Walking the landscape of Wuthering Heights
20th century photographs by Fay Godwin of Howarth Parsonage, home of the Brontës, and Top Withens
Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse believed to have influenced Wuthering Heights, photographed in the 20th century by Fay Godwin.View images from this item (2)
It was not just a question of cotton mills, rural enclosures, hunger and class-struggle, but of the crystallising of a whole new sensibility, one appropriate to an England which was becoming for the first time a largely urban society. It was a matter of learning new disciplines and habits of feeling, new rhythms of time and organisation of space, new forms of repression, deference and self-fashioning. A whole new mode of human subjectivity was in the making … both aspiring and frustrated, rootless and solitary yet resourceful and self-reliant.
This new world, and the landscapes and townscapes it brought with it were decisive presences in Emily and her sisters’ lives and writing.
Sanitary report on Haworth, home to the Brontës
Sanitary report about the Brontës's home town of Haworth, Yorkshire, revealing the extent of industrialisation, poor living conditions and high death rates, 1850.View images from this item (6)
Nature and destructionThe moors mattered too, of course, particularly to Emily, who was fascinated by their austere beauty and by the destructive and consoling powers of the natural world that they embodied. An early essay by her saw nature as essentially destructive and indifferent to human purposes and needs: ‘All creation is equally mad... Nature is an inexplicable problem; it exists on a principle of destruction. Every being must be the tireless instrument of death to others, or itself must cease to live, yet nonetheless we celebrate the day of our birth, and we praise God for having entered such a world.’ Wuthering Heights has at its heart these contradictory qualities and constantly binds together the deadly and regenerative qualities of nature: even the level-headed Nelly Dean is ‘seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death’ (ch. 15).
So when thinking about Wuthering Heights, we should not see it as a novel that simply depicts or belongs to the moors. The final stanza of one of the Brontës’ most celebrated poems (we do not know if it was written Emily or Charlotte) begins ‘I’ll walk where my own nature will be leading’. It is concerned with both an essential human ‘nature’ and an absolute freedom that goes beyond any particular place or time. The speaker’s deep sense of embodiedness and place is seamed with the hope of radical freedom. At the very end of Wuthering Heights, a little shepherd boy who is ‘crying terribly’ tells Nelly that he has seen the dead Heathcliff and Cathy ‘walk’ on the moors (ch. 34). It confirms how they remain simultaneously deeply identified with the landscape and sinister and alien presences within it. Their own deep sense of belonging to the moors is a source of terror and estrangement for others. Belonging is the way not to belong.
Illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Clare Leighton
Clare Leighton's 20th century illustration of the shepherd who sees the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff 'walking' on the moors.View images from this item (12)
Copyright: © By arrangement with the Estate of Clare Leighton
 Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës: Anniversary Edition (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. xiii.
 Emily Brontë, The Belgian Essays: a critical edition, ed. and translated by Sue Lonoff (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 176.
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