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Background material for The House of Dead Maids
By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010. 146 p.

For those who wish to learn more about the background of The House of Dead Maids, I have written a number of web pages dealing with my research into the Brontë family and Wuthering Heights. You may reach all of those pages by clicking on this link.

Some Criticisms of My Prequel

Anticipating criticisms of my Wuthering Heights prequel may seem like stacking the deck against myself—after all, I'm admitting that my story has flaws, right? Yes, but something that seems to be an error may actually have quite a bit of thought behind it, and those scholars who have given their time and attention to Wuthering Heights may be gratified to know that the thought is there.

Here are some complaints concerning The House of Dead Maids, along with my responses:

THE TIE-IN TO WUTHERING HEIGHTS IS ONLY IN THE LAST FEW PAGES, SO IT SEEMS LIKE YOU JUST WANTED TO WRITE A SPOOKY STORY AND TACK ON THAT ENDING TO GET THE BRAGGING RIGHTS OF HAVING EMILY BRONTË'S NAME ON YOUR COVER.

THERE WASN'T ENOUGH STORY; THE BOOK LEFT ME WANTING MORE.

THE LANGUAGE IN YOUR BOOK IS TOO OLD FASHIONED/NOT OLD FASHIONED ENOUGH.

YOUR TABBY SPEAKS VERY DIFFERENTLY FROM THE WAY THE REAL TABITHA AYKROYD SPOKE.

YOU MENTION THAT TABBY TELLS THE BRONTË CHILDREN GHOST STORIES BECAUSE MR. BRONTË DOES NOT KNOW SUCH TALES.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF YOUR PREQUEL DOES NOT MATCH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

THE TIE-IN TO WUTHERING HEIGHTS IS ONLY IN THE LAST FEW PAGES, SO IT SEEMS LIKE YOU JUST WANTED TO WRITE A SPOOKY STORY AND TACK ON THAT ENDING TO GET THE BRAGGING RIGHTS OF HAVING EMILY BRONTË'S NAME ON YOUR COVER.

The tie-in to Wuthering Heights is most certainly not just in the last few pages. This book was years in the writing and involved thousands of pages of Brontë research, some of which can be found here. It is constructed to be a fictional volume of literary criticism commenting on Wuthering Heights. I'm very pleased that readers are not finding it didactic and boring. (The majority are finding it to be quite a fun read.) But that doesn't change the fact that a careful reader can gain many insights into Wuthering Heights from this book.

My prequel, for example, provides an entertaining explanation for the following Wuthering Heights puzzles:

  • how Heathcliff gets his name;
  • how he comes to Wuthering Heights;
  • why he is so savage;
  • where he comes from originally (the clues to his country of origin are scattered throughout my story);
  • where he goes during his three years' absence;
  • how he manages during his three years' absence to become a gentleman;
  • why he continues to make occasional lengthy trips away from Wuthering Heights throughout his life;
  • why he continues to be wealthy throughout his life beyond what the income from Wuthering Heights would allow;
  • why no one knows where his money comes from;
  • why Cathy doesn't need to ask him where he's been during his absence;
  • why he feels that he should be master of Wuthering Heights instead of Hindley;
  • why he has no respect for the traditional idea that one must be born into a gentleman's family to inherit his property;
  • where he gets his good luck in childhood and adulthood but his bad luck in adolescence;
  • why he and Cathy are so fixated on lying side by side in their graves;
  • why he goes so far as to attempt to dig into her grave in the hope that he will be covered up there with her;
  • why, much later, he goes to the trouble to convert that double grave into a single grave;
  • where he and Cathy get their idea that Christianity doesn't have anything to do with them;
  • where he gets his ambivalence toward books;
  • why he finds the female laugh so startling that he is still trying to suppress it in the women around him thirty years later;
  • why he likes to gather his enemies around him at table;
  • why he is so careful a master that he doesn't get rid of Joseph although he has reason to hate the old man;
  • why he says he knows ghosts exist;
  • and why he and Cathy do in fact succeed in remaining with the land of Wuthering Heights and each other after they die.
  • Beyond that, my book echoes the major literary motifs of Wuthering Heights in an effort to heighten awareness of those motifs. My book echoes the "plundered nest" in all three of its meanings—actual birds being destroyed, the usurper taking over another's rightful property (because most new masters of Seldom House usurp the mastery from the previous master), and the plundering of a "nest" of childish fancies or focus of fragile childhood joys (the cache of "toys" under the clothes press). My book echoes the ghost as the dispossessed owner of the bed, come back to see who's sleeping there. It echoes the filtering of a highly unconventional plot through the "lens" of a highly conventional narrator. It echoes the unreliable narration of Wuthering Heights and the inability of the reader to count on the narrator to see beyond her own prejudices. (We notice but cannot reconcile, for instance, the discrepancy between how Tabby and Himself see her ghost.) My book echoes the odd metaphysical dimension of the house as harboring the outdoors—the land—at its deepest point "inside." Through cycles of Old Masters and Maids/Young Masters and Maids, it echoes the claustrophobic naming/positioning of the characters in Wuthering Heights, who are pitted against one another over problems of status, inheritance, and identity. By joining a Master to a Maid, it echoes the frequent male/female pairs in Wuthering Heights (Heathcliff and Cathy, Hindley and Frances, Edgar and Isabella, Hareton and Cathy II). And, through the brutal tactics of the Old Masters against the Young, it echoes the brutal treatment in Wuthering Heights of children by selfish adults.

