Clare B. Dunkle

Background Notes about The House of Dead Maids

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

funeral monument on Corfu, Greece

I wrote this little novel to encourage teenage readers to tackle Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favorite classics. Hence, my book is very short, a mere appetizer to Emily Brontë's main course. If you haven't yet read Wuthering Heights, I urge you to start on that brutal, gloomy, mysterious, fascinating book today. As Maggie Berg remarks, "There is no work in the canon of English literature which is quite so disconcerting: it upsets our expectations and beliefs about the nature of the novel, of love, and even of human identity." (8) Because of this, the novel doesn't feel dated, as many old books do. It retains its ability to shock us.

I first read Wuthering Heights while I was in grade school, but I knew of Heathcliff even earlier because my mother, an English professor, had written her master's thesis on him: Heathcliff: A Satanic Hero. My mother took me with her everywhere when I was small, and while we were driving around the city or walking to her classes, she would entertain me with anecdotes from the lives of the Brontës or tell me thrilling stories about Heathcliff and Cathy (scenes from the novel, I later learned). To me, these stories—the historical as well as the fictional—seemed equally mythic, and Emily Brontë seemed quite as remarkable as her extraordinary creations.

When I was about nine years old, I came across Wuthering Heights in my mother's library and stayed up through an autumn night to read it. The careless brutality of its early chapters held me absolutely spellbound, and the little hand coming through the windowpane scared me half to death. Throughout my childhood, I revisited the novel many times. (Wuthering Heights seemed to me then—and still seems to me now—more like a place one revisits than a story one rereads.) As I wandered its wild moors, I pondered the inscrutable Heathcliff, trying to find a place for him in my own youthful fancies. But, alone of all the characters I encountered in my early years, Heathcliff was incorrigible. He could not be co-opted, and he could not be redeemed. He refused to act in any story but his own.

I came to believe that the central question of Wuthering Heights is the one Nelly Dean frames near its end: "But where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?" (Brontë, 260) The normal life of Mr. Earnshaw's family comes to an end within seconds of Heathcliff's entering the home. Mrs. Earnshaw begins the quarrel with her husband that ends only at her death. Cathy soon finds that friendship with the foreign boy brings her as much distrust and alienation from her family as her brother's hatred of the child brings to him. Hindley, a sensitive young man interested in musical pursuits, ends up losing his father's love entirely, and his short life is marked by tragedy and violent excess.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help pondering how little of lasting worth Heathcliff is able to accomplish in the book. He bends all his talents and his formidable will to a titanic struggle against society and tradition; before it is over, he has managed to gain the properties of not one but two landed families. And yet, at the end of the book, what does he have? Nothing but a narrow plot of earth in the corner of the kirkyard, with the briefest of inscriptions above it. His attempt to found a lasting line with his hated wife, Isabella, fails even before his son's death: Linton resembles Heathcliff in no regard except perhaps a certain pessimistic sulkiness, and he certainly has none of his father's distinctive looks, strength of will, or intelligence.

Indeed, I formed the impression that, had Heathcliff not come along, things would have proceeded pretty much as they do between the two houses: Cathy and Edgar would have discovered each other and married, and their daughter very likely (in those days of first-cousin marriages) would have gone back home to marry Hindley's son. Without Heathcliff nearby, Hareton would have lost a protector, it's true, but he would not have needed one since Hindley would have had a happier life and would not have been driven by despair and frustration into drunkenness. I could easily imagine the two heirs of these adjacent properties winding up together and the whole countryside rejoicing to see the two landed families united. But this is exactly what happens. So, what has Heathcliff managed to bring into the world of Wuthering Heights? One thing only: suffering. Heathcliff brings tremendous misery and heartache into the story—for himself no less than for the others.

I have always sympathized with Heathcliff over his inability to make any real headway against the forces against which he struggles, and in spite of his cruelty, I have always pitied his suffering—perhaps because he complains so little. If he had been the complaining sort, he would have had every right to ask, "Why did you bring me into this story? No one wants me here, and no one will miss me when I die." When I wrote my novel, I decided to create a place where Heathcliff would feel at home—but I should probably add that few others among us would care for it.

As I worked to create a companion piece to Wuthering Heights, I tried to incorporate the unique elements of Emily Brontë's novel into my own. For instance, her novel features a most unconventional hero and heroine: Heathcliff and Cathy; and she draws attention to their unconventionality by assigning two of the most conventional narrators in English literature to tell their story: Nelly Dean and Lockwood. I duplicated that filtering of unconventionality through a conventional narrator's thoughts by assigning the equally upright young pillar of respectability, Tabitha Aykroyd, to narrate my novel for me. We can be sure that Tabitha was very respectable because even though Brontë aficionados descended upon Haworth within a few years of her death, interviewing anyone and everyone, not a single piece of gossip about the Brontës' devoted housekeeper has surfaced from that day to this. The most shocking thing this proper Victorian servant seems to have done is to tell the young Brontë children fairy stories.

The mystery of Wuthering Heights is irreducible, and yet seems not to be so: we feel that one more careful reading will yield the answers to its puzzles, but they remain eternally just out of reach. In creating my prequel, I have taken advantage of this mystery, of course, to propose answers of my own to Wuthering Heights' conundrums. Does this mean I have found "the" solution to Wuthering Heights—Emily Brontë's solution? Of course not, although I have no doubt that Emily Brontë had one. She could have told us exactly why Heathcliff came to ruin the happiness of the Earnshaw family. Her solution might have involved Earnshaw's betrayal of a childhood friend, or even a curse upon the family as the legendary Hareton Earnshaw was laying the first foundation stones of his house.

You might ask, "If you haven't discovered 'the' solution to Wuthering Heights, then what good is your prequel at all? What purpose is it supposed to serve?"

That's simple. I've done what every published literary critic does: I've used my book to call attention to the elements of Wuthering Heights that most interest me. Using my story, I have created a certain "reading" of Wuthering Heights. The elements that fascinate me include, among other things, the mystery of Heathcliff's origin, as well as certain unusual personality traits of his, such as his loyalty, his bizarre belief that he has a claim to Earnshaw's property, and his ideas about the afterlife. I am also fascinated by the "twinning" that goes on in the book, in which a pair of characters struggles for a position which only one can occupy (such as Heathcliff and Edgar struggling to gain Cathy, Cathy and Cathy II locked together in a struggle for life, or Hindley and Heathcliff struggling over the land). I'm fascinated as well by the claustrophobic naming convention which supports this "twinning," in which there do not seem to be enough names for everyone. I'm interested in the bizarre ideas of religion Cathy relates, such as her frantic insistence that Heathcliff must lie next to her after death, even though she can discuss quite calmly his marrying someone else. I'm interested in her conviction that she will haunt Wuthering Heights and her apparent success in doing so; the mysterious illnesses of Cathy and Heathcliff, which have strange parallels; and the odd roles of Nelly and Joseph, who seem in the book more like pagan guardian spirits than actual flesh-and-blood characters. (They never seem to age, and they certainly never change.)

In framing my literary criticism of Wuthering Heights in fiction, I have followed a venerable tradition. The first person to do so appears to have been Emily Brontë's younger sister, Anne, who probably wrote her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, to comment on and correct certain aspects she disliked about Wuthering Heights. (Chitham, 153-4) It is worth noting here that Anne and Emily shared their fictional worlds and plotlines throughout their entire literary life, so Anne would have felt she had a right to step into Emily's fiction and rearrange it according to her own ideas.

Naturally, every critic who has studied the text of Wuthering Heights has his or her own particular "reading" of it—a favorite pathway through the novel, and a unique set of favorite elements. These critics disagree heartily amongst themselves, and I have no doubt they will disagree with my "reading" as well, but this is as it should be. An astute reviewer wrote of Wuthering Heights in 1848, "...It is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it." (Barker, 178) Wuthering Heights' greatest gift to the reader is its ambiguity, its uncertainty, its refusal to judge either the morally upright or the wildly unconventional characters. This allows every new reader room to create his or her own "reading" of the novel—to settle the mysteries and judge the characters as the reader sees fit. That Wuthering Heights can spark endless discussion, and even violent disagreement, over a century and a half after its appearance merely confirms its right to a place in the canon of great literature. Emily Brontë's brutal masterpiece is timeless. It will never cease to fascinate and disturb us.

To those who would like further information about my approach to this book, I suggest a glance at the essays I have posted under this section about the Brontës and Wuthering Heights. You may reach a master list of them here. I have also written a number of guest blogs about this book. Here is a partial list of them, along with a brief description of their content:

MacKids blog—an introduction to Wuthering Heights
In Bed With Books—Heathcliff's bizarre relationship with Cathy (my post begins after the double dash)
The Compulsive Reader—comparing the natures of Tabby and Himself (Heathcliff) blog—on my life as a schoolyard outcast and my early friendship with Heathcliff
The Book Butterfly—an interview asking about, among other things, music that characterizes the book and my ideas about what Emily would think of me
Carrie's YA Bookshelf—about the cruelty of adults to children in Wuthering Heights
Bookworming in the 21st Century—details about the setting of The House of Dead Maids
Rebecca's Book Blog—an interview about, among other things, getting the setting and narrative voice right
Babbling Flow—a wide-ranging interview about such topics as word choice and publishing success
Steph Su Reads—an interview about, among other things, favorite Victorian writers and favorite scary stories
Mundie Moms—on High Sunderland and its inspiration for Wuthering Heights and Seldom House
Jenn's Bookshelves—on the inspiration for the various ghosts in the book
The Spectacle—an interview about, among other things, life in Europe and why I write speculative fiction
Darkly Reading—on liminal places and their importance in the ghost story
Adventures in Children's Publishing—on the importance of staying true to your vision in the publishing world
Sonderbooks Blog—an interview about, among other things, life in Germany and my fondness for the free books-on-mp3 at (especially the ones narrated by Dr. Praetzellis)
ScFiGuy—an interview about writing for teens and how I feel about literary mash-ups
Cynsations—about humans and other monsters

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. New York: Overlook Press, 1998.

Berg, Maggie. Wuthering Heights: The Writing in the Margin. New York: Twain Publishers, 1996.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights: An Authoritative Text with Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed. Edited by William M. Sale, Jr. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1972.

Chitham, Edward. The Birth of Wuthering Heights. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

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