With the performance of her poems by English folk group, The Unthanks, Emily Bronte comes home. For Emily Bronte is a teller of folk tales.
Long, long ago, when I was studying English literature in Trinity College Dublin, the accepted wisdom was that nobody knew what inspired Emily Bronte’s work.
What had happened that a creature like Heathcliff was unleashed after Cathy across Victorian drawing-rooms?
We knew it was thrilling. I first read Wuthering Heights when I was about 13 and at peak Heathcliff hormonally.
There was a power cut and I read it secretly, by a guttering candle, because I had an excuse not to do my homework.
Once read, never forgotten.
Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, is an extraordinary tale of obsessive passion on the wild moorlands of West Yorkshire. Reading it again, this week, I was struck by the powerful challenge it lays down to British colonial society, in the disruptive force of the black-haired stranger child — Gypsy, Irish, or changeling? — who is adopted in Liverpool and brought to Wuthering Heights.
The novel has spawned imitations and artistic responses, including Kate Bush’s chart-topping song of the same name.
I’ve had a fascination with all things Wuthering for most of my life.
I even wrote a master’s thesis that contained a chapter on Bronte.
Yet I couldn’t have told you where Emily Bronte’s work came from, artistically, until much later, when I heard a Yorkshire folk song, called ‘The Unquiet Grave’, sung by Kate Rusby.
The previously niche Yorkshire singer’s 1999 album, Sleepless, had been nominated for a Mercury Music Prize and journalist Brian Boyd got me to listen to it.
As soon as Rusby began singing ‘The Unquiet Grave’, I knew I was listening to Wuthering Heights’s antecedent.
This Gothic love song tells the story of an unfinished love story between a dead man and a living woman.
After the woman has spent a year and a day weeping on the man’s grave, the ghost begins to speak:
“Why sit you here and mourn for me/And will not let me sleep?/What do you want from me, sweetheart/Oh, what is it you crave?/Just one kiss from your lily-white lips/And that is all I crave…”
The basic Wuthering Heights story is all there, including the hatred and violence, which is in the love. It tells you a lot about our educational system that the origins of so-called high-class English literature were never looked for in a so-called low-class folk tale.
In Bronte’s novel, however, it is the ghost of Cathy who is most insistent on bringing the living to be with her.
“Heathcliff,” as Kate Bush sings, “It’s me, your Cathy, come home now!/I’m so cold, let me in at your window!” Well, this is a lot of harmless nonsense, isn’t it?
We know the dead don’t walk.
A psychiatrist would probably diagnose Heathcliff with psychosis.
Except that’s not the whole truth.
Most of us who have lost people we have loved deeply believe their spirits are present in some form; many bereaved people hear, and even see, their loved-ones.
While few of us believe that Halloween ghosts float around in white sheets, I think very few of us are certain, in our heart of hearts, that the spirits of the dead do not exist somewhere.
It is irrelevant whether this is true or not.
It is psychologically true and we can’t perceive what we can’t understand.
That’s why the idea of Halloween — the night the ghosts walk — is so compelling.
In Celtic mythology, it was a night when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest and people could pass from one realm to another.
While the dead walked freely among the living, the living mostly had no wish to follow the dead (Heathcliff being an exception).
People dressed up as ghouls on Halloween night so that the dead would not know they were living and would not attempt to take them back with them to their realm.
What is fascinating is Christianity’s attempt to extinguish this tradition.
Christianity had no ghosts or ghouls and dispatched its dead souls to heaven or to hell, depending on how good they were.
Purgatory has no biblical origin and you wonder if it wasn’t an attempt to package the folklore regarding unquiet graves for a Christian audience.
In Ireland, where Oíche Shamhna remained a particularly strong tradition, it has been tolerated as the pagan prequel to All Souls’ Day. But Protestant puritanism has been less tolerant.
Just look at how Halloween has been collapsed into Guy Fawkes Day in England.
It is fascinating to see Daphne du Maurier explicitly referring to the old Cornish tradition of Hallowe’en in her 1931 Wuthering Heights tribute novel, The Loving Spirit.
Emily Bronte was half-Irish and half-Cornish.
Her father, Patrick Prunty (or Brunty), from Co Down, wrote a novel, called The Maid of Killarney (1818), about the mutual misunderstanding of a couple, of which one is Irish and one English.
That’s all less important, though, than the fact that she was a Yorkshirewoman.
It is plain that on the moors around Haworth Parsonage, among the so-called common people who spoke Yorkshire dialect, or in the stories her drunken brother, Branwell, brought home from the pub, Emily Bronte absorbed the ancient Celtic folk myth of the unquiet grave.
It is not surprising that itappealed to her, a woman who had lost her two elder sisters and her mother by the time she was six years old. Haworth stands facing a graveyard so packed with headstones there is barely a blade of grass.
The solitary Emily, who confided little and loved to be out on the moors with her dogs, surely lived with private grief.
The Unthanks set 10 of her poems to music, at the invitation of the Bronte Society, to commemorate the bicentenary of Emily’s birth last year.
They recorded the songs in Haworth Parsonage on Emily’s piano and arranged them as an audio-journey from the parsonage to Emily’s beloved Pennistone Hill, past the site of Top Withins, perhaps the inspiration for Wuthering Heights.
Many of the poems reflect the themes of Wuthering Heights. Remembrance is typical, a lover’s lament for a long-dead object of desire betraying a barely suppressed desire to give up on life itself.
Emily died of TB at 30. Thankfully, most of us live longer lives and must find pathways through grief.
That shouldn’t mean denying grief or the ever-present closeness of death, to which our Celtic ancestors felt especially close tonight, Oíche Shamhna.
The Unthanks perform the Emily Bronte Song Cycle at 8pm at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Sunday, November 3, and at Cork Opera House on November 4