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- Cuckoos and Masks: From Wuthering Heights to Hollywood

Ian Humphreys reflects on the cunning of the cuckoo
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"The strategy of masking – which has helped cuckoos survive – in a way echoes how Charlotte, Emily and Anne were obliged to don male disguises to gain entry into the patriarchal literary world of nineteenth-century Britain..."  Ian Humphreys
I recently returned from the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides. My base was a cottage in the midst of farmland and wetland – a stark, windswept panorama not dissimilar in appearance and atmosphere to the moorlands surrounding the Parsonage in Haworth.
Three cuckoos were roosting in a small copse opposite my temporary home.  The male birds called all day long. Cuckoo song is a sound I’m rarely treated to here in West Yorkshire. I can go for two years, sometimes three, without hearing the distinctive call, and I’ve laid eyes on fewer than half a dozen of the birds during a decade or so in my corner of the Calder Valley. On the Isle of Coll, cuckoos popped up everywhere – perched on telegraph wires, chasing each other through graveyards, swooping over the island’s lone grocery shop.
Seeing and hearing cuckoos in such abundance brought to mind a wonderful talk I attended just before my holiday. Hosted by the Parsonage as part of its ‘Year of the Wild’ celebrations, the talk was led by an expert from the RSPB, and explored how birds have influenced the work of the Brontës. One example, is the cuckoo’s association with Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. When Lockwood asks Nelly about Heathcliff's background, she says, “It's a cuckoo's, sir … and Hareton has been cast out like an unfledged dunnock.” 
The prevalence of the birds on Coll also made me ponder how commonplace cuckoos might have been two hundred years ago in the South Pennines when Emily and her sisters stepped out across Haworth Moor on their daily walks. Were they as familiar a sight as blackbirds are today? What other flora and fauna – rare now or perhaps extinct – did the Brontës encounter? And, crucially, did they view cuckoos with disdain?
The cuckoo’s anthropomorphic status as a cunning imposter has held sway for centuries, possibly millennia. In Greek mythology, Zeus transformed himself into a cuckoo in order to seduce the goddess Hera, who viewed the bird as sacred. Despite its lowly reputation, the cuckoo belongs to a rather exclusive club. It is one of only a handful of birds whose name is the same as its song, at least in the English-speaking world. With every call, the cuckoo appears (to some) to boldly declare its presence by proudly stating its name.

In reality, cuckoos have evolved into masters of disguise to protect their bloodline. Cuckoo eggs (and chicks) have developed to resemble those of their hosts. Impressively, when faced with multiple host species, female cuckoos are able to lay eggs of different colours in an attempt to blend in with those of the host birds.
The subterfuge doesn’t end there. Research has shown the striped or barred feathers of the female cuckoo change from region to region to resemble local birds of prey, such as sparrowhawks. This skilful masquerade is used as a way to frighten birds into briefly fleeing their nest so the cuckoo can lay her parasitic eggs.
The strategy of masking – which has helped cuckoos survive – in a way echoes how Charlotte, Emily and Anne were obliged to don male disguises to gain entry into the patriarchal literary world of nineteenth-century Britain. By comparison, the sisters’ ploy (using the masculine pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell) may appear refined and scholarly but deception was at its heart.
Like the ‘dark-skinned’ Heathcliff, the Brontës had to overcome prejudice, albeit of a different kind, to make their way in a world that held them in contempt. They decided the best way to do this was to hide in plain sight. Was their choice of disguise inspired, in part, by their father? By changing his own name after leaving Ireland, Patrick Brontë (born Brunty) may have been attempting to conceal his humble Irish origins and associate himself with Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was also Duke of Bronte.
Some names, it seems, cannot be said out loud with pride. When Heathcliff first appears in Wuthering Heights, he speaks ‘a gibberish that nobody could understand.’ Might he simply have been saying his name in his native tongue or dialect? Whatever he was trying to articulate, no one was interested in the words coming out of his mouth. Instead, he was immediately given a new name by the well-meaning Mr Earnshaw – that of his dead son. The mask, placed on him by his adoptive father, does initially help Heathcliff to fit in with his new family. But, of course, he is never truly accepted as an Earnshaw.
Heathcliff is often referred to as an outsider, a cuckoo in the wrong nest. Hindley calls him a ‘beggarly interloper’, and Nelly warns Isabella that Heathcliff is ‘a bird of bad omen; no mate for you’. This othering is a key driving force behind his deep-rooted desire for revenge.

The motifs of cuckoo and mask resurface in a version of Wuthering Heights created nearly a hundred years after the book was first published. In 1939, Emily Brontë’s masterpiece was made into a film starring Merle Oberon as Catherine (opposite Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff).
An Academy Award nominated actress, Oberon’s leading lady status came at a high price – she was forced to hide her multiracial background. Oberon was born into poverty in Mumbai to a 12-year-old mother of Sri Lankan, M
aori and white ancestry. On her path to stardom, Oberon carefully masked her cultural origins – including through the use of skin-bleaching make-up – so she could ‘pass’ for
white and evade racial discrimination. Certainly, if Hollywood had known the truth about her identity, she would have been side-lined by
an industry that only recently has begun to embrace diversity.
Merle Oberon as Cathy in Wuthering Heights
Today, Oberon’s star turn as Catherine Earnshaw seems bleakly ironic. She was a woman of mixed heritage (pretending to be white) performing the role of a white woman whose love interest is the ‘Gipsy brat’ Heathcliff, played in the film by a white actor. Catherine tells Heathcliff: ‘your mother was an India queen’.
Like Oberon, Emily and Anne took their secret identities to the grave. A year after their deaths, Charlotte, who by then had found literary success, revealed the truth about Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Was she finally able to say the sisters’ true names loudly and with pride?
Interestingly, the female cuckoo doesn’t actually ‘cuck-oo’ – her call sounds like a ‘bubbling chuckle’, according to the RSPB’s website. If you’re ever lucky enough to hear a female cuckoo, imagine if you will this flight of fancy: Charlotte, Emily and Anne, strolling arm-in-arm across the moors, hatching their plan, and laughing about the odds of finding success in a man’s world.

Ian Humphreys

Writer in Residence, 2023

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanHumphWriter //

Image credit: 'A cuckoo in the South Pennines' by Paul Bateson
Image credit: 'Cuckoo' by Thomas Bewick

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