I have dreamed in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.
— Emily Bronte
I was perhaps 6 years old when I first met Catherine Earnshaw, the impulsive, emotionally charged, lovesick heroine of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. And though I now firmly extol the virtues of encountering a writer’s work through engaging the text itself before exposing oneself to any film or theatrical adaptations, as a child at that time I had yet to read Bronte, or have her read to me. Quite simply, I returned home one morning from kindergarten class only to encounter what appeared to me to be a fairy tale princess who took my breath away and captivated me in an instant. This vision of magical loveliness was none other than Merle Oberon, as Catherine in the 1939 film version of Bronte’s novel on the television. And as my mother beckoned me to come and watch the film with her (my sister was napping), I willingly surrendered myself to Bronte’s archetypal story on film.
That film, while I am sure it has its flaws, changed my life. It set me ever after on a romantic quest for the best in Gothic literature, for not many years later I read Bronte’s novel myself and with great relish. Reading it was one of the first times I remember truly losing myself in a book in such a way that the whole setting and each character came alive for me. It might be argued that this was because I had already seen the film version, but I disagree. While I am certain seeing the film aided me in conceiving of the moors and the dark house of the heights, I am just as certain that Bronte’s evocative descriptions enhanced and embellished and recreated everything for me brand new. And in those days, unlike now, one could watch a classic film on television and then not see it again for years — there were no videos or DVDs, no VCRs to record movies to watch again, no DVR, and no cable. Thus, a film scheduled to show on the television was a singular event and something to be planned for and savored because one never knew when or if one would see it again. This added a necessary conscientiousness to the viewing, a need to pay careful attention and to make something truly loved and wonderful into a treasure of memory. I certainly embellished my single viewing of the film with my own imaginative touches over the years until I encountered the novel in person.
And the allure, the unconventional dark attractiveness of Heathcliff’s brooding Byronic hero, played so brilliantly and with such depth of feeling by Lawrence Olivier in the film, only deepened when I met Bronte’s character in the flesh of text. This archetypal male character appealed to me more than his fair, more gentlemanly counterpart, Edgar Linton who, though I could appreciate and value his virtues and stability, could not speak to my melancholic mind and heart in the way Heathcliff did. And I could understand why Catherine loved him. Who has ever heard her lover say such words: “Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you — haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe — I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always — take any form — drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!“ Or spoken such words of her lover in return: “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees — my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff — he’s always, always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being.” Enough to give me chills, even now, and ever again, as often as I read them…..
Similarly, Bronte’s moody moors and the expanse of the heath spoke to my nature sense and seemed to give a tacit permission to a type of wildness and escape that was utterly lacking in my conventional suburban childhood. She took me someplace else and made it so that I could breathe the air and feel the heather and live among the rocky slopes for as long as I spent time with her, allowing her to tell me her lovers’ story through the pages of her book.
As I work to finish the first draft of my own first novel, Emily Bronte is an inspiration to me. She wrote but one book in her short life, but such a book! Such a world and such people and such intensity she painted, so lifelike and compelling. If I can do one thing in my own story, with only one story, and do it that well, I should be happy and content. She reminds me to strive for authenticity of experience in my writing, not to be afraid to go where it is lonely, dark, painful, passionate, or uncomfortable, and that the gift of my imagination can help me to understand more than I’ve ever experienced. She reminds me there is magic and beauty in the everyday and that a life lived without the pain of love and truth is not worth living. In memory, happy birthday Emily, and thank you.