Heathcliff is half of one of the most famous couples in nineteenth-century literature, yet he’s absent for a significant portion of Emily Bronte’s 1847 Wuthering Heights, a novel that’s inspired a myriad adaptations and retellings. What happened to Heathcliff to transform him from a brutish orphan into a calculating villain? Where did he come by the wealth that catapults him to a higher social position from which he could wreak his revenge?
Michael Stewart takes on these questions and more in his 2018 novel Ill Will, subtitled ‘The Untold Story of Heathcliff’. The result is a novel that’s, crucially, true to the spirit of Wuthering Heights, as it fills in the gaps in the original narrative. The coarseness of Emily Bronte’s characters, the violence of their actions and the immediacy of her language set her apart from her peers. Michael Stewart’s novel would have been unwritable in the 1840s and still shocks today, with graphic depictions of assault and murder and curse words that may put some readers off, especially in the mouth of the key supporting character—a prepubescent girl.
Stewart’s Heathcliff sets off on foot from Wuthering Heights to Manchester and then Liverpool, in search of his origins (and enough food, money and shelter to survive). But the journey is fraught with dangers—highwaymen, unrest among the labouring classes, the dark anger towards Cathy, Hindley and Linton that he feels inside.
Michael Stewart literally walked the walk in doing his research (recreating Heathcliff and Mr Earnshaw’s pilgrimage) and it shows. He renders the Northern English landscapes, urban and pastoral, in bleak and exquisite detail, sometimes losing himself a little too much in his catalogue of British birds and horticulture (there’s only so many times you can read the word ‘peewit’ in succession!).
The plot will also delight students and scholars of the Victorian period. Years of debate—about Heathcliff’s race, for instance, and the quasi-incestuous nature of his relationship with Cathy—are explored. In fact John Sutherland’s wonderful essay, ‘Is Heathcliff a murderer?’, was the catalyst for the novel’s creation.
Less successful, perhaps, are the passages where the genre borders on mystery, with Heathcliff and his youthful companion, aptly named Emily, interviewing a series of unsavoury characters to work out our anti-hero’s lineage. While sly nods to the Bronte siblings’ real lives in the names of places and people are a clever touch, the conceit feels a little too early twentieth-century detective fiction. The novel recovers once we’re back to bloody fights and living in the wild.
Ill Will is a Gothic tale conceived in the twenty-first century, set in the eighteenth and based on a nineteenth-century masterpiece. If you’re looking for the Heathcliff of costume dramas, or like your historical fiction to be decorous and well mannered, you may be disappointed. But something tells me Emily Bronte herself would have approved.
Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.