Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Emily Bronte, Sylvia Plath and the Legacy of Top Withens

Top Withens, the ruined 17th Century farmhouse that stands among the rolling uplands of Haworth Moor, has long been thought the inspiration for Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights - the moorland home of the dysfunctional Earnshaw family in the novel of the same name.  In my previous post, I assessed how Emily Bronte's former workplace - the school at Law Hill, Halifax - has been said to have influenced her novel, especially in terms of its location and the quarrelsome characters of her immediate neighbours. But it is also extremely likely that the visions in the author's mind when developing the setting of the story stemmed from closer to home.

The first known suggestion that the farmhouse, whose depleted but sturdy remnants have the look, with their uneven walls and edges and squared window-like openings, of some borderland battlement or outpost, may have been envisaged as the Heights, came from Charlotte Bronte's friend Ellen Nussey, who is thought to have informed the artist Edward Morison Wimperis - commissioned to produce an illustrated volume of Bronte novels in 1872 - that the building was the model for Heathcliff's "perfect misanthrope's Heaven," and there is good reason, considering its proximity to other known Bronte landmarks such as the bridge and waterfalls at Sladen Beck, to credit the idea of Top Withens being at least among the author's reflections when creating the imaginary premises more indelibly impressed on the popular imagination than virtually any other fictional dwelling.

I want to look at the literary legacy of Top Withens, and in particular its influence on both Emily Bronte, and another great poet to have spent significant portions of her life in West Yorkshire: Sylvia Plath, whose own response to the area was partly influenced by the Brontes.

This is certainly a beautiful country! exclaims Mr Lockwood, the circumspect narrator, or joint narrator, of Wuthering Heights, at the commencement of the story. In all England, he surmises, I do not believe I could have fixed on a situation more completely removed from the stir of society. The name of this remote dwelling is explained by Lockwood, who tells us of its distinctive prefix that Wuthering being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which the station is exposed in stormy weather ...

The similarities between "Wuthering" and "Withens" are noticeable, and the latter also seems to be a product of the local dialect - its earliest reference being Fourteenth Century - with a corresponding meaning. Noticeable also is the magnetic power of the slight, unspectacular ruin - which despite its scant size somehow draws the eye from miles around, just as in Emily's turbulent 1847 book, all focus is inevitably sucked towards the Earnshaw abode, all characters seemingly tempted to its taciturn allure.

Top Withens is the dominant image in its landscape, this small, huddled mass of dilapidated stone, shadowed by two hunched sycamores, a tumbledown relic at once diminished and defiant. On a late summer or autumn day it stands stark against a sweeping infinity of crimson heather and weatherworn, brown moorgrass - picture how, in winter, this skeletal structure echoes with the wind whistling through its crumbled stone ledges, inks its self in raven-black against billowing swathes of snow.

Sloping at each side are the purple hills - grouse and rabbit-peopled as described by Sylvia Plath, in her essay A Walk to Withens. My own Withens wanderings have yielded no sight of rabbits, but grouse, crows, goldfinches, and hardy, black-faced sheep were far from scarce in the fading glow of the October sun.

Two sizeable trees, Plath goes on to explain, rise like natural pillars ... oddly tall in the lea of the windswept hill where nothing else grows higher than a gorse bush.

Written and published in 1959, the article provides a valuable insight into the American poet's relationship with Top Withens, and her own evaluation of its connection to Wuthering Heights. Fifty years later, poet and novelist Owen Sheers - in his acclaimed television series A Poet's Guide to Britain - would profile Plath's attachment to Top Withens, reflecting on how alien the moorland must have seemed to an American whose predominant experiences of England had been the cloistered respectability of Cambridge University. The open vastness of the moors, Sheers argues, presents a direct contrast to the introverted world of the troubled poet's own mind, and it is perhaps illustrative that Plath's primary reaction to Top Withens centres on her own, internalized perceptions of a fictionalized reality. Producing a sketch of the ruins and their setting, she was to find herself imagining the housewives of a century ago as they tended their kettle and roasts over fires within the bricked enclosure, and conscious of a powerful, pervading presence:

So strong were my impressions of the book that I felt at Withens that presence that endows places so loved in and lived in with a radiance subject to no alteration or ruining by wind or rain.

Note how the identity of Top Withens - seemingly the natural landscape and the ruins intertwined - as a place that has been "loved in" precedes in importance the fact it has been "lived in." But it is not only the human relevance of Top Withens that prompted her to document its windswept radiance:
The sheep know where they are, she tells us in Wuthering Heights, her poem composed in September 1961, contrasting harshly the elemental certainty and strength of nature with her own human instability, as she struggles to maintain a sense of personal direction, drawn to horizons of fine lines which singe the air to orange / Before the distances they pin evaporate. But human comprehension and context are rendered unintelligible and alien among the Wheel ruts and water / Limpid as the solitudes / That flee through my fingers within valleys narrow as black purses.

The strange currencies of the valleys have no need of human transaction; Plath's distances which begin the poem "ringing" her reassuringly, prove treacherous:

But they only dissolve and dissolve

Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

Anyone who has visited Top Withens will recognise the sense of vital purity to which the poem pays tribute:

There is no life higher than the grasstops

Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind

Pours by like destiny, bending

Everything in one direction.

Yet for Sylvia Plath, the overriding emotion is one of alienation and powerlessness against the invincibility of nature, as the wind persists:

I can feel it trying

To funnel my heat away.

If I pay the roots of heather

Too close attention, they will invite me

To whiten my bones among them.

Undoubtedly, the words employed to depict the poem's location - "limpid," "solitudes," "hollow" - echo with a sense of isolation, and the imminence, the immutability, of death, is inescapable:

The air only

Remembers a few odd syllables

It rehearses them moaningly

Black stone, black stone.

However, the poem is not entirely pessimistic. The Pennine environment is further brought to life via the observations of sheep, browsing in their dirty wool-clouds. Such language signals a change of tone, and this stanza contains what award-winning English poet Jo Shapcott regards as the poem's most potent imagery: in the Owen Sheers documentary, she praised the section for revealing a kind of wit, a great humour that really expresses itself wonderfully in the sheep. Although the sheep are sinister, they’re also a bit silly and old womanish. And she characterises that beautifully. It’s deft, wonderfully deft.

In contrast to Humanity's paradox as trapped wanderers, sheep are symbolic of a kind of natural neutrality, somehow casual and self-aware, foreboding yet alluring, obvious and uncomplicated, and yet "hard".

In a passage undoubtedly informed by this section of Wuthering Heights, Jo Shapcott herself gives full vent to the imagination in her own homage to the ovine: in Lies, lambs are demented white spuds boiling in the pot, which eventually grow trousers / and a blast of wool / which keeps them anchored to the sward.

But humour and stoicism in Sylvia Plath's poetry and prose rarely detract from the ultimate impression of negated control - and nowhere is this more apparent than in Wuthering Heights, where the poet acknowledges the intractable gulfs between human understanding and the external world, exemplified by the thin, silly message of the hardy moorland sheep, their symbiotic belonging carved out over a thousand generations:

The black slots of their pupils take me in.

It is like being mailed into space

Top Withens is a place of undeniable natural magnificence, and the two literary works with which it is most directly associated certainly convey strong impressions of its wild beauty - but underscored by affirmations of the fear and loneliness, and the cancelling-out of Anthropocentric norms or understandings, substantiated by its remote position and tough, violent aspect. To embrace a fully-formed idea of this alienating, organic, greatness, let us look at Sylvia Plath's Wuthering Heights:


The horizons ring me like faggots,
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.
Touched by a match, they might warm me,
And their fine lines singe
The air to orange
Before the distances they pin evaporate,
Weighting the pale sky with a soldier color.
But they only dissolve and dissolve
Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Grey as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.
They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,
All wig curls and yellow teeth
And hard, marbly baas.

I come to wheel ruts, and water
Limpid as the solitudes
That flee through my fingers.
Hollow doorsteps go from grass to grass;
Lintel and sill have unhinged themselves.
Of people the air only
Remembers a few odd syllables.
It rehearses them moaningly:
Black stone, black stone.

The sky leans on me, me, the one upright
Among the horizontals.
The grass is beating its head distractedly.
It is too delicate
For a life in such company;
Darkness terrifies it.
Now, in valleys narrow
And black as purses, the house lights
Gleam like small change.

Both this emotive poem, and the brilliant novel from which it takes its name, evoke an unrepentantly pessimistic, Gothic portrait of the moorland heights of Northern England.

 Yet just as the true, dark - at times grotesque - quality of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is often overlooked by those who market the book or its mass-market merchandise as one-dimensionally romantic (or "passionate" - an adjective which is certainly accurate, though often in a different way to which those yet to read the book may have been given to expect), so too is the occasionally delicate and loving tenderness of Sylvia Plath's poem often overlooked, or overshadowed by the brooding weight of its black stone and destiny-laden winds.

 For there is a kind of valedictory defiance to be found among the roots of heather and the high grasstops, where the true, wild life knows its own identity and power, where the sturdy, reliable sheep persist, sustain, and survive, and where beyond the dissolving horizons the warmth of distant house lights gleams like small change.  In both these towering, triumphant works, is the spirit of a place preserved, and within them we discover the somehow mythic yet physical, corporeal essence of a place "loved in lived in" and embodying a radiance subject to no alteration by wind or rain.


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