    I constructed each character in my book to echo or elucidate a character in Wuthering Heights. Himself is, of course, Heathcliff, already revealing himself as deeply disturbed and badly abused. Tabby echoes Nelly Dean in her sense of duty and her comfort with her servant identity; Tabby also exhibits the discomfort Nelly Dean feels in the presence of a more attractive female rival. (Nelly Dean is unaccountably bitter and mean to Cathy, and I suspect that she envies her.) Arnby is as whole-hearted a pagan as Joseph is a "hellfire & brimstone" Christian, and he fulfills, as Joseph does, the role of cultural custodian of the estate. Mrs. Sexton, of course, echoes the nurturing side of Nelly Dean, as well as her practicality and competence.

    Miss Winter and Jack, through their grand passion and equally grand hatred, show just how damaging the Seldom House ritual is to a personal relationship. This echoes and draws attention to something that I find very important in Wuthering Heights: the emotional rupture that begins to tear Heathcliff and Cathy apart shortly before Cathy dies. Heathcliff has always looked out for himself, but during his absence he has clearly learned to act upon the attitude that people are expendable pawns. This has probably enabled his change in fortunes, and he is now ready to continue the game in the vicinity of Wuthering Heights. Before many weeks have passed, he is well on his way to destroying Hindley financially and has embarked on a plan to wrest Thrushcross Grange from the Lintons through a mercenary marriage to Isabella. Cathy finds this development in Heathcliff's character disturbing. I think she begins to suspect that gaining these material things will become more important to him than she is. In the end, I believe she realizes that if she stays alive, she will not be able to retain her hold over his increasingly cynical spirit. She soon dies and blames Heathcliff for breaking her heart. As a novelist and student of the human character, I believe that such a rupture is inevitable whenever cynical self-preservation and true love try to coexist. Working with Jack and Miss Winter allowed me to study the point and call attention to it.

    In addition to illustrating the ascendance of materialistic selfishness over love, Jack and Miss Winter allowed me to explore other important character traits featured in Wuthering Heights. Jack, the charming and useless gentleman who wants to be liked even by those he is dooming to death, echoes the superficiality and fussy selfishness of Lockwood, who refuses to engage emotionally with others because emotional commitments are so messy and inconvenient. Miss Winter, the beautiful woman capable of a bold, unconventional love, echoes Cathy and illustrates just how destructive bold, unconventional loves can be. (In both cases, it is the children who suffer most: thanks to Cathy's deathless passion for Heathcliff, Cathy II must grow up without a mother, and Miss Winter's helpless baby may not even have survived its abandonment.)

    Most important of all, my book draws on the cryptic hints and cryptic actions of Heathcliff and Cathy to construct a plausible context for and an elaboration of their unconventional religion. Simply put, my Seldom House characters are pagans because Heathcliff and Cathy are pagans. My Seldom House characters revere their local land as a force in its own right because Cathy reveres the land of Wuthering Heights as a force in its own right. My Seldom House characters focus on a matched male/female pair lying in a single grave together because Heathcliff and Cathy obsess over it—in Heathcliff's case, as long as seventeen years after Cathy's death. And a bright, hopeful Young Master and Young Maid of Seldom House fight for life and property against an Old Master and Old Maid because a bright, hopeful young pair of "rightful masters"—Hareton and Cathy II—take the field against Heathcliff and, it would appear, the increasingly restless ghost Cathy. The young lovers' triumph and Heathcliff's death seem to be mysteriously entertwined.

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    THERE WASN'T ENOUGH STORY; THE BOOK LEFT ME WANTING MORE.

    But that's great! That's exactly how I want you to feel. When you finish this book, I want you to be filled with curiosity. I want you to say, "I have to find out what happens next," and then I want you to head to your nearest library or bookstore to pick up a copy of Wuthering Heights.

    Many books that play off classic texts use them just as a jumping-off point, but this book has a different goal. My plan is to persuade as many young readers as possible to try Wuthering Heights. Because of that, the book should feel like a real prequel: "Volume One" to Emily Brontë's "Volume Two."

    I've constructed my book so that it fits into the text of Wuthering Heights like a puzzle piece, tying the two books together in a number of subtle ways. Even those of you who know Wuthering Heights well may find some new things to wonder about if you read it again after reading my prequel.

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    THE LANGUAGE IN YOUR BOOK IS TOO OLD FASHIONED/NOT OLD FASHIONED ENