Why I was drawn to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Jonathan Barry on the words and settings that inspired his illustrations of a classic
Peniston Crag, 1996, oil on canvas. Copyright: Jonathan Barry
Wuthering Heights is one of the greatest novels ever written, and anyone with a passion for literature must read this extraordinary work. Cast aside any preconceived notions that you may have garnered from botched movie attempts or TV adaptations. The original novel remains as powerful, beautiful, and disturbing today, as when it first revealed itself to an unsuspecting public in 1847.
Wuthering Heights is not just an exceptional novel – it is a Gothic masterpiece of artistic vision, spun together by the literary genius of Emily Brontë’s imagination. It surprised readers then, and it still shocks and lures us in today.
So what marks it out as a must read? There are several compelling reasons to enter its dark world; there is Brontë’s superb, fluid, modern prose, her delicious turn of phrase, the novel’s unique setting and atmosphere, the outstanding romantic protagonists Cathy and Heathcliff, its striking supernatural undercurrents, and its scenes that can never be forgotten by the reader.
Great prose writers are not as common as you think, but Emily was one of the finest. It’s hard to believe that someone so young could write with such astonishing maturity as a first-time novelist. She was only 19 when she started it and most Brontë scholars believe that she completed the text by her 24th birthday – a fine achievement in itself. But what stands out to anyone reading Wuthering Heights today is the absolute modernity of the prose. It reads like a novel that could have been written a year ago. Her style is fluid, clear, confident and eminently readable for all age groups. At times it resembles a screenplay. Sadly, it was to be her only novel.
Her descriptive skills are a major strength in the narrative, especially with landscapes. Look how she describes the brutal setting of Wuthering Heights: “one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few, stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.”
It is that beautiful little phrase “craving alms of the sun” which is so typical of Brontë’s poetic powers. In the hands of a lesser writer these thorn bushes might have been described in a dull fashion. But to her it is a chance to imbue a simple shrub with an almost spiritual quality.
Which brings us nicely to the story’s unique setting on the blasted heaths of the west Yorkshire moors. It was the first time a major romantic novel was located on this wild landscape. Emily, along with her siblings Charlotte, Anne and Branwell, and their father Patrick, lived in the quiet village of Haworth, in a modest house called The Parsonage. Every day she walked the same 10 or 12 miles over the moors which she adored, and it was there that she gleaned all of the locations for her tempestuous tale.
When I was asked to illustrate Wuthering Heights some years ago, I visited the parsonage on several occasions. To research my drawings I walked all of the moors that Emily trod each day, and visited the same ruins, buildings and natural landmarks that she was familiar with.
I was struck by the astonishing beauty of the moors and felt as if I was transposed into the living, breathing world of the novel. My visits to the ruin called Top Withens (which Emily used as her model for the fictional building of Wuthering Heights,) left me mightily impressed with its close resemblance to the doomed house in the story. Emily had a brilliant eye for choosing a dramatic architectural structure.
Similarly when I hiked a further two miles over the moors from Top Withens I stumbled across Ponden Hall, a beautiful and still occupied home from the 1600s, which Emily used as her model for Thrushcross Grange. And further up the moors I climbed to the top of Peniston Crag, a stone promontory that Emily adopted as the romantic meeting place for Cathy and Heathcliff when they were children. I was in awe of the natural beauty of these places.
Having set up the perfect stage, she then invented the two most passionate romantic characters of all time: Cathy and Heathcliff. Their creation is a testament to her powerful imagination because we know that Emily was a recluse who never had a romantic relationship with anyone in her life.
Heathcliff is a remarkable invention – a dark, handsome, brooding, possessive, violent and mercurial brute, who exudes a form of animal magnetism and masculinity that female readers cannot resist. If he was a real person in the 21st century he might be regarded as a thug, a sexual predator, and could possibly be jailed as a violent partner. But this is Emily’s most extraordinary achievement: despite being horrified by Heathcliff’s violent excesses, we still feel for his predicament and identify with his hurt and pain. Deep down we believe that he has been cheated in life and that his love for Cathy is pure and powerful. He is a tragic victim with whom we identify and sympathise.
Cathy is no less alluring: beautiful, intelligent, wild, coquettish, obstinate, sensitive and beguiling. In one of the most famous scenes in the book she pours out her heart to Nelly Dean, the housekeeper: “my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” And really this is the fulcrum around which the entire novel rotates. Cathy and Heathcliff are the two halves of one soul and until they are united they will languish in misery. Tragically of course they both die alone and separated. But Emily does strongly imply in the final chapter that they do find peace as their souls unite in their final resting place together.
It is this implied hint of a supernatural subtext throughout the story which has made Wuthering Heights a recognised Gothic masterpiece. The appearance of the child spectre of Cathy during the snowstorm is one of the most beautiful and haunting ghost scenes in literature. Lockwood (Heathcliff’s tenant) is awoken by what he thinks is a tiny branch rubbing against his window. Unable to unlock the hasp he grows frustrated and we read: “I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple, a circumstance observed by me, when awake, but forgotten. ‘I must stop it nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch: instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!”
Anyone who has read this scene can never forget it. I remember getting goose bumps and chills as a 13-year-old devouring this vignette of terror. There are at least another dozen similarly powerful episodes which linger long in the reader’s memory: including Heathcliff’s anguish of repeatedly smashing his forehead against the bark of a tree when he learns of Cathy’s death, or the passionate last conversation between the two lovers on Cathy’s deathbed, and the violent scene where Heathcliff cuts open Hindley’s hand against a flick blade. All are superbly written.
Finally, Wuthering Heights has one of the best closing sentences ever penned in a novel. It displays once again Emily Brontë’s poetic prowess. Nelly Dean, who is standing over Heathcliff and Cathy’s graves, says: “I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
When you have completed reading the book I would thoroughly recommend following it up with a viewing of the excellent three-part BBC TV adaptation from 1978, starring Ken Hutchison as Heathcliff and John Duttine as Hindley. This was the only version produced that kept faithfully to the book.