Over the years my obsession with the Brontës has caused me to devour the sisters’ entire adult canon in addition to numerous surviving works belonging to Charlotte and Branwell’s Glass Town/Angrian saga. I even completed my MA dissertation on their childhood fantasy world. My Brontë mania has also caused me to seek out Brontë inspired fiction including the poetry of Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Matthew Arnold, in addition to plays such as Cally Phillips’ We Wove a Web in Childhood, and wonderful children’s novels including The Twelve and the Genii by Pauline Clarke and the more recent and rather brilliant The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente. I must also mention S.R. Whitehead’s fictional memoir of Charlotte’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, The Last Brontë, which I am currently reading and loving. One thing I am still slightly sceptical of and reluctant to peruse however are explicit re-writes of the siblings’ works. Despite some of the weaknesses of certain narratives, I just don’t see how anybody could do it better than the Brontës. Although The Glass Town Game borrows characters from the Brontë juvenilia, its plot is entirely Valente’s creation, and although it has been argued that Daphne Du Maurier’s excellent 1938 novel Rebecca is a re-write of Jane Eyre, it has enough originality to avoid being labelled so.
I was slightly intrigued however by a post on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago advertising The Heights by Juliet Bell, which is, you guessed it, a re-telling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Rather than automatically dismissing this as an inferior copycat, trading in on the success of its 19th century parent, I was intrigued by the idea of an update of such a complex tale which follows its characters from Thatcher’s Britain into the 21st century. Add extreme poverty, drugs, council estates, and the fallout from the 1984 Miners’ Strike into the mix of gender roles and expectations, passion, jealousy, unhealthy and unearthly obsessions, and of course, the ever mysterious figure of Heathcliff, and you’ve got something potentially very interesting on your hands. Heading over to amazon to read some spoiler free reviews, I also checked out the intriguing premise of the novel: DCI Lockwood investigates the discovery of a boy’s body in the Yorkshire town of Gimmerton, a town he has a history with, and which is home to the notorious Earnshaw family who once again draw him into their story, despite his reluctance, during his investigation into events both old and new.
Well, to be honest, the idea of Lockwood in a position of authority was enough to draw me in. Surely as a DCI he must be slightly more competent and clued up than his fictional predecessor. It was an interesting idea for an update of a classic, but could it possibly work? Before taking the plunge I decided to sample the first part of the ebook. If I liked it, then I’d buy it, if not, I’d consign it to history along with other Brontë copycats and pick up the original once more. There was nothing to lose so I dove in.
The short prologue detailing the grim discovery of a boy’s body in 2007 in Gimmerton immediately sparked my curiosity despite my knowledge of the original, suggesting that this re-write would have enough originality to make it worth reading. Who was this boy? And what does he have to do with Lockwood? The following chapter introduced me to the man himself as he returned to Gimmerton a year later to investigate the “crime” and booked himself into Thrushcross Grange hotel. The next chapter saw the arrival of Heathcliff … and then it ended abruptly because I’d already become so invested in the story that I’d forgotten I was reading a preview. I had to read more. And so I did. And what follows is my review of The Heights.
The plot is faithful to the original, with just a few tweaks here and there, but these tweaks are more than enough to keep things fresh and original for those familiar with Emily’s masterpiece. One of the most brilliant aspects of Wuthering Heights is the complex narrative layering which leaves the reader to make sense of the often radically different perspectives of characters, and consequently forces us to constantly shift our sympathies from character to character. Whilst the narrative style of The Heights does indeed switch between characters and time periods (the late 1970s to 2008), it is not as complex as Brontë’s original. However, The Heights is still successful in transferring our sympathies from character to character and is arguably more accessible than its parent novel. In fact, for me personally, it allowed me to get to grips with a pivotal character from the story, but one that I’d never really understood or enjoyed: Cathy Earnshaw. Cathy is a difficult character to get your head around and as a spoilt, headstrong, and manipulative girl/woman her motivations for pretty much everything she does are selfish and designed to hurt others. I’ve never felt even a shred of sympathy for her. Transfer this character to a rundown, broken, and poverty stricken family during the Miners’ Strike and her motivations, although still selfish, become clearer, and my sympathies stronger. She will do absolutely anything to escape her fate and I honestly can’t say I blame her. The Heights estate that she lives on is toxic and riddled with crime, her family is broken, her home is so filthy you can almost smell the odour and filth that Bell describes, and society has been poisoned and crippled by the strike. In addition to this, those who are meant to protect and care for individuals forgotten due to these circumstances, such as Cathy, Heathcliff, Harry, and Luke, clearly do not care (Ellen Dean and Father Joseph).
You can picture the cogs working in Cathy’s mind the first time she sees Isabelle and Edward Linton just as you can picture the life she is so desperate to escape. Cathy is smart and she knows she has limited options in Gimmerton, however, she seizes the first opportunity of escaping The Heights and her old life. She may not be able to ever completely leave Cathy Earnshaw behind, but she is determined to keep her under wraps as she transforms herself and transplants herself to Thrushcross Grange. To conclude, I have far more sympathy for Bell’s Cathy because I believe, as controversial as this may be, that she is a more well-rounded and developed character in her own right than in Brontë’s narrative. Whilst not exactly particularly likeable here, she is certainly not as unlikeable as her prior incarnation. I also got the impression as I read The Heights that Cathy was far more than just the other half of Heathcliff despite the connection between the two remaining as enigmatic, as wild, and as strong as ever. I’m now re-reading Wuthering Heights in order to re-evaluate Cathy and to discover whether Bell’s novel has shed new light on her character, allowing me to fully appreciate the complexity of her character for the first time, or whether the 21st century update simply provides a more developed, and therefore more relatable Cathy Earnshaw.
The Lintons are also more fleshed out and better developed than their originals, particularly Edward. Whereas Brontë’s Edgar had always seemed like an annoying fop and foil who got in the way of Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship (for better or worse), here, Bell provides more depth to her incarnation of the character, Edward Linton. This depth allows us to really get inside his mind and emotions, and fully appreciate the extent of his loss, grief, and suffering. Isabelle also gets more time than Brontë’s Isabella, and, like Cathy, we can see the workings of her mind in her plans for Heathcliff. Her final appearance in the novel is quite different than in the original, but it works so well within the context of this particular novel and its modern setting, and I’m not going to spoil it here.
I could go on and on about the differences and between the two sets of characters, but that would be denying other readers the opportunity of experiencing this for themselves. Instead I want to draw attention to two characters who don’t really change, one of whom is of course, Heathcliff. You can update him but you can never really alter him, but this is a good thing because if you did, he just wouldn’t be Heathcliff anymore. SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD. Transporting him from his mother’s home in Liverpool to his foster family, the Earnshaws, in Yorkshire is another masterstroke by Bell. Whilst he is as mysterious as ever, and his obsession with Cathy remains unchanged, his position as a foster child and someone both technically within but also without the family is a nod to his liminal and ambiguous status in the original narrative, but by making him an official foster child, and therefore a brother of Cathy, it further complicates their relationship and adds a new dimension to the novel. END OF SPOILER. Just like Brontë’s Heathcliff, Bell’s version is blind to everything but Cathy, clashing with her when she desires a new life for herself and never understanding exactly why, as connected as they are, he will never be enough for her.
One character who is ostensibly dramatically different from his original incarnation is DCI Lockwood, who holds this narrative together. Although Bell’s version is a successful and experienced police officer close to retirement whereas Brontë’s Lockwood is a remarkably but gloriously silly gentleman who misreads Heathcliff spectacularly, they are surprisingly similar. It isn’t a spoiler to say that Lockwood kicks the narrative off with his return to Gimmerton and his investigation into the death of the boy although he isn’t even sure any crime has actually been committed, nor that he is drawn to the Earnshaws and particularly Heathcliff. Lockwood’s case is personal though and relates to an incident during the strike in which he was attacked. This begins his fascination with Heathcliff and his desperation to label him as a villain, unlike Brontë’s Lockwood who is convinced Heathcliff is a gentleman. However, they both arguably misread the character. The beauty of Bell’s narrative is that it is left up to the reader to decide just how much of a villain Heathcliff really is and his level of responsibility for the tragedies which unfold around him, and what, if anything, Lockwood could prosecute him for.
One of the weaknesses of the novel for me initially also involved Lockwood. The idea that he would return to Gimmerton after what seemed to me so trivial an incident in both his life and career seemed a bit far fetched, as did his determination to investigate possibly non-existent crimes. However, as I worked through the novel, I realised that this may be an indication of his incompetence as a policeman. Although he claims to be filling the time until his retirement in London and won’t now be given any interesting cases, it may just be that his superiors don’t want to give him anything interesting and are perfectly happy to have him out of the way in Gimmerton, investigating a potentially non-existent case. Like Brontë’s original, Bell is very good at making her readers question the reliability of one of the story’s principal narrators. The fact that throughout the novel DCI Lockwood has no communication with any friends, family, or even fellow police officers, also suggests that he is alone and friendless like Brontë’s Lockwood, and is drawn to Heathcliff’s story because of the absence of ties, family, love and passion in his own life. It also struck me how little Lockwood actually does in the narrative, further indicating his incompetence and general foolishness, just like his 19th century counterpart. Let me set the record straight; I adore Lockwood. In fact he’s one of my favourite Brontë characters and I’m glad that his ineptitude has transferred so well into the 21st century, albeit in a very different manner and guise. Just like Heathcliff will always be Heathcliff, Lockwood is always Lockwood.
My overall verdict? Emily Brontë’s creations don’t so much meet the 21st century but instead come powering into it from their 19th century origins. The Heights is an edgy and compelling read with just enough narrative originality to differentiate it from its parent novel, but without alienating Wuthering Heights devotees. The setting creates an atmosphere of desperation and understanding, that for all its brilliance, is absent from the original. This is a great read for fans of Emily Brontë’s masterpiece and could also be a good introduction to the Brontës for those who have always been a bit daunted by the prospect of reading classic and complex novels such as Wuthering Heights. I wanted to write so much more here but don’t want to risk spoiling it entirely for others. Give it a try!
By Nicola Friar a.k.a. The Brontë Babe