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.

30 comments:

Kerry said...

I just finished Daphne this afternoon, outside my window the darkness of winter. What a wonderful book, and oh, that she is named after all! What a twist-- I loved it. Congratulations.

Justine Picardie said...

Kerry -- thanks so much for your lovely comment! It's brightened up this dark day -- I really appreciate it!

Justine Picardie said...

PS. Love your red wellies in the rain...

Gondal-girl said...

Your post makes me want to add it again to my summer holiday reading pile ( smacking mosquitos between my palms foolish enough to come in my study window in a Catherine Earnshaw type of fit)

Justine Picardie said...

Yes,you can imagine her smacking snappishly...

Rachael King said...

I too have recently re-read Wuthering Heights and enjoyed it so much more this time around. The characters are just awful - what I enjoyed was Bronte's skill as a writer, the layers and layers of meaning that leapt out at me. I guess now that I'm an author myself (last read it aged 19 at university) I can appreciate the skill that went into it so much more.

Justine - I am looking forward to reading your book, but as my new one has many references to various Brontes, Du Maurier, and a character writing a thesis, I have decided to wait until I've finished it before picking up yours!

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

Far be it from me to say that Wuthering Heights CAN'T be read in the summer but I think it's a book that screams to be read curled up on the sofa with a blanket.

Very nice article, Justine.

Cristina.

Justine Picardie said...

Rachel - thanks for your comment. Your book sounds fascinating -- and given that mine is in part about the echoes between writers -- the way writers are haunted by other writers, other books -- then I'm intrigued by our overlapping interests. You'll laugh when I tell you about the tentative beginnings of my next novel (not butterflies -- though I love them -- but something winged).
I was published by Picador for all my previous books, before Daphne. Hope they've been treating you well.
Cristina -- thanks for your comment. How are you? Is it cold where you are?

oxford-reader said...

You know I'd never really thought of W.H. being a book that met the darkness head on. The story always seemed to me to be swallowed up in it's own dark wildness, with no real room for hope.

It does need to be read in the right climate though. Oxford just isn't wild enough to accomodate it (or wasn't when I tried reading it at 16). When I read it at uni (in the infinitely more tempestuous Stoke), it flew off the page!

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

I'm fine, thanks Justine. It's quite cool, actually, though not quite as much as it is where you are, I suppose. And certainly not wuthering today at all today!

Cristina.

Justine Picardie said...

Maybe we should all re-read it this winter?

Gondal-girl said...

Fair crack of the whip ( love the Aussie vernacular) - you would be hard pressed to find some sustained Wuthering weather in Australia to get you through the length of the novel, but then again, I think that is what makes it so special, it really brings that world alive through the weather and the landscape. Also, reading the hype for the new Baz Lurmann film AUSTRALIA, I can't help but feel a little bit of Emily Bronte flavouring - a house at risk of being lost, two mismatched lovers from either side of the social divide, an orphan, and the natural world looming like a character....hmmmm ( sorry, just thinking about Hugh Jackman as Heathcliff...)

kairu said...

I think I will re-read it this winter. To me Wuthering Heights was something I read in the summer, after school was out and I had those three lovely months to read whatever I wanted, for the pure pleasure of being swept away by words into another world. But now I am all grown up and can read whatever I want, whenever I want, and one cold, rainy day in the months ahead I will curl up with a copy of WH (either the hardcover my mother bought me when I was young or the tattered paperback rescued from my brother's bookshelf) and get swept into the darkness again.

Justine Picardie said...

I like the idea of a re-reading group. I think we should institute this immediately! And I'm intrigued by Gondal Girl's news of the Baz L. plot -- it sounds exceedingly Brontean. Is that the point? Has that been made explicit in the Australian publicity? Nicole Kidman as Cathy Earnshaw?!

Gondal-girl said...

no, not mentioned in any promo, just me making connections...

Justine Picardie said...

I think you should write a piece about it ASAP. You're obviously onto something here. Maybe you should do it as a feature for an Australian newspaper?

oxford-reader said...

I'm up for an online reading of W.H. ... do we get a virtual fire to read by, and a virtual storm to crash round our heads?
I was looking forward to seeing 'Australia' before Gondal Girl's thoughts, now I want to see it more than ever!

Gondal-girl said...

thanks for the suggestion Justine, am not sure I have the head space at the moment with the last days of editing ( why does that hill get stepper towards the end) but it is a nice thought...

The whole film has been shrouded in secrecy and has been seen by eyes only tonight at the premiere. Apparently 3 endings were shot, so not sure who lives who dies, but there was a big speculation that Hugh was going to bite the dust, now that would be a twist, the Heathcliff over the Cathy demise.

Then again, all great love stories mirror WH themes, so maybe I am barking up the wrong tree...

Louise said...

I love this time of year and I prefer Emily to Charlotte and Anne. Nevertheless, I agree that perhaps you need a fire alight whilst reading/rereading WH!

Justine Picardie said...

Let's light the fire,virtual or otherwise. We can combine it with a discussion of all the fires in 'Jane Eyre'...

Lou said...

I remember reading Wuthering Heights well into the night one Easter.Tucked up in bed with my stash of Easter Eggs.The weather was cold enough for electric blankets.I think Melbourne's weather can be a lot more cold and bleak than Sydney's,Gondal Girl. Not sure about going to see "Australia" yet.Did Baz Lurmann do Priscilla Queen of the Desert?or am I getting him mixed up with someone else?

Primrose said...

I love this article as I've never been able to read Wuthering Heights in summer. I'm in Australia too and it is definitely a snuggly cold weather book as far as I'm concerned. Anything to do with the Brontes has to be read in winter! So, I don't get to read a lot of Brontes :)
Im up for a re-reading of it, however although it will be summer here.
I cannot ever see Hugh Jackman as Heathcliff! Never! He's far too nice and feminine.
Colin Frith? Johnny Depp? Russell Crowe?
Thanks Justine for the great article. It's interesting that so many books I divide into seasons.

Justine Picardie said...

There were rumours of Johnny Depp playing Heathcliff -- and Angelina Jolie as Cathy -- in a new version. But really, who better than Laurence Olivier in the original film version?
I like the idea of a list of books for different seasons. What else would you all read in winter?

Lou said...

Oops!Stephan Elliot directed Priscilla.Maybe I was thinking Moulin Rouge.Jane Eyre would have to be my all time favourite winter reading book,Justine.It must have something to do with the fire theme.Also can anyone recommend a good movie version of Jane Eyre(For my 14 yearold daughter)?

Justine Picardie said...

I once wrote about the fire and air/Eyre of Jane Eyre -- it's in my previous book, 'My Mother's Wedding Dress'. I'll see if I can post it. As for a good adaptation -- I think the recent television series was really effective; Cristina at Bronte Blog will be able to tell you more...

Lou said...

Thanks Justine!I have "My Mothers Wedding Dress". I am going to reread it now!Also I have almost finished Daphne.It is brilliant.Reading it at work at the moment!It's a quiet night at work.(I'm a nurse who does night shift).

Justine Picardie said...

I hope I'm a good companion through a long night!

Primrose said...

Totally agree with you about Laurence Olivier, Justine and I would have loved to have seen Vivien play Cathy! Not Angelina Jolie! In Winter, I also love to snuggle down with some good ghost stories such as M R James, Agatha Christie for a cozy old time and a book I can lose myself in totally such as The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Winter doesn't last very long normally in Australia, sadly. I do love to read when its cold and raining. No greater joy! x

Justine Picardie said...

I'm a big fan of M.R James, too, and I've just been re-reading E.Nesbit's ghost stories. She was far better known for her children's books -- The Railway Children', 'The Phoenix and the Carpet', etc -- but her darker tales are also interesting. Haven't yet read 'The 13th Tale', but it sounds good...

simoncadbury said...

i just love winters.. everything looks so beautiful to me. playing with snow and all. :)

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