Monday, April 5, 2010

Why Did Emily Write Wuthering Heights

By Sarah Fermi
Keywords: Emily Brontë, Robert Clayton (of Haworth)
Why did Emily Jane Brontë write Wuthering Heights? And how was she able to do it? In
spite of the massive amount of material published about the Brontë sisters over the past
one hundred and fifty years, these two questions still remain unanswered. Yet given the
autobiographical nature of much of the material in the novels of Charlotte and Anne
Brontë, it is almost unthinkable that Emily would not also have used her own experience
in the creation of her great book. How could she write so vividly about love, grief, and
hatred without having known these emotions in her own life?

Many Brontë biographers have puzzled over these questions, and some have even
suggested as a possible answer that Emily had a serious romantic attachment at some
point in her life, but they have been daunted by the scarcity of facts about Emily’s life
and left the question open.1 In his A Life of Emily Brontë Edward Chitham has gone a
step further and proposed a possible relationship with an offspring of the Heaton family
— the child of Elizabeth Heaton and John Bakes. The suggestion that perhaps the object
of Emily’s affections was connected with the Heatons of Ponden, an old local family well
known to the Brontës, whose home, Ponden House, certainly appears to be connected
with Wuthering Heights, seemed to be very promising.

This was the starting point of a quest which brought me to the West Yorkshire
Archives in Bradford in the spring of 1989. One afternoon’s research there with the
Heaton Papers quickly dispelled this hope — the child in question was little Eliza
Matilda Bakes, who died in 1817 aged two, and is buried with her mother in Haworth
churchyard. Nevertheless, the idea of an early love interest in Emily’s life struck me as
worth pursuing. For the next few years I worked on learning more about the important
Haworth families, particularly the Heatons, and also the most significant local family,
the Greenwoods. In parallel with this study, I learned all I could about Emily, and
carefully examined the chronological development of her poetry.

There are quite a few aspects of her life which present interesting questions. Why did Emily change from a charming and outgoing child to a solitary and reserved young woman? Why was she sent away to Roe Head School in 1835 at the relatively advanced age of 17, for what
appears to be no good reason, and when Mr Brontë’s finances were likely to be stretched
by the plan to send Branwell to the Royal Academy Schools? Why did he write a warning
letter to his old friend, Mrs Franks, hinting at possible trouble ahead? What was the
real reason for Emily’s near-fatal illness at Roe Head? Why is there a striking change in
the tone of her poetry between 1836 and 1837? It occurred to me that all these questions
could be answered if one assumed the following theory:

1) When Charlotte goes away to Roe Head School in January 1831, Emily and Anne
begin to create their own private world of Gondal, which they act out on the moors.
2) They enlist the help of a local boy to play with them.
3) This boy is working-class and therefore an unsuitable playmate, and the meetings
are kept a secret from Mr Brontë and Aunt Branwell. A romance develops.
4) The secret is somehow discovered in the summer of 1835, and Emily is sent off to
Roe Head School to break up the relationship between her and the young man. The
collapse of Emily’s health, requiring her return home, is partly due to her despair at
this separation from the young man.
5) In the winter of 1836–37 the young man dies, leaving Emily deeply affected. Her
poetry strongly suggests that she experienced a traumatic event at this time: all the
poems of 1836 (the earliest that exist) are cheerful or thoughtful, or, in one case,
exuberant. There are no poems in January, 1837, and in February she begins, almost
obsessively, to write poetry about death, grief, and nightmare.

Using this rudimentary theory as a beginning, I then examined the Haworth Parish
Records to see if, in fact, there had been a working-class lad who died at the suggested
time. I found one candidate: Robert Clayton. He was the second son of a local weaver,
Nathan Clayton. Robert was born in July 1818, the same month and year as Emily, and
he died in December 1836.

I also learned that there once existed a group of letters
from Emily Brontë in the possession of a lady named Fanny Clayton, but which were
destroyed many years ago. Sadly, I was unable to learn any more about these letters.
However, I did discover many interesting bits of information relating to the Clayton
family. They were descendents of an important (and persecuted) Quaker family, stalwarts
of the Stanbury Quaker Meeting in the seventeenth century. At the time of the
Brontës, the Claytons were friendly with the Heatons of Ponden, a fact evidenced by
their inclusion in lists of friends invited to several Heaton family funerals. Robert and his
family lived for some time at Far Slack, an old house on the edge of the moors across the
valley of Ponden Beck from Ponden House. The family moved away from the area
shortly after Robert’s death, but returned to Haworth about 1842. One of the most
suggestive facts I uncovered was the death of Robert’s older brother, John, in May
1833. Emily wrote two poems, both of which concern two deaths: the first, written
19 December 1839, reads:

Heaven’s glory shone where he was laid
In life’s decline.
I turned me from that young saint’s bed
To gaze on thine.
It was a summer day that saw
His spirit’s flight;
Thine parted in a time of awe,
A winter-night.

