[written September 2013]
The Spirit of Jazz: Yorkshire? What is Yorkshire?
Howard Moon: Yorkshire is a place. Yorkshire is a state of mind.
The last set of annotations I made in this book was a series of dates and memories, piecing together an on/off five-year relationship that naturally fell apart (as most first loves do). Regardless of those notes (and probably most likely reinforced by them to some extent too), whenever I read this book what so rightly comes to centre stage of my thoughts like a tide that even my imagination can’t conjure up hands big enough to hold off is Yorkshire itself.
I’ve lived down South for three or four years now? My accent’s eroding fast to match the sorry state of water here that’s so soft it’s like drinking limestone if you don’t filter it. I can deal with the water if it’s a glass that I’m parched for, but to make a brew with that awful stuff is a real tragedy, I tell you. Despite the shit I get off my friend Jack for how Southern I sound these days, I still hold fast to some distinctive features: clipped vowels and diphthongs, that beautiful glottal stop, the ‘laconic style of chipping off pronouns and auxiliary verbs’. Time might change the amount of Yorkshire in my voice, but it only does more to place it so strongly in my heart and head. I might have ran away, but reading Wuthering Heights brings me smack bang to that bit of Yorkshire where the wind doesn’t sing, but screams; that bit of land I loved and thought I’d left behind, as if I ever could! No matter how far I run, I’m tethered there whether I like it or not.
When I die I’ll be sure to have the St. James Infirmary Blues funeral and all that jazz, but after the leaving party, Scheol forgotten, it’s like Cathy says in that dream she relates to Nelly: ‘I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy […]’
No other novel I’ve come across captures the magnificent savagery of that land better than this one. Whenever I get all sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, it’s either Ted Hughes’Crow or this I read and I feel home again. It sounds sappy as hell, but it’s the honest truth. I lived a quick train ride away from Howarth, but closer my house there was this mini-Heights patch of land which was a disused reservoir or something, and both moor & mini-Heights on the outskirts of the city helped console and shape aspects of me more so than my first 11 years in a grotty area near city centre. It does a lot to embody and shape the characters in the actual book itself as well; you have Catherine especially, that wild, wicked slip of a girl who especially delights in the ‘atmospheric tumult’ which matches her stormy personality hit for hit. This stormy personality ‘inclined to thunder’ is so amalgamated within the moors that even after Catherine dies, her spirit ‘would not be persuaded into tranquillity’ and her spirit is ‘kept wandering to and fro’ on the moorland which cannot be cultivated.
For the last essay we wrote for literature in sixth form we were told to pick any two books and write an essay on any theme we wanted. I ended up comparing and contrasting the representation of female defiance in Wuthering Heights and East of Eden. I mean, sure, you have Hareton and Caleb who are very interesting to look at in terms of overcoming the cards set out for them and bringing a sense of balance and union to the end of the novel, but I really found the two Catherines from both novels incredible. At that time I saw Catherine from East of Eden as a Lilith-type figure, near monstrous in how she defies all that society and nature expects from her, the Catherine of this story, as commented above, is more in tune with the immediate setting. She’s a kind of Eve, she’s the one who exclaims “I am Heathcliff!”: made of the same rib, of the same sin.
And Heathcliff! Top gun when dude-watching with the Brontës, but hardly the type of person you want to be with long-term, I never understood his status as that kind of figure. I don’t know, it sounds egotistical, but I see some of myself in that character and when it comes to satisfying my ego in wanting to be involved with people like myself, the flings are pretty much a case of “the brief and vivid union of tempestuous heart united with the tempest”. You can rarely sustain that kind of force in reality, it burns everything to the ground. Besides, what interests me most about Heathcliff is that his origins, his ethnicity is a complete riddle: a ‘gypsy’ child found on the streets of Liverpool, so much against him and he knows it.
I felt a lot for him when he said ‘I wish I had light hair and a fair skin, and was dressed and behaved as well, and had a chance of being as rich as he will be!’ I’ve been talking to a friend about this: how as a woman of colour, neither this nor that, how harder it is to accept yourself as a child, even as an adult at times and feel like you can achieve the same as the person without any assumptions made on them at first glance. I’m sometimes asked “Where do you come from?” And I naturally answer Yorkshire, and they’re like “No, no. I mean where do you come from, what’s your family history?” and I know sometimes it’s asked with the best of intentions, but I can’t help but feel utter contempt. Is that all a person sees when they first see me walking down the street?
‘Don’t get the expression of a vicious cur that appears to know the kicks it gets are its desert, and yet hates all the world, as well as the kicker, for what it suffers.’ I know, I know.
So it’s a mistake and quite reductive to entertain the thought of viewing this novel as just a love story. It’s about narratives, resilience, class and race to name but a few. No wonder tens of thousands of academic verses are written on this, I nearly did the same myself writing this review. You discard that context and those themes and you miss the whole point in my opinion. Those topics aren’t just secondary, they hold equal place to the intense relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff.
I started this review briefly mentioning the last set of notes I made in the margins. I never gave any indication when I ran off that last time I wouldn’t ever be coming back to that boy; I said goodbye to that patch of land we’d fought and made love on instead. I haven’t been back there since that day in December ’07 when I lay on the ground for the longest time. It was raining heavily, tirelessly: my face, clothes, everything well and truly soaked, and all I wanted to do was sink beneath the grass and frothing mud, straight into the heart of that place. I’d have given up my soul right then for the distance it’d take to pump me through the ventricles of earth there if any exist.
With characters that are the least noble of savages, a contender for the greatest love story told, all the hardships and heartbreak experienced by fictional and real people alike, it can embody these things, but at the end of the day, as Ted Hughes says, it’s all just a “baby-cry on the moor”.
PS. Fuck the haters, Andrea Arnold’s adaptation is amazing, especially for a real sense of the land without romanticising it with a heavy saccharine edge.