A Wuthering Heights Original
Back in August I posted a blog about my artist daughter’s exhibition on the Lost Houses of the South Pennines in Halifax. (If you want to check it out, it’s the one that begins: Whilst I was nearing the end of Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium in early 2016, I had to take time out to write the text for Lost Houses of the South Pennines, the booklet (later a book) which accompanied my daughter’s exhibition at Bankfield Museum in Halifax.) One of the houses that I didn’t mention in that blog was High Sunderland, near Halifax. I was reminded of this by last Saturday’s Channel 4 programme, presented by Lily Cole, on Emily Bronte.
Today High Sunderland is remembered mainly for its Bronte connection. In 1838 Emily spent several months teaching at Law Hill School in Southowram. Although she disliked the School, she was fond of the countryside and her walks would have taken her past High Sunderland, which was little over a mile away; indeed, the similarity between the floor plan of the Hall and that of Wuthering Heights has led some to suggest that she might even have been a guest of the Wood family who then occupied it. But it would be wrong to suggest that the fictional house is modelled, point for point, on the real one. Top Withens, a hilltop farm near Haworth is said to represent the location of Wuthering Heights and Ponden Hall, also Near Haworth, to contain many of its interior details. What she borrowed from High Sunderland were the carvings. In the novel, Lockwood, the narrator, describes his first entrance into the house: ‘Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door: above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 and name of Hareton Earnshaw.’ The name and the date are flights of fancy, but the griffins and shameless little boys surely belonged to the great gateway, whose remains are still waiting to be re-discovered in Brighouse. And if the architectural details were not enough, there is the ghost story. Tradition has it that anyone sleeping in a certain room at High Sunderland would awake at night to hear footsteps in the corridor and a rattling of the doorknob. The door proving secure, the rattle at the door would be replaced by a tap at the window. If the inhabitant of the room – now wide awake – looked out, he or she would see a disembodied hand striking the glass and hear a peal of hideous laughter. The hand, it was said, was that of an ‘estimable and virtuous lady’ and had been cut off by her husband in a fit of insane jealousy. This tale must surely form the basis of Lockwood’s dream in Wuthering Heights:
‘I heard also the fir bough repeat its teasing sound … it annoyed me so much that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and I thought I thought I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple … “I must stop it, nevertheless,” I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching out an arm to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me. I tried to draw back my arm, but my hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed “Let me in – let me in!”
High Sunderland – or some of it, at least – lives on in Bronte’s novel. The real house was not so fortunate. A report written for the Bronte Society in 1949 paints a sad picture of it in its death throes:
‘Originally the gateway opened into a courtyard and later on to a paved path leading to the main door. The path is now overgrown with grass and weeds and littered with empty milk bottles, rusty cans and broken chair legs. The pillars to the entrance of the main door are leaning at a precarious angle. Above them were two statues: one survives, disfigured almost beyond recognition; the other, broken into three pieces, has fallen to the ground alongside the rusty frame of a discarded motor cycle. The visitor who ventures through the interior of High Sunderland will find desolation reminiscent of a bomb-shattered building. No windows exist; some of the window spaces have been boarded up but the wood has rotted. The floors are littered with broken stonework, splintered rafters, tiles and here and there pieces of abandoned furniture. Rubbish has, in fact, been discarded indiscriminately, most likely when the last tenants vacated the building. It is unsafe to subject the walls to any weight for they are likely to crumble. The only light in some rooms comes from large holes in the roof and through missing stones in the wall. The uncanny howl of the wind as it whips though gaps in the stonework produces an atmosphere that chills and depresses.’
Two years later High Sunderland was demolished.