Sunday, 16 November 2008
Bibliotherapy: What to read when you dread the darkness of winter
I am writing this on one of those November days when a dreary grey noon merges into a gloomy dusk; it’s not the cold that depresses me so much as the absence of light, and my heart sinks at the thought of the inescapable winter. So there’s only one thing for it: to embrace the darkness by re-reading ‘Wuthering Heights’. Emily Bronte’s novel opens in winter – its narrator, Lockwood, ventures up to Wuthering Heights because the fire in his study has been extinguished by a servant girl, and arrives there as snow begins to fall. “On that bleak hill top the earth was hard with a black frost…”
As the snow deepens, Lockwood is forced to stay the night in Wuthering Heights, and it is then that he has his famous encounter with the ghost of Cathy, a spectral child who taps at the window with ice-cold fingers, crying ‘Let me in – let me in!’ Given the novel’s mythic status, there are innumerable interpretations – as many as its myriad readers – but for me, one of its most powerful messages is that though we fear the cold shadows of winter, the darkness is also part of us.
Nearly everyone is horrible to everyone else in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – they bite, they scream, they stamp their feet, they hang puppies and mistreat small children – which makes it all the more curious that Heathcliff and Cathy (both of them the cruellest of lovers) have been deemed the epitome of romance. But this remorselessness is one of the reasons that the novel remains so potent – a bracingly subversive read, and a reminder (amongst many other things) that the dark season must be met head on.
When Cathy is sickening in her final illness, she wants the window open, even though it is midwinter: “There was no moon, and every thing beneath lay in misty darkness, not a light gleamed from any house, far or near; all had been extinguished long ago.” But her light is not extinguished by death; and nor was her creator’s. Emily Bronte died on December 19, 1848, on the eve of the longest night of the year, yet her fierce writing survives, unquenched by the darkness of every passing winter.