Out on the windy moors, I wander. My boots slosh through mud and I nearly slip. The heather brushes my jeans. I walk further but my shoe stays behind and my sock is swallowed by the sludge. The moors are taking me for their own. They are robbing me of my boots, stripping me to my bare, true self, and, as Heathcliff says, I will ‘have to seek for [my] shoes in the bog to-morrow’.
I grew up forty minutes from here, from Haworth and its moorland. The moors are not quite in my blood, but they have surrounded me since childhood, as have the Brontës. Emily, Anne and Charlotte attended school in my town and Anne was also a governess there. The Brontës are part of the landscape and are literally nailed to the architecture on blue plaques.
“The moors are dangerous to travel through…but they are also freedom.”
Reading Wuthering Heights, I am there again. Breathing the Haworth air, once ridden with disease but now heavy instead with literary allusion, visions of female empowerment and of Kate Bush’s swaying arms and swishing hair. The moors are dangerous to travel through; they isolate Wuthering Heights but they are also freedom. They are a character in themselves, another sister offering her bosom for repose.
Emily Brontë shows us the moors through several characters eyes, but it is to the infamous lovers Cathy and Heathcliff that the moors offer true transcendence. The moors are where they live, love and where they go when they are preparing to die, or at least in Cathy’s case, where she imagines that she goes.
I stare out over the barren wilderness and wonder what it would be like to be here without a map. Without knowing that I am only an hour from the teashops, gift shops and corner shops that have swarmed the small, industrial village of Haworth. I think of running across these moors with a lover, feeling that here it is possible to be truly present. The changing earth beneath my feet, the air wuthering against my cheeks, and the stone of Top Withens grazing my knuckles. I feel all of this as viscerally as Brontë’s characters do, who ‘scamper’, ‘ramble’, and ‘feel’ as they make their way, ‘rocking’, ‘swinging’, and ‘wandering’ across the moor’s bleak expanse.
Jacques Rivette’s filmic adaptation of Brontë’s novel, Hurlevent, is not even set on the moors. He eschews them for the fields of rural France, though the landscape is still forcefully present and in possession of its own visual language. His soundtrack is minimal; we hear human speech and its formation in the mouth, clinking plates, rustling clothes, slapping hands, but no music. No music until we enter the ‘moors’ and female voices begin to wail, echoing in harmony, sisters singing out their souls together. The moors enable free expression for trapped women such as Catherine, isolated among the unfeeling stones of Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights).
“They long to be plunged into that empty, pregnant landscape, echoing with haunting noises, a landscape that provides freedom and escape by virtue of its barrenness…”
Director Andrea Arnold’s blistering 2011 version, adapted by Olivia Hetreed, also features little music. That is, until Mumford and Sons barge in at the end with a cacophony of banjos. But the moors still possess a voice unto themselves, in the constant wind and rain and feet brushing through grass. They are utterly enveloping and inescapable. The audience is forced into the moors rather than being permitted to observe from a safe distance. The camera rocks and jilts as we career over wild roads and unruly terrain. We sink down into the grass, our eyes on a level with the insects and water droplets that inhabit the undergrowth. We cannot touch the moors but we can exist within them.
This sense of the raw physicality of the landscape is captured brilliantly in Jade Monserrat’s short art film, Peat Bog. We follow her lens through the treacherous surface of the bogs, bare feet literally entering the water of the moors and becoming part of its life blood. We hear the slash of stems against body, of toes slicing water, of the moors encountering humanity.
I posit that such bald, unfiltered representations are what a modern audience desires from the moors as a setting. They do not miss the soaring cinematic soundtracks, or idly representative sets of older adaptations. Rather they long to be plunged into that empty, pregnant landscape, echoing with haunting noises, a landscape that provides freedom and escape by virtue of its barrenness, while at once enclosing you, clawing at you and coercing you into passionate action.
The moors breathe and speak through these films because, in Wuthering Heights, they are alive. They are mediators, minders, even murderers. And it is not enough merely to observe them safely through a screen. Film has the power to allow us to interact with the moors in much the same way as the people that inhabit them. As I step over rock, as I cross over stiles and as I lie, like Heathcliff at the end of Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, motionless on the ground, I let nature move and talk for me.
Words by Eleanor Scorah.