‘I am Heathcliff’: My ‘first’ encounter with gothic

It’s almost impossible to pin down the earliest memory of gothic in my life. As I was growing up, Italian TV was not as strictly regulated as it is in the UK and I was exposed to all sorts of age-inappropriate materials, particularly coming from Japanese manga.

I remember, too, catching the tail end of a black and white film adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, probably the 1931 version directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March.

I recall being frightened by the ape-like monster the ‘good’ doctor turned into when he drank the fatal potion. It stayed with me for a long time, and I remember it again when, the same year, a man dressed up in a gorilla costume scared me during the carnival week. When my mum – reassuringly – told me ‘don’t worry, it’s a man, not a real gorilla!’, I was not reassured at all, because I knew men who turn into monsters can be quite dangerous.

It was only in the summer after my final school exams that I finally chose to study Modern Languages and Literatures. I must confess I was a little suspicious of literature, but I was very keen to learn English, particularly because I was interested in music and wanted to travel. I felt English was going to open many doors for me. And it did!

My main reading list was Victorian, and it included Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and George Elliott’s Middlemarch, all to be read in English.

We were allowed to read a few more ‘secondary’ texts, Jane Austen’s Emma and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in Italian. Even with this allowance, when I got my books from the Anglo American bookshop in Rome, my heart sank: I had never read a novel in English before, and the number of pages was stupefying. More worryingly, the programme I had chosen did not start at beginner’s level and after the initial pre-screening, I was advised to drop English!

If there’s one trait of my personality that can both work for and against me is my tenacity. I rarely give up on things and I still approach challenges with the stubbornness of my two-year-old self – I was, apparently, very persistent in my demands, as well as a ‘keen’ reader from a young age!

After working out how many pages I needed to read every day to meet my deadlines, I looked at the list again, and then pulled a volume out of my shelf. That heavily annotated paperback is still one of my most treasured possessions.

From that day, Wuthering Heights and I would not be seen without one another for the following four months! Over breakfast, on the bus, sitting at the back of the class in the useless German tutorials where our teacher refused to speak German, in my lunch break, before and after the gym, and, of course on my bedside table.

Emily and I became inseparable.

I remember being spellbound by the landscape, and the ways in which it became both a character in its own right, and an extension, or perhaps even the embodiment of Cathy’s identity and desire (I was very pleased to see this is captured in Frances O’ Connor’s bold biopic Emily recently premiered at the BFI’s London Film Festival).

The supernatural was not straightforward fantasy, because the voice of the literal ghost also alluded to the figurative haunting of desire and loss. More than anything, perhaps, what captured my 19-year old self was the sense of a boundless self, and the realisation – tantalising and terrifying all at once – that those boundaries between who we are/are not and what we want/don’t want, which had appeared so stable before, gradually became blurred, slippery and even, at times, invisible.