Superstitions in Wuthering Heights
The Bronte sisters, being the daughters of a reverend, lived in the parsonage of Haworth right next to the graveyard. But they weren't afraid of a few ghosts or other supernatural visitors.
In fact, superstitious beliefs play a role in Wuthering Heights beginning when Mr. Lockwood endures "the persecutions" of Heathcliff's "hospitable ancestors." They create an atmosphere of mystery and tension and draw us into Emily's story. What's going to happen next?
Dreams and superstitions about them get the story started. Snowbound and holed up in a dreary, unused room at Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood dreams about a child ghost. The terrible apparition identifies itself as Catherine Linton, and cries at the window. "Let me in! I've been a waif for twenty years!" This dream and the odd inhabitants of Wuthering Heights lead Mr. Lockwood to ask Nelly Dean about Heathcliff's family, and she tells him the "whole history."
Nelly Dean is admittedly superstitious about dreams, believing they can be prophetic. She refuses to listen to Catherine's dream, when Catherine tries to explain why she accepted Edgar's proposal. "I was superstitious about dreams then, and an still," Nelly says. It's believed in Yorkshire that dreams can foretell the future. And when Heathcliff is dying, Nelly dreams of his tombstone, and that it reads only "Heathcliff." This does in fact come true.
The hardworking farmhands Joseph and Hareton believe in fairies, like most Yorkshire countrymen. On Christmas Eve Joseph leaves his cake and cheese on the table "for the fairies." Fairies could be very helpful around the house and liked a treat now and then. There is a story about them from northern England. A Mrs. Warner told how she and her mother used to visit two older ladies named Hoyle who lived at Denton Hall in the 1890's. The Hoyle ladies had a fairy named Silky that helped around the house. The fairy wore a gray silk gown, and was especially good about laying the wood for the fires.
Hareton and little Cathy Linton first become friends when he offers to show her the "fairishes" at Penistow Crags. The Penistow Crags in Wuthering Heights is a place with rocky caves, and caves in Yorkshire are known to be the homes of fairies. Fairies are often easy to spot. A Yorkshire farmer once told a story of a horse dealer who spent the night with him. At dawn the farmer saw the fairies, and called his guest, who hurried out and sat on a wall watching them dance in a ring for so long that he caught rheumatism and never quite got over it. Penistow Crags is thought to be Penistone Quarry, which was near the Brontes' home.
An old belief appears when Catherine and Edgar have a terrible fight about Heathcliff, and Catherine locks herself in her room in hysterics. After the fight, Nelly Dean finds Catherine sick and mentally distracted, pulling feathers out of her pillow. "Ah, they put pigeons' feathers in the pillows, no wonder I couldn't die," she says. This might seem like a flip observation, but it's actually a superstition in Yorkshire that a person can't die on a pillow made from the feathers of pigeons or any wild birds. It's led to some strange tales.
A story was told about "one Jane H----, from the neighbourhood of Westerdale, that she was lying upon a bed of that description; that she was in extremis for a week, and when it was thought she could not die in consequence of being upon a bed of wild birds' feathers they took her off it and laid her upon a squab, where, as I was informed, she died at once!" There are also accounts of dying people being laid on pigeon-feather pillows to delay their demise until the arrival of some beloved relative.
Ghosts are probably the main element of superstition in Wuthering Heights. Mr. Lockwood sees the ghost of the child Catherine, and on a visit to Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean sees a vision of a child. She fears it's a sign of Hindley's impending death. Child ghosts are never a good sign. The phenomenon is closely related to the radiant boy, a glowing child ghost that came to the north of England from the Danes, and always foretells disaster.
It's clear that Heathcliff and Catherine are destined to be together as ghosts. Right after Catherine's death, Heathcliff cries, " I pray one prayer--I repeat it till my tongue stiffens--Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you - haunt me, then!" And she does. She tantalizes him for eighteen years, making her presence known but never really revealing herself. The closest she comes is in a bizarre episode in which Heathcliff goes to the cemetery and digs her up. He tells Nelly Dean about it: "I knew no living thing in flesh and blood was by; but, as certainly as you perceive the approach to some substantial body in the dark, though it cannot be discerned, so certainly I felt that Cathy was there."
Going to the conventional heaven is never a goal for either of them. Catherine tells Nelly Dean that she dreamed about heaven, and says, "heaven did not seem to be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth." And just before his death, Heathcliff says, "I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me."
So Nelly Dean tells Mr. Lockwood that their ghosts have been seen wandering by the country folks, by a shepherd boy, and even by Joseph "every rainy night since his (Heathcliff's) death." And, although she doesn't believe the tales herself, she admits that she doesn't "like being out in the dark now."
This ghostly afterlife shows that not only are Catherine and Heathcliff still obsessed with each other, they also have to do things their own way. We wouldn't want them to be any different.
A lot of nineteenth-century writers used superstitions in their work. But for Emily Bronte, who almost never left home and then reluctantly, the traditional beliefs of Yorkshire were part of how she was raised and who she was.
Picture from Wikipedia Commons
K.M. Briggs, Some Late Accounts of the Fairies, Folklore, Vol. 72 No.3, Sept. 1961