The other poem is the strange and beautiful ‘Death that struck when I was most
confiding. . .’ written in April 1845, which also speaks, albeit metaphorically, of two
deaths — one which barely moved her (‘little mourned I. . .’), and a second which ruined
her life (‘Time for me must never blossom more. . .’). It is possible that both of these poems
refer to the deaths of John in late spring, 1833, and then Robert in mid-December, 1836.

Finally, there is one tiny piece of possible documentary evidence for the connection
between Emily and Robert: the Gondal poem ‘Heavy hangs the raindrop. . .’, written in
May 1845, about a ‘melancholy boy’, is accompanied by the initials A.E. and R.C.
The first set is very likely to stand for Alexander Elbë, an early character in the Gondal
stories (who is already dead before Emily and Anne begin to write these stories down
in about 1837), and the second set is, perhaps, for Robert Clayton, who, in my theory,
played the part of Alexander Elbë in the girls’ early Gondal games on the moors. Emily
wrote two of her sad early poems (March and August 1837) about the death of
Alexander Elbë and she returned to the subject again in December 1844. The initials
R.C. do not correspond to any known Gondal character.

My research into another local family, the Greenwoods of Bridgehouse, Springhead,
and Woodlands, has suggested an addition to the theory. It seemed to me highly likely
that when Emily was sent home from Roe Head after less than three months, Aunt
Branwell might well have considered it her duty to find a more respectable suitor for
Emily. A close friend of Patrick Brontë’s, Joseph Greenwood, Esq., of Springhead, had
three daughters exactly the same ages as Charlotte, Emily, and Anne (and there is
written evidence that the girls were friendly) and, as it happens, he also had two eligible
sons, William and James, several years older than the girls. This is all very speculative,
but the parallel between a Greenwood boy and Edgar Linton, Catherine Earnshaw’s
suitor in Wuthering Heights, seemed too good to ignore: Joseph Greenwood was, like
Mr Linton, the local magistrate; he was also the Lord of the Manor of Oxenhope. Like
the Lintons, the Greenwoods were at the top of the social tree in the area — marriage to
one of the boys would be a big step up the social ladder for the Brontës. In my theory,
Emily is courted by young James Greenwood, and for a few months she enjoys his
attentions. But when Robert Clayton learns of her betrayal, he is deeply hurt and in
his despair he dies in a careless accident on the moors in the winter of 1836. Robert’s
death puts paid to any ideas Emily might have had of ‘marrying up’; she feels partly
responsible for his death and is left with life-long feelings of guilt and isolation.

Because I am not able to prove this theory beyond the circumstantial evidence
outlined above, I have never tried to publish it as conventional ‘academic’ paper. But I
thought it would be interesting to see if the story could be told in another form, so
several years ago I suggested this theory to the BBC with the idea that it would make an
intriguing drama-cum-documentary. The producers were enthusiastic, but decided it
would work best as straight drama. They obtained development funds for the idea, and
the services of a well-known screen writer to write the script — Sally Wainwright, whose
television drama ‘Sparkhouse’ was loosely based on Wuthering Heights. Sally has
written a dramatic and moving script, but unfortunately it was not commissioned for
production, though its time may yet come.

Since then I have written a fictionalized biography of Emily Brontë in the form of her
own private journal; this work includes not only the theory outlined above, which covers
the years 1831 to 1837, but also Emily’s life after Robert’s death right up to her own
death in 1848.

My theory is unlikely to be true in every detail, but I believe that something very like
it must have happened. I have found nothing to contradict the speculative sequence of
events outlined above, and the discovery of Robert and John Clayton, whose deaths ma
have been obliquely recorded in Emily Brontë’s poetry, seems to me to confirm the original
idea, and perhaps bring us a step closer to an answer to the questions of how and
why Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights.

BBC Radio has published the play

Cold in the Earth and Fifteen Wild Decembers

By Sally Wainwright, based on a theory by Sarah Fermi.

Why did Emily Jane Bronte write Wuthering Heights? And how was she able to do it? In spite of the massive amount of material published about the Brontë sisters over the last 150 years, these two questions still remain unanswered. Yet given the large amount of autobiographical material in the novels of Charlotte and Anne Bronte, it is almost unthinkable that Emily would not have also used her own experience in the creation of her great book. How could she write so vividly about love, grief and hatred without having known these emotions in her own life?

This is a compelling drama about the story of Emily Bronte's socially transgressive love affair with a weaver's son.

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