The recently premiered version of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is unlikely to stir the withered bones of its long departed author, who was laid to rest in the vaulted tomb beneath Haworth Parish Church in 1848 blissfully unaware of her impending fame, but in this latest incarnation, British director Andrea Arnold has broken new ground by casting an unknown black actor in the role of Heathcliff and swapping breathless clinches for gratuitous sex scenes. Coupled with the kind of language that would make Malcolm Tucker blush, it’s fair to say it might ruffle a few petticoats.
Set in the rugged moorland of the Worth Valley - a place I’m proud to call home - Wuthering Heights is not an easy read and for commercial reasons many productions have shied away from some of its darker complexities. Despite some mixed reviews Arnold’s version sounds like it’s attempted to redress the balance between those that have been more withering than Wuthering.
Since it was first published in 1847 there have been a plethora of adaptations. Books, comics, films, operas, ballets, pop songs, games - there’s even a Danish folk metal band named after this classic tale of love, honour and betrayal. Granny trembler Cliff Richard set it as a pompous musical, casting his terracotta tanned self in the role of the violently psychopathic Heathcliff – a bit like John Inman volunteering to play Alex Ferguson.
Visit it alone on any dark Autumn evening and you’ll feel your sphincter quiver as you watch the shadows of creaking boughs disappear beneath the gentle freezing mists that slowly weave between ancient tombstones.
Writing under the pen name of a man - because women weren’t meant to do much other than press flowers and produce litters of sickly runts, Emily Brontë wove together a dark and complex tale that belied her age and experience. As a reclusive virgin it’s staggering to imagine her first and only novel is a “Russian Doll” of a tale with multiple narrators, time shifts and intricately incestuous plots. It even visits the clammy world of necrophilia in one memorable scene where Heathcliff desperately attempts to dig up his lover’s rotting corpse for one last roll in the heather.
It is one of the most widely read English novels, but despite its global acclaim the earliest appraisals of it were generally poor and included the kind of hysterical comments you’d expect to read in reviews of the “Human Centipede”.
Shocking, violent and sickening was the general consensus, with one writer frothing, "How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors."
Emily died a year after it’s publication at the age of thirty – in fact none of the six Brontë children made it to forty – and it’s no wonder. Their water supply came in through the church’s grave yard adjoining their house. They were literally drinking the dead. And there were copious amounts of them, subsequently filling what must rank as one of England’s spookiest grave yards. Visit it alone on any dark Autumn evening and you’ll feel your sphincter quiver as you watch the shadows of creaking boughs disappear beneath the gentle freezing mists that slowly weave between ancient tombstones - guarded by dark, menacing rooks that launch themselves from atop mossy stones and peck around the gravel and turf where 40,000 bodies are packed in so tightly it’s hard to find the paths around the graves so you inevitably have to step gingerly across them, your feet sinking in to the deep, soft earth, as you imagine you’re about to crunch your boot through the rib cage of some putrid corpse.
And all the goths go to fu***ing Whitby?
Whilst Bram Stoker takes the Eldritch clones to the coast, Brontë devotees from all over the world still come to Haworth in their thousands to immerse themselves in the landscape that inspired Britain’s greatest writers. To cater for them all Bradford Council decided to help out by putting signs in Japanese on the adjacent moors to help steer far flung pilgrims towards Top Withens, a derelict farm house widely accepted as having nothing to do with Wuthering Heights whilst at the same time being widely accepted as having everything to do with Wuthering Heights. It’s a bit like the plane loads of morons who fly to Finland every Christmas to see Santa’s grotto.
Emily Brontë wove together a dark and complex tale that belied her age and experience.
The route to Top Withens from Haworth is three miles across the barren valley and is only accessible by foot. It’s not the sort of place you’d want to take a wrong turn before the sun goes down. Kate Bush fanatics have been known to meet in droves and wander the wild and windy moors, paying homage to the pendulous princess of prog pop who shrieked and cart wheeled her way in to the nation’s hearts as the ghost of Cathy in the 1978 hit that launched her career.
Whilst many hike miles through the purple heather others prefer to take sedately refreshment in a number of Brontë styled tea rooms lining the steep cobbled main street of this picturesque village. For those who want to stagger in the footsteps of Emily’s wayward wastrel of a brother it’s said that Branwell Brontë used to get hammered in the Black Bull pub. It’s a good place to watch tourists struggle up the cobbled incline towards the Brontë Parsonage Museum, many of them unaware that they’ve probably been clamped by the notorious parking fuehrer Ted Evans, a magistrate once awarded the RAC’s Dick Turpin prize for outrageously petty penal policies against the poorly parked.
On a seemingly single handed mission to decimate Haworth’s tourist industry the owner of the Changegate car park is regularly derided in the local press with tales of his strapping goons squaring up to disabled kids and penniless pensioners. He’s also scored a few famous hits, including former Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd and the Prime Minister for New Zealand. One pissed off Brontë tourist even compared him to Heathcliff.
“I got clamped here yesterday as I sat in my car taking a phone call just prior to buying a ticket. I came out of a love for the work of the Brontës but will now never come back. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is the story of a bitter and resentful man frustrated by his position in society. Through spiteful and punctilious application of English law, he becomes wealthy but destroys himself and those around him. Only in his final moments, on the threshold of death, does he come to realise to what extent he has alienated his community and his own family and that he has for many years been simply a hollow husk of a man, devoid of soul.”
Hell hath no fury like a man who’s just arrived in his spiritual home and been roundly fleeced of £75 before getting out of his car, but despite the clampers visitors will continue to flock to Haworth and follow the well worn path to Top Withens in search of the essence of Wuthering Heights, a phenomenon that will continue to be retold for many generations to come.
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