Katherine Clements talks to author Michael Stewart.
Creating a fresh take on a much-loved classic is a challenge for any writer. The novels of the Brontës have inspired spin-offs, homages and countless pastiches, some more successful than others. Now adding to this oeuvre is Michael Stewart, whose novel Ill Will, the untold story of Heathcliff’s lost years, publishes this week. Set in 1780, when Emily Brontë’s infamous anti-hero leaves Wuthering Heights, Ill Will gives us a visceral, unswerving interpretation of what happens in the years that follow.
Speaking to Stewart on the phone, I’m keen to congratulate him on the fearlessness with which he’s tackled one of literature’s iconic characters. It is, after all, a bold move.
‘Or stupid, really stupid!’ Stewart laughs, ruefully. ‘Of course, I’m apprehensive. Who knows how people will react. Of course you’re going to ruffle some feathers. A lot of people won’t buy my explanation, but I think when you’re writing you’ve got to push all that to one side and just crack on with it.’
I’m unsurprised by this pragmatic attitude. Salford born and bred, currently based near Bradford, Stewart’s previous cross-genre work is mostly contemporary, much of it dealing with gritty modern themes, ‘not a million miles away’ from his personal experience. So why the move to historical fiction, and a work steeped in Gothic tradition?
‘It really started with a 1995 essay that John Sutherland wrote called Is Heathcliff a Murderer? The first sentence in that essay is, “When Heathcliff runs off in the storm he is uncouth stable boy, when he returns three years later, he is a gentleman psychopath.” What interested me was that opening sentence. I was thinking for a long time about what had happened to Heathcliff in those three years.’ Warming to his subject, Stewart points out that the novel itself offers up several mysteries about Heathcliff’s origins and the circumstances of his first appearance at Wuthering Heights, brought from Liverpool by Mr Earnshaw. ‘Why would a farmer go to Liverpool, which was not a market town, in the middle of his busiest season? Why did he travel on foot when he had horses in the stables? Why wouldn’t he use the coach that went from Yorkshire to Liverpool for a small cost? I started to think, this is a covert act. This is somebody who doesn’t want to be seen. He’s going to Liverpool for a very specific purpose; he’s not hanging around, he’s not sightseeing. Then, about three years ago, Huddersfield University gave me a six-month sabbatical and I decided it was time to sit down and research the book.’
As for many writers of historical fiction, it was the gaps in the story that Stewart set out to fill, turning to historical fact to do so. The 1780s were a period of intense change in the North, the Industrial Revolution transforming the economy and the landscape. With so much history to decipher, how did he narrow down his focus?
‘I was interested in the world immediately outside Wuthering Heights, because what Emily Brontë does so well is that claustrophobia, that intense prison that she creates. But then I wanted to take Heathcliff to Manchester, where the Industrial Revolution was really taking place, and to Liverpool to see the social implications of the slave trade and the American War of Independence. The Enclosures Act of 1773 meant people were being made homeless and turned to theft or begging, but you’re also seeing the end of the era of highwaymen as the turnpikes and canal system were being developed.’
A rich canvas then, and Stewart clearly has a handle on the bigger picture, but which came first, Heathcliff’s backstory or the research?
‘Oh, definitely the latter. All I knew was I would take him to Liverpool and he would try to find out who he was. I read a lot of social history, and tried to convert that into narrative. Written history is often the story of the wealthy and it doesn’t record the reality for the working class, which is much harder to discover.’
Stewart’s political awareness, and his desire to tell that working class story, comes through in the book. Told through Heathcliff’s eyes, the narrative doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of the age, made all the more shocking by the use of dark humour, a decidedly modern tone and dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ken Loach drama.
‘I didn’t want to write pastiche,’ Stewart explains. ‘At this point in history, to try and imitate something from the past would be a bad idea! But also, I wanted to try and restore the coarseness of Wuthering Heights. The book scandalized Victorian society. It was called savage, violent, and seen as an immoral book. We’re told by Joseph and Nelly that Heathcliff uses filthy language. Joseph washes his mouth out with lye. Emily couldn’t write those words because it was against the mores of the time and it wouldn’t have got published. But I can. It’s interesting that Shakespeare could use those words – words like the C word – and I can today, but Emily couldn’t.
Talking of the C word, a few early reviewers have commented on the liberal use of profanities, especially on the tongue of Heathcliff’s young companion, a foul-mouthed orphan girl, more worldly than her years. She is, appropriately, named Emily.
‘Drama is about conflict, so I needed a companion to create that,’ Stewart says of her invention. ‘But I wanted to make it clear that Cathy is his object of lust and I didn’t want anything to blur that, so she had to be prepubescent. It started off with me thinking, what would Emily Brontë be like as a girl? She’d be a right pain in the arse! But once I started writing the character, she turned into something quite different.’
We move on to talking about landscape – a subject close to my own heart, having set my latest novel in Brontë Country. We compare stories of hikes to Top Withens (the supposed setting for the Earnshaw dwelling), and, getting lofty for a moment, debate the centrality of landscape to Wuthering Heights. For me, it’s an integral part of that novel, but Stewart points out that Brontë’s descriptive passages amount to less than a page of text. ‘I thought, I’ve got an opportunity to put that in. But also, I’m interested in the new nature writing, which is very popular at the moment. I read a lot of that with interest and what occurred to me is it’s mostly very apolitical. For me, the landscape is a political space. I walk my dog across the moors all the time and I get stopped by landowners and farmers. The idea of a permissive landscape is a relatively new one. Even in the most barren places, on the steepest hills, you still see boundaries. I wanted to reflect that political space.’
As a local, Michael knows the landscape well, but that didn’t stop him completing a three-day walk from Top Withens to Liverpool, following the route that the fictional Mr Earnshaw might have taken. ‘I did it in character, sort of method research. I had a Dictaphone and I wrote that section as I walked, so in a very direct way it affected the writing. When you’re walking through a landscape like Yorkshire, you’re walking through history. It’s something we have here in this country; a connection to the past in the landscape, which is a great resource for a writer.’
That connection between history, literature and landscape is clearly a passion for Stewart. He’s spearheading a project that will see new work from contemporary female writers carved onto four ‘Brontë Stones’ and placed in locations the Brontë siblings knew well. I ask him about the impetus behind the project. ‘I live in Thornton, opposite the Brontës’ birthplace and I’ve been fascinated by them for most of my life. First of all, I wanted to put Thornton on the map. Their happiest days were in Thornton and as soon as they got to Haworth, everything went wrong. Haworth was blighted with tragedy. Thornton shows a different side of that story.’
The Brontë Stones form part of the Brontë bicentenary celebrations; five years of exhibitions, projects and events led by the Brontë Parsonage Museum. The Charlotte stone has already been placed in Thornton, while Anne’s stone will be in the flower meadow behind the Haworth Parsonage where the siblings grew up. Anne is the only member of the family not buried in Haworth, and Stewart speaks movingly about his intention to symbolise a kind of homecoming. There will be a hidden stone too, appropriately representing their elusive, ill-fated brother, Branwell.
And what of Emily? After spending so much time in the world of Wuthering Heights, what does Stewart make of her now?
‘Emily to me is still a mystery,’ he admits. ‘Part of me writing this book was me trying to get into her head and understand what made her tick, but I still find her an enigma. The Emily Stone will be in a very barren spot on Thornton Moor, overlooking Haworth – I hope Emily would have liked that.’
Katherine Clements’ new novel, The Coffin Path, is a ghost story set on the dark wilds of the West Yorkshire moors and has been described as ‘a wonderful piece of Yorkshire Gothic … like something from Emily Brontë’s nightmares.’