Trigger warning: Contains excessive foul language.
Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have started reading. I say probably because I have a feeling that curiosity might have got the better of me in this case. Disvering what happened to Heathcliff during his absence from Wuthering Heights is a fascination that I nevertheless would have found irresistible.
Michael Stewart’s defence is that Emily Brontë gave Heathcliff a foul mouth, only she couldn’t report it using direct speech. So Nelly Dean comments on it and, at one point, Joseph washes out the boy’s mouth with lye. So we know it’s bad, and when Stewart’s novel opens, Heathcliffe is not just angry, he is seething. What other than obscene profanities would issue forth from his lips at this point?
It’s not the only shock in Stewart’s novel. Let’s talk about the colour of Heathcliff’s skin. I never thought of him as mixed-race. Though that would explain an awful lot. Well, the idea might be new to me, but seemingly not in artistic circles. James Howson played the part in the 2011 remake of Wuthering Heights. (Note to self. Must watch soon.)
Stewart’s novel is one revelation after another, and not only for me. Heathcliff is on a journey back to Liverpool to discover his origins, and what he discovers shocks him as much as Stewart shocked me. If he thought life was hard at the Yorkshire farm, he’s in for a rude awakening as he makes his penniless way through Northern England of the 1790’s, a rural community ravaged by the impact of the Enclosures Act and the growth of the industrialised city. There are no good Samaritans here, and certainly none for Heathcliff’s kind.
At the beginning of his quest – or rather anti-quest (because no honourable outcomes are intended) – Heathcliff is the one with an inner justice. Ironically. But saving a young orphaned girl from a whipping is the act that ensures he’s a fugitive for the rest of the novel with the young girl in tow. Not that she hampers him. Turns out the 10-year old daughter of an executed highwayman is more worldly-wise than he. Her mouth is regrettably as foul as his, but she does have a few tricks that put bread in their mouths.
Their journey across the country is a recreation in reverse of the one taken by Mr Earnshaw when bringing Heathcliff to Wuthering Heights, and one that Stewart himself undertook – authentically, on foot – while researching the novel. Descriptions of the countryside reflect the deep love we know Heathcliff and his creator to have had for the Yorkshire moors. The beauty of these passages is a welcome relief from the harshness and brutality of events that gradually transform a sensitive, penniless young man into a hardened, but wealthy psychopath.
This isn’t the novel for those who wish to retain a picture of Heathcliff as a romantic hero. But the last time I read Wuthering Heights, (and I determined it would be the last time, because I hated it), I lost all notion of that. So I found Stewart’s version of events credible. And intriguing. I now have to go back to the original to follow the clues that had completely passed me by.
Never did I think I would say that. Never.
Which means, that despite the foul language, this novel spoke to me in ways completely unforeseen. And so while I do recommend it, I can’t do so wholeheartedly. And that I think is a pity.