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Discovering God through the Arts – Wuthering Heights – by Melanie Newbould

Discovering God through the Arts – Wuthering Heights – by Melanie Newbould

This is the first in an occasional series of blogs by Melanie Newbould:

In these blogs, I am going to describe how I gradually came to realise that I believed Christianity was a way to a truth. Of course I don’t know anything about the journey that other have taken, so I am not sure if it is unusual or not.  However, my discoveries about how I feel about God have come from my encounters with works of literature and Opera, some of which may seem to be quite far from Christian themes.  It might be that their creators never imagined that the works might be viewed as holding a Christian message but of course, works of literature and music, once published, are open to interpretation by the reader, listener or observer and, I think, gain by .

It is not controversial to say that literature and all the arts are essential to us.  As Chaucer Doth Tweet (@LeVostreGC) wrote recently,

Roses are redde

Noble are manatees

To lyve an examined lyfe

We neede the arts and humanityes

I certainly have found literature and music, particularly opera essential to me and I will plan to write a few posts describing several works that I have found particularly informative in my journey!

Wuthering Heights

I was baptised as an infant, but my family were not church-goers, but were nominally C of E.  I learned some of the New and Old testament stories at school, but it was only another subject to me at school and I never thought of formally becoming an active Christian at this point.  However, I never thought of myself as an atheist. I felt very certain that we individuals were each part of a whole and I thought that this whole was something rather like God.  I used to love to sit on my own in our garden in West Yorkshire and feel somehow very strongly that I was a part of the universe – only one part, but also in communion with the whole.   What I did not know was whether or not there might be others who had similar feelings about the world.

I realised that I was not alone when I first read Wuthering Heights at the age of 11 or 12.  I’m sure everyone will be familiar with the basic story.  A foundling boy from Liverpool (Heathcliff)  is adopted by a Yorkshire farmer and his family (the Earnshaws) and forms an intense relationship with the daughter of the house, Cathy.  She, however, marries the son of a neighbouring family, Edgar Linton (for practical reasons but knowing that, morally, she should not be doing so) and I think one might say that tragedy follows.

In one of the most famous passages of the book, Cathy describes her feelings for Edgar and then her feelings for Heathcliff and it is, of course, the latter that I felt had the most resonance with what I was thinking God might mean.  It seemed to me that I knew what Catherine Earnshaw was talking about when she says that ‘there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you.  What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here?’. Later she makes her famous affirmation to her servant,  Nelly. ‘What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here?’ ‘If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be’. ‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.  Nelly, I am Heathcliff’.  This could, of course, be a statement made by a character  talking about love for another human; but if it is, then it seems distinctly odd and there is evidence that it might have meant something other than that to the writer, as I will now explain.

Just as the novel will be familiar to most people, the story of Emily’s life is also very well known, as one of three sibling novelists who lived in an industrial part of the West Riding of Yorkshire in the  nineteenth century. She seems to have been a most extraordinary person.  Emily did not make her thoughts about anything public.  She wrote no non-essential letters, had few friends and no known romantic relationships.  She hated working as a teacher and was allowed by her family to live in and run the family home, Howarth Parsonage, where their father was the rector.  She wrote romantic juvenilia about daring deeds in an imaginary country, Gondal, until she was in her mid to late 20s.  She then wrote Wuthering Heights, a more or less perfect work of art (in my opinion) set firmly in West Yorkshire. She died before she was able to complete anything further.

Emily was also a poet, as were her sisters, though she was a much better poet than Charlotte or Anne, her sisters.  The voice of many of her poems is not that of the author, but one of the Gondal characters.  However, an occasional poem seems to have been personal, including her great poem, ‘No coward soul is mine’.  Interestingly, Cathy’s speech, referred to above is more or less a paraphrase of this poem.

Though earth and moon were gone

And suns and universes ceased to be

And thou wert left alone

Every Existence would exist in thee.

So it seems that Emily may be describing her relationship with God here and in Cathy’s speech.  Now, though the daughter of a minister of the church, Emily may have had difficulties with conventional Christianity (indeed she satirises it in her novel) and did not teach in the Sunday School.  It seems to me that she did have a strong personal belief  and I think that this is one reason why this novel resonates to so many people, some of whom may share her strong mystical sense, but be unable to reconcile it with conventional Christianity.  This was my position when I was a young teenager.  Emily articulated feelings that were important to me.

Gradually, over the years, I was to encounter other works of literature and opera that were to subtly develop this.

2017-06-22T08:40:01+00:00

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