Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday, August 12, 2016 12:30 am by Cristina in , ,    No comments

The Real Wuthering Heights
The Story of the Withins Farms

Steven Wood, Peter Brears
Amberley Publishing
ISBN: 9781445653433
15 Mar 2016
For some reason, Ellen Nussey seemed to know that Wuthering Heights was located at a spot similar to that of the actual Top Withins, near Haworth. Ever since then, Brontëites - well aware that it was just the location and not the actual building - have taken to the moors and walked the miles that take them there: Penistone Hill, the Brontë falls and the long, final stretch leading to Top Withins, with delightful views of the moors that Emily Brontë loved so. So, even if it is actually a tenuous connection, the trip there and back is a true Emily Brontë experience. Be it myth, legend or suggestion, it's undeniable that stepping on the moors automatically seems to make visitors closer to Emily Brontë and her work(s).

What's not so widely-known among the ramblers taking the trek to Top Withins is that Top Withins is called Top Withins for a reason and not just because of its altitude: there were two other farms: Lower and Middle Withins. Historians Peter Brears and Steven Wood (well-known to Brontëites for his untiring research on Haworth history) tell the story of the Withins farms (down to its very name and variants of it) and how it all began when a large track of land was divided by a father among his three sons. The chapters devoted to Lower and Middle Withins are short but interesting, leaving a bittersweet feeling in the reader about both places being but mere rubble on the moors by now.

The history of Top Withins is full of names - just like Wuthering Heights - that come and go and repeat themselves but it is also history itself: it begins as a remote dwelling where generations of hard-working families managed to scrape a living in adverse circumstances. And it ends with local ex-soldier Ernest Roddie moving there after the war in 1921:
I'm a native of Haworth [...] and for many years it was a joke with me that some day I would set a poultry farm at Top Withens. I came out of the army unfit for my former work, and having a fancy for poultry, I took a training course. I was unable to get a suitable holding, but a short time ago I met the landlord of Withens. We talked, and then he said--he knew my old joke--'Well, there's Top Withens waiting for you.' Immediately I decided to take it.
He left in 1926. In the 1930s and 1940s the house was deserted but whole. Then the roof began to collapse. During the 1960s the inclement weather along with inconsiderate visitors helped further its decline. After that, a series of repairs took place to try and keep the building safe for visitors and to keep it from mostly vanishing like its namesakes (even though both of them were actually pulled down eventually). However, the book claims that even though '[t]his certainly prevented further decay', the 'rebuilt sections took little or no account of the original features', thus adding 'to the confusion of future visitors'. Thankfully, this book comes to the help of said visitors and it must certainly be quite a treat to take it there and read the bits about how the house was adapted to its different uses and inhabitants over the centuries. Again, it's a History lesson in general.

But that's not the only advantage of taking the book on a walk to Wuthering Heights as the book also guides visitors on their way there from Haworth and points to similar households on the moors in several states of conservation or decay. What we today seem to consider an isolated house was indeed isolated but perhaps not as much as we initially thought.

Because of wills and testaments of its owners/tenants it is possible to see with great precision what they owned when living there, thus rendering it easier to imagine how life was lived there. As the authors say, 'by exceptionally good fortune', one of its inhabitants, Jonas Sunderland, died there in 1849 and a detailed inventory of his belongings was taken, thus allowing a glimpse into life at Top Withins at almost the exact moment when Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847. Based on this inventory, Peter Brears has drawn the interior of the house as it would have been at the time. This completes the many other detailed plates on all sorts of relevant topics for the dwellers of Top Withins at different times: from how oatcakes were made and cooked, to how weaving was done and what tools were used. There are also drawings of the masonry of Top Withins and several historic pictures of all three Withins farms as well as other local farms mentioned above. One of these other local houses was Timmy Feather's cottage. Timmy Feather, 'the last of the handloom weavers', and has his own chapter both because it shows the lifestyle of people living on the moors and because he may be connected to the Withins after all. He's such a character that it's always nice and interesting to read about him anyway.

Not living locally and sadly thus not being able to put on our walking boots and go for it we have missed something that seems crucial. (Note: we know that the readership of this book is mostly local, but the genius of Emily Brontë - which has made that the words Wuthering Heights are the largest on the cover - is universal, and thus it is not so unthinkable for readers of all continents to get their hands on this book). There are no current images of Top Withins (there are a couple of plates on the evolution of its decay and on how to make sense of what's left). We had to resort to Google and our own personal photographs on several occasions to see what was being talked about. Such as the stone with 'DAIRY' written on it (apparently windows on dairies weren't taxed as opposed to regular windows, which were), which we had completely overlooked when visiting the ruins but which is most certainly still there or the track marks that seem to still be there too. The contemporary pictures by Anni Vassallo are poetic and atmospheric, as befits the place, but we could have done with more technical images too.

Also missing is, we think, a chronology on the history of the place. The dates are all there in the text but a quick guide to it would have been both welcome and helpful.

If you are local and can grab the book and read it as the French would say 'sur le terrain', don't miss it. If you're not local but dream of the time you will be able to walk on the moors, get the book and have it ready for when you do.

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