Slave to history

Roger Ratcliffe on why Emily Brontë depicted Heathcliff as a black man in Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff is one of the most famous figures in literature. On the big screen he has been played by at least half a dozen actors, from Laurence Olivier in a 1939 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights to Ralph Fiennes and even ex-007 Timothy Dalton.

They all had one thing in common. They were white.

This is despite the author, Emily Brontë, describing Heathcliff’s skin colour “as dark as though it came from the Devil”. Until now, this description somehow never registered with film producers. Heathcliff, the greatest romantic character in 19th century English literature – black? Surely not.

The idea of a dark-skinned Heathcliff was not a wild flight of Brontë’s imagination

Now the nettle has been grasped, and for the first time a black actor has been cast as Heathcliff. James Howson plays him in a new version of Wuthering Heights.

The idea of a dark-skinned Heathcliff was not a wild flight of Brontë’s imagination though. There is evidence that she based the character on real events that took place in what used to be one of the most isolated parts of northern England.

Dentdale is now within half an hour’s drive of the M6, but it was once hard to reach and it is easy to understand how the story of the bringing of enslaved Africans to the area in the second half of the 18th century took decades to reach the outside world.

The legend lives on in the Yorkshire Dales, and it is traceable by visiting old houses and seeking out some graves in the neat churchyard at Dent village containing the remains of Edmund Sill, his wife Elizabeth and other members of the wealthy Sill family.

That the Sills brought slaves to Dentdale is not just folklore

The Sills owned a farmhouse called High Rigg End situated on the flanks of Whernside, Yorkshire’s highest mountain. Their fortune came not from farming, however, but from the ownership of plantations on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

That the Sills brought slaves to Dentdale to work as their servants is not just local folklore. It has been proved by the discovery of a Liverpool newspaper advertisement in 1758 placed by one Edmund Sill of Dent in which a “handsome reward” was offered for the return of a slave who had escaped. He was said to be named Thomas Anson, “a Negro Man, about five feet six inches high, aged 20 years or upwards”.

But how could Heathcliff be connected with the story of slavery in Dentdale? After all, as the crow flies Dentdale is the best part of 50 miles from the famous parsonage at Haworth where Brontë wrote her dramatic love story.

The answer is that between 1824 and 1825 Emily and her sisters Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, on the main route from Leeds to Kendal but, more pertinently, fairly close to Dentdale and a place which had known connections with the Sills family’s social circle.

The link between the Sills and Wuthering Heights has been known to Brontë scholars for some time, and in 2002 an edition of the novel, by Christopher Heywood of Sheffield University, was published showing a black Heathcliff on its cover.

Much of what is known has been traced by Dentdale historian Kim Lyon. She began researching the rumours of the Sills’ slaves in the 1970s and came across an intriguing story. It related to their adoption of a white orphan boy called Richard Sutton, described as a “foundling” when brought to Dentdale by Edmund Sill. Rather than bringing him up with the Sills’ three sons and one daughter, however, he was kept with the slaves.

When she began researching the Sills, Lyon found herself on the trail of similarities between Sutton and Brontë‘s Heathcliff. Both were orphans taken in by well-off families, both were badly treated, and both lived fairly wild lives.

In a book called The Dentdale Brontë Trail, which Lyon self-published in 1985, she wrote that by 1805 Edmund and Elizabeth Sill were dead, as were their three sons. Only an unmarried daughter, Ann, survived them and she inherited huge estates, including 20 farms in Dentdale and neighbouring Deepdale, as well as the family’s fine new colonial-style residence, West House, near their farm at High Rigg End.

Sutton, meanwhile, rose from being the foundling brought up with the slaves to become the Sills’ estate manager. But more interestingly as far as the Brontë connection is concerned, he had what Kim described as an “enigmatic relationship” with Ann.

“It would seem,” wrote Lyon, “that Richard Sutton was taken into the Sill household and treated little better than a servant. Indeed, one might go so far as to say little better than a slave.” And like Heathcliff, Sutton also managed to rise in the world and to dominate his master.

The parallels between fact and fiction are obvious

Sutton now lived in the bleak High Rigg End, while Ann lived the life of a lady at West House, just as Heathcliff lived in the remote moorland farmhouse of Wuthering Heights and Catherine Earnshaw resided at Thrushcross Grange.
Lyon wrote that Sutton’s character “was not of a very high moral standing on other people’s eyes. He had so displeased Ann that, on one occasion, she’d had him flogged”. Yet her will proved she was fond of Sutton, because she left him High Rigg End, another property and one-tenth of her income.

The parallels between fact and fiction are obvious, although in her book Lyon suggested that Brontë combined another scandal from Dentdale for the story of Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed romance. She appears to have mixed the relationship between Sutton and Ann with local gossip that Ann fell in love with a black coachman.

The coachman subsequently disappeared without trace, and it is said that Ann’s brothers had decided such a union would be inappropriate. A century later, in 1902, a human skeleton was found beneath flagstones in the cellar of West House. The implication is that this was the remains of Ann’s lover.

Today, the Sills’ homes can still be seen in Dentdale. West House is now known as Whernside Manor, where legend has it there were iron rings on cellar walls for chaining up slaves.

The current owners have found no evidence of these. Nor is there proof that many of the slaves – according to local legend – were brutally murdered.

Dentdale still retains many secrets.

Photo: James Howson is the first black actor to play Heathcliff, in the new film version of Wuthering Heights

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