone was wet) pressed down by a lead grey horizon. The rain-plumped sky had blotted out the remains of Top Withens, a thick-walled stone house which was possibly Emil Bronte’s inspiration for Wuthering Heights. Or possibly not: a stone sign installed by the Bronte Society at the site is curiously at pains to point out the lack of a resemblance between the two houses. … But having read the book, and experienced in my mind the fierce tempestuous character of the landscape and the weather, it would have been disappointingly inauthentic to see the moors for the first time under a tame blue sky.
Like the violently capricious and temperamental character of Cathy in the novel, the weather during our Bronte weekend was changeable. The ruins of the house, Wuthering Heights (or not) are perched on the fold of a hill, with a crumpled blanket of hills and sloping fields laid out before them, the occasional wind turbine studding the landscape the only sign that this is the 21st century not the 19th century of the Brontes. A pair of round-crowned trees stands to one side, rustling their branches in the wind. I felt like Heidi as we sat on a low wooden bench in front of the house to eat our cheese and pickle sandwiches, looking out on the swathes of bleakly beautiful heath and being pestered by a remarkably tame sheep. As a passing hiker retracing his steps commented: ‘it’s a wrong ‘un’.
Standing on the stubby remnants of the back wall of the house to admire the view, we could look down on the exposed shapes of the rooms. While not insubstantial (and my flat could fit into less than half the floor space), they looked pitifully small, too small to have held the generations of lives they must have housed, the hopes and hardships that must have been lived out under their protection. I’d had a similar feeling when we’d looked around the Bronte Parsonage the day before. The house was beautiful, symmetrically laid out, with warm wooden furniture and a comfortingly heavy oak staircase winding its way down to a welcoming hallway. Yet the sitting room, containing the chaise longue on which Emily had reputedly died, seemed too small to have been able to contain the wild and roaming imaginations of the three Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, as well as their errant brother Branwell. Perhaps it was. Perhaps the narrowness of their lives within the Parsonage, both physically and socially, was what drove them to wander the rugged open spaces on their doorstep. Outside the constraints of the Parsonage perhaps the characters of their imagined worlds were more free to roam, tussled by the wind but untrammelled. And maybe after they freed their minds in the vast, challenging expanses of open countryside, the writers returned to their genteel dining room to record their timeless tales of yearning, passion and heartbreak, sitting at tiny writing ‘desks’, the old-fashioned sort with a sloping writing surface and a lift-up lid but no legs. Death was frequent in the stories of the Bronte sisters, as it was in their own lives: apart from their father, everyone in their immediate family died a tragically early death.
If this all sounds too loftily literary, I should add that neither myself nor my friend had brought a copy of the Bronte’s work with us, so we couldn’t actually reread their novels while we were there. We did watch a suitably gothic film version of Wuthering heights, starring Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, which managed to be convincing, despite a noticeable lack of Yorkshire accents. I also lugged a copy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte with me, but despite the weekend’s long train journeys, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read more than a couple of chapters. We interspersed our marching in the writers’ footsteps with some girlie rummaging in Ooh La La, an adorable vintage store on Haworth’s high street and an indulgent afternoon tea in one of the village’s quaint cafes. And of course, we had an obligatory drink in Branwell’s local, the Black Bull, just metres from the Parsonage.
Throughout it all, the weather was kind, and then it was unkind, there was sunshine, and then there were showers, so I’ll finish here as I started, with a quote from Wuthering Heights.
“Catherine’s face was just like the landscape–shadows and sunshine flitting over it in rapid succession; but the shadows rested longer, and the sunshine was more transient…”
– Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights