On the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth Ill Wil (HQ, £12.99, Audible, £12.99) fills in the three-year gap in her most famous work, Wuthering Heights, and tells the untold story of Heathcliff.
Your story is set in the three-year period in Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff is absent. He returns more educated, richer and meaner. Do you think Emily Brontë had a clear idea of what happened to him and do you like to think Ill Will is close to how she imagined it?
Emily was in her late twenties when she wrote Wuthering Heights, and to what extent she knew about the world outside Wuthering Heights from first-hand experience is debatable. She never worked in factories or visited Liverpool. But she was home educated by her father, who was a campaigner for workers’ rights, women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Indeed, William Wilberforce was his mentor during his time at Cambridge. She would have been aware of the politics of inequality and social divisions, and I believe she felt them acutely.
Is it healthy to see Heathcliff as a romantic figure and how have you addressed this in Ill Will?
I think there are two distinctly different versions of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. The first nine chapters show a coarse but essentially humane character. On his return he displays psychopathic traits. I think we should see him, to some extent, as a product of abuse. Of racial abuse, of violence, of mental cruelty. And yes, I definitely try and address this in my book. He does display some of the characteristics of the “romantic hero” but his sadism and lack of empathy complicate this.
Wuthering Heights shocked Victorian audiences, with Graham’s Lady’s calling it “a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors”. How have you attempted to do the same for a modern, seemingly unshockable audience?
First of all, I wanted to restore the coarseness of the book, its savageness. Secondly, I wanted to retain the moral ambiguity. And finally I wanted to include examples of Heathcliff’s “profane tongue” that the literary mores of Emily’s day prevented her from printing.
Brontë described Heathcliff’s skin as “as dark as though it came from the devil” yet this has been ignored by most adaptations – barring the 2011 film. Why do you believe it is vital to his story?
Mr Earnshaw travelled to Liverpool in 1771 and returned with Heathcliff. Liverpool at the time was the largest slave port in Europe with over 100 fleets heading for West Africa and returning from the West Indies. I do not believe this was coincidental. What business did Mr Earnshaw have in a port town? He was a farmer after all, not a merchant or a sailor.
As well as racism, the book depicts homelessness, poor working conditions, the impact of technical advances in industry, growing inequality and dissatisfaction. Were you intentionally drawing on themes that are relevant today?
Yes. Definitely. There is more slavery in the world today than in the history of slavery. But it was also a time of huge upheaval. Rural workers were pouring into the city. Immigrants. There was homelessness, due in part to the movement of labour but also the enclosures acts. And drug addiction. Soup kitchens started in the late 18th century. There are direct parallels between the industrial revolution and our own technical revolution and many of the issues that we regard as modern can be traced to this time in history.
A modern audience might be less receptive to the supernatural themes of Wuthering Heights than a Victorian audience. Why did you choose to incorporate them in your book?
I present them through a modern lens, and indeed a sceptical one. Things are not as they seem!
You use the distinctively Victorian narrative device of addressing the story to someone – in this case Cathy – and the language is also in keeping with the era. Was it difficult to adopt these stylistic traits?
I am very aware that I am writing for a modern audience, with a contemporary voice, but I wanted to retain the patina of that period. It’s a bit of a balancing act. I did a lot of research into the language of the day, but in the end, I wanted, very much, to avoid pastiche. I wanted it to feel fresh, but to have the hot stink of time and place.
Landscape is so vital in Wuthering Heights and it’s more wide reaching and meticulously plotted in Ill Will. Brontë’s research was a lifetime surrounded by it. What did your research involve?
And yet it only constitutes five lines in the novel. This fascinates me. How does she do that? I wanted to include more description of the moors. My research involved the social history of the moors but more importantly I walked hundreds of miles, taking a dictaphone with me, writing on the go.