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The enduring appeal of Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights

A first addition of Wuthering Heights from 1847 at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth. (Picture: PA).
A first addition of Wuthering Heights from 1847 at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth. (Picture: PA).
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It’s 200 years since Emily Brontë was born and Wuthering Heights has lost none of its popularity. Chris Bond spoke to novelist Kate Mosse about the author and her famous book.

Wuthering Heights remains one of the most enduringly popular novels of the past two centuries, though its author Emily Brontë didn’t live to bask in the acclaim.

Novelist Kate Mosse is among those inspired by the novel.

Novelist Kate Mosse is among those inspired by the novel.

The book was first published in 1847, under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, and just 12 months later its author was dead.

It was Emily’s only novel but one that has left an indelible mark on English literature and which remains hugely popular, striking a chord with generations of writers young and old.

On Monday, it will be 200 years since Emily Brontë’s birth and this weekend the Brontë Parsonage Museum begins a series of events celebrating the life of one of the world’s most popular yet enigmatic writers.

Best-selling author Kate Mosse is appearing in Haworth tomorrow for the launch of I am Heathcliff, a newly commissioned compilation of short stories, each inspired by the anti-hero of Wuthering Heights.

She is appearing alongside fellow writers Joanna Cannon, Juno Dawson and Louise Doughty, when each will talk about their response to one of the literary world’s most divisive fictional characters.

Mosse has been a fan of the Brontës - sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily - since she was a teenager and believes Emily is one of the main reasons why these literary siblings have remained so popular over the years.

“She was part of this extraordinary family of writers living in Haworth and then there’s the influence Wuthering Heights has had on other writers. For me, as a novelist inspired by landscape, she changed what was possible for a woman to write and that’s why this book is still so important to novelists today.”

She says Emily wrote a novel the like of which hadn’t really been seen before. “It wasn’t domestic and it was not in any way following the attitudes and morality of the time,” explains Mosse.

“It was about nature that was indifferent and just sat there at the heart of the novel. People move through the landscape and it’s significant that if you look at the titles of Anne and Charlotte’s novels they are named after people, whereas with Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights is a place, and right from the beginning of this the key character is the place rather than the people.”

Mosse first read it when she was in her teens, like countless others around the world. “I remember thinking the one thing it wasn’t was a love story. It’s a story of obsession, of passion, of revenge, but it’s also a story of domestic violence and a story of racism and society.

“Since then I’ve read it again and again and it’s a novel I’ve read every decade of my life first as a reader and more recently as a writer and I see something different in it every time. There are very few novels where characters step outside the pages of the book and come to life in their own right. Even people who’ve never read the novel, or seen an adaption, have heard of Cathy and Heathcliff.”

It’s also, Mosse believes, a hugely ambitious novel. “It’s trying to tell this epic story of two generations held together by place, but it’s also about revenge and love, and that makes it such a significant novel for all those writers who come after her.

“What Wuthering Heights says is aim high and think big and don’t worry if not everyone likes it and that’s what always appealed to me about the book, and 40 years on from first reading it I still think it’s the most extraordinary achievement and there’s really not a another novel like it. The whole story can’t happen anywhere else other than where it’s set.”

Wuthering Heights has, of course, spawned numerous films, including the 1939 version starring a brooding Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, as well as operas, stage productions and pop songs, including Kate Bush’s well known song of the same name.

You can probably list on the fingers of one hand the number of novels that have had such a profound cultural impact as Wuthering Height.

Yet it did so despite having none of the hype that often surrounds today’s bestsellers. “It was published in a volume that included her sister Anne’s book Agnes Gray and Emily’s name didn’t appear on the book until after she was dead. It wasn’t until it was reprinted in 1850 that her name appeared for the first time because before then it had been a pseudonym,” says Mosse.

“The work is utterly of its time so you do have a sense of the values of that era. The power of very human emotions and the idea of railing against religion being a good thing are of their time, but they are also of our time and that’s why a story like this is so interesting because it still has the ability to inspire people.

“It takes great confidence to be able to inspire such disparate writers. Society and expectations may change but the human heart and human emotions don’t really change.”

Even so, not everyone has been swept up by Brontë’s breathless saga, or indeed the writer herself. Writing in the Guardian recently, the writer and journalist Kathryn Hughes was critical of Bronte as a person and not much kinder about her book, which she called a ‘screechy melodrama’ of a novel.

Mosse views it differently. “I like the grand scale [of Wuthering Heights] and I prefer ambition that might fall a bit short than something that is perfect but in the end leaves you feeling underwhelmed and thinking ‘so what?’

“It is a complicated and flawed novel in many ways, particularly the second part which is often left out of films and dramatisations because people want the story of the original Cathy and Heathcliff. But, for me, that’s what makes the novel so exceptional, the fact that Emily was prepared to go all out for it.

“I think it is important to separate the cult of Emily Brontë from the actual work. Emily, I have no doubt, was a very complicated person. She was completely focused on herself and her own work and she was not, as many Victorian women would have been, interested in pleasing anyone else.

“Kathryn’s piece was actually very good because it said would we all want to sit round a table having a laugh with Emily Brontë? Probably not. But, for me, that’s part of what makes her so exceptional because she wasn’t a pleaser, she was just doing her own thing and I think that is astonishingly modern.”

And this most famous of novels, like the sisters themselves, remains as popular as ever. “If you don’t like big, epic stories you won’t enjoy Wuthering Heights.

“But I think it’s wonderful that this far on after her birth and of course Charlotte’s and Anne’s, that these extraordinary creative writers, these three sisters, with all the loss and grief they suffered in their lives, produced works that still have people arguing passionately as if they were published last week - I think that is brilliant.”

Scaling great literary heights

On the 200th anniversary of her birth Emily Brontë, one of the world’s most enigmatic authors, will be honoured by some of the most well-known names in literature and contemporary culture in her hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire.

Acclaimed poet Patience Agbabi, activist and actor Lily Cole, bestselling author Kate Mosse, and award-winning musicians The Unthanks will animate the small town and Brontë Parsonage Museum through a series of performances, film, walks and new commissions.

These begin on Friday and continue over the weekend culminating on Emily’s birthday on Monday, July 30. For more details about all these events go online at www.bronte.org.uk