Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Folklore, Faeries And The Brontë Novels

From Anne Brontë:
The Brontës might be seen as Yorkshire through and through, but they had double Celtic influences. Their father Patrick was Irish, and their mother Maria was Cornish (and of course they were then raised by their Cornish aunt Elizabeth after her untimely death). That’s a powerful combination, and it means they were exposed to myths and legends from an early age. It’s something that lovers of Brontë books can all be thankful for!

We know that faithful old parsonage servant Tabby Aykroyd regaled the children with the folklore of Pennine Yorkshire, including stories of changelings – faerie children who had been switched with a human child. This influence can clearly be seen in Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff – the child who appears out of nowhere, with no family background, and proceeds to wreak havoc in his new home.
It may seem strange then that although ‘changeling’ appears twice in ‘Wuthering Heights’ on neither occasion does it refer to Heathcliff. We see it applied to Linton on the eve of his wedding, forced upon him by Heathcliff: “‘Take you with her, pitiful changeling!’ I exclaimed. ‘You marry? Why, the man is mad! or he thinks us fools, every one.’”

We also see it applied to Catherine, or at least the ghost of her, after the narrator Lockwood has endured his night of torment in the box bed: “’And that minx, Catherine Linton, or Earnshaw, or however she was called—she must have been a changeling—wicked little soul! She told me she had been walking the earth these twenty years: a just punishment for her mortal transgressions, I’ve no doubt!’”

As we shall see, this is far from the only folklore in the tale, as Emily’s novel revels in it. In this most brilliant of novels we also see the clear Cornish influence, however, which must have come from her Aunt Branwell. Cornwall was a land steeped in lore and legend, although in 1824 the Cornish historian Samuel Drew was already bemoaning a change in attitudes:

“The age of piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone. There is, perhaps, at present hardly a house they are reputed to visit. They neither steal children, nor displace domestic articles. Even the fields and lanes which they formerly frequented seem to be nearly forsaken. Their music is rarely heard; and they appear to have forgotten to attend their ancient midnight dance. The diffusion of knowledge, by which the people have been enlightened during the last half century, has considerably reduced the numbers of piskays; and even the few that remain, are evidently preparing to take their departure.” 
Drew is talking metaphorically here, showing how increasing industrialisation in Cornwall was eroding old faiths in the little people of the land. It is not the piskays, or pixies as they are styled elsewhere, that are departing, but belief in them. Nevertheless, around the moors of Cornwall belief held on, and, as I found when I visited there last year, the Brontë motherland of Penzance remains a place where old customs are cherished and celebrated. (Read more.)

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