Wuthering Heights and the fairy cave

Richard Thornhill delves into Emily Bronte’s dark and secret places

Published in Northern Earth 90 (2002): 16-19

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is one of the world’s most powerful and perennially popular novels. However, I think that it has been misunderstood. I am not a literary critic, and I read the book for the first time only recently, but I am familiar with folklore that elucidates certain aspects that would otherwise be inaccessible, because I grew up in Haworth, ‘the Brontë village’, when it was a small town of farmers and mill-workers, not the middle-class commuter place that it is now. My grandparents, when young, knew an old lady who had been taught the Bible by Emily Brontë, and I spent my youth wandering the same moors as she.

Who or what Heathcliff was is unclear. He may have been a gypsy (pp 47, 77, 80, 127, 134). Alternatively, he may have been non-white, as he is referred to as a lascar (p 91), “a regular black” (p 98), “an American or Spanish castaway” (p 91) and an Indian prince (p 98). Furthermore, he was found in Liverpool in 1771 (pp 77-78), when it was the fulcrum of the slave trade and had a large non-white population, and he spoke an unknown language (p. 77). He may even have been a goblin, as Isabella called him this (p 208) and Ellen pondered upon the possibility (pp 359-360), and he does seem to have had supernatural powers, being able to open a window that was soldered shut (pp 67, 70). However, he does not seem to have been highly sexed, and is not presented as sexually attractive, which rather undermines the quasi-Freudian reading of the novel in terms of Brontë’s sadomasochism and repressed sexuality [1,2]. Brontë does seem to have had sadistic tendencies, as some of her descriptions of cruelty have no obvious connection with the plot (pp 67, 160, 217), and Isabella was an obvious masochist, but it is about Hareton that the most obvious Freudian slips (if that is how they are to be read) are made, eg “He opened the mysteries of the fairy cave” for the younger Catherine (p 233).

The fairy cave was under Penistone Crag (pp 109, 161, 225~233, 248), the only named local place other than the two houses and the village, and therein lies the key to the novel’s allegory. Penistone Hill, known locally as The Dimples, is an area of quarried moorland behind Haworth Church, but there is no crag there, and Penistone Crag is generally thought to be based on Ponden Kirk, an outcrop cliff about three miles W of Haworth [3-5]. It has a natural passage through the base, and local folklore has it that couples who crawl through this together will die if they do not marry within a year, or that they will commit suicide and haunt the rock forever if they marry someone else. It seems obvious that this passage is the “fairy cave under Penistone Crag” (p 161), and the fact that no critic has suggested this shows the importance of local knowledge. Were one to read the novel in superficially gothic terms, one would expect such an eerie story to be linked with Heathcliff and Catherine, but it was the younger Catherine who was obsessed with visiting the cave, at 13 (p 226), and Hareton who took her there (p 233).

Rocks with holes have obvious sexual symbolism. Men-an-Tol in Cornwall is famous, but Pennine traditions are less well known. ‘Witching stones’, small stones with natural holes, used to be used for protection against witchcraft. The Hitching Stone, above Cowling, over the moor from Ponden, is a house-sized boulder, with a fossil tree trunk passing through. The trunk has weathered out for about half its length, and an alcove called the Priest’s Chair has been carved into the boulder so as to intersect the hollow part of the trunk, making a hole which extends from the alcove to the outside. One can look through this hole, several yards long and about eight inches in diameter, and it makes a strange echo when called into. No information seems available about the history of the boulder, but the Priest’s Chair seems very old. ‘Hitching’ could also derive from ‘witching’, and local folklore has it that the stone was thrown across from Rombald’s Moor by a witch, the hole being made by her broomstick.

It therefore seems that Hareton was the novel’s central sexual figure, and that Brontë contrasted the flesh (Hareton), the world (Edgar) and the devil (Heathcliff): it was only the worldly and spiritual-demonic loves that were baleful. Rejecting her Christian upbringing, she did not present virtue as a serious alternative to the three, and the only characters who spoke in moral or overtly Christian terms were the evil Joseph and the merely prudent Ellen.

At this point I might seem to be arguing that the novel presented a covert case for sexual pleasure and licence, that Brontë was a sort of D H Lawrence 70 years before time. This is arguable, as the intensely physical courtship of Hareton and Catherine was the only one of the five loves that looked set to result in happiness. However, there is more to the novel than that, and its deeper meaning is connected with Brontë’s paganism.

This seems an odd claim to make. However, as the younger Catherine was repeatedly referred to as a witch (pp 230, 319, 350), and also claimed to be one (p 57), and the older Catherine accused Ellen of witchcraft (pp 161, 166), the two “witches” were the only likeable characters. The elder Catherine, hysterically Christian in her obsession about death and longing for a Paulino-Platonic ideal state (pp 196-197, cf 1 Corinthians 13:9-12), can be contrasted with her mild and compromising, yet strong and sexy, daughter. The younger Catherine, the eternal female, softening the charmless Hareton with her love, and gardening the moor, represents affirmation and transformation of the flesh, in contrast to attempts to deny or transcend it.

This identification of flesh and earth leads to the further significance of the fairy cave. The worldly and spiritual loves were baleful, whereas that with Hareton was forged in the earth. It is a mistake to see the happy ending either, positively, in terms of Christian forgiveness, or, negatively, as Brontë’s gothic vision succumbing to her moral values1, as it does not represent a Christian/Marxist culmination of history. Neither is it a Platonist/Buddhist escape from history. Reading mysteria for “mysteries” (p 233), it is seen to be an Eleusinian celebration of cyclicity, symbolised by reclamation of the name Catherine Earnshaw after twenty years, and of Hareton Earnshaw after three hundred. It is the sweet futility of eternal recurrence. This celebration of the contingent chimes with the younger Catherine’s affirmation of the flesh.

pondenkirk‘Kirk’ (‘church’ in Scottish and Northern English dialect) is occasionally used for natural rock formations that resemble churches, such as that on Kirkstone Pass in the Lake District. However, it is also used in Cumbria to refer to some prehistoric stone-circles and cairns [6], and it is tempting to suggest that Ponden Kirk was a pagan holy place. As well as having the fairy cave, Penistone Crag was where the elder Catherine accused Ellen of collecting elf-bolts to use for witchcraft (pp 161, 166). Elf-bolts are stone arrowheads, which were believed to be made by elves, but which we now know to have been left by prehistoric people (yet they always look so new….). In the next clough to Ponden Kirk is Silver Hill, a small hill that the farmer at Silverhill Farm told me was a round barrow, although it is not shown as an antiquity on Ordnance Survey maps. It is crowned with Scots pines: Alfred Watkins would have been pleased! [7] Perhaps it is not so much eternal recurrence as eternal presence that Brontë celebrated….

It is often suggested that Brontë did not have her heart in the happy ending [1,8]. This seems probable, considering how strongly Heathcliff was drawn, but this is not because she felt socially compelled to reject her wild vision, but because, although she longed to be like the younger Catherine, as an evangelical vicar’s daughter she could not overcome her ‘satanic’ tendencies. The Satanist accepts the Christian picture of the wickedness of the pagan, natural, man, and then affirms that wickedness, just as the pervert revels in an ascetic vision of sex as depraved. This connects with the way nature is presented.

The British moors are not natural, but are a profoundly degraded environment, the result of sheep-grazing and burning, starting with Neolithic people, and reaching its full intensity with the big monasteries. Before Henry VIII, the whole area up to the county boundary was part of the grazing land of Kirkstall Abbey at Leeds, and the grazing involved massive deforestation and soil erosion, together with heavy-handed oppression of the locals, who preferred to hunt deer and grow oats and barley. The village of Oxenhope, along Hanging Gate Lane, on the hillside above the modern village, may have been depopulated by the monks. Brontë, or at least her ‘satanic’ side, saw a grim pseudo-nature, and loved its grimness. Her fascination with Heathcliff is somewhat analogous.


Page numbers in parentheses refer to the following: Emily Brontë, 1847, Wuthering Heights, Penguin, London (1985).

Other references are as follows:

[1] David Daiches, 1985, Introduction, pp. 7~29 in Wuthering Heights (above).
[2] Thomas Moser, 1962, ‘What is the matter with Emily Jane? Conflicting impulses in Wuthering Heights’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17:1~19.
[3] West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, Official Souvenir Guide: Haworth and the Worth Valley, p. 15.
[4] T. Yamada and K. Fujimoto (eds.), 1997, ‘The country of the Brontë sisters’, http://www.tetsu.demon.co.uk/main/haworth2_e.html (Yorks Hill Fair).
[5] ‘Off the line’, 2001, http://www.kwvr.co.uk/guidebook/offline.htm (Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, Haworth).
[6] E g Swinside is known as ‘Sunken Kirk’. Mike Haigh, 2001, personal communication.
[7] Alfred Watkins, 1925, The Old Straight Track, Sphere Books, London (1976), pp. 61-62. [Eds: There is considerable doubt that this is in fact a round barrow; if anyone can offer more information we would be glad to know].
[8] Eleanor Hubbard, 2000, ‘ClassicNote on Wuthering Heights’, ClassicNotes by GradeSaver, (GradeSaver, USA)

Published in NE90 (Summer 2002), pp.16-19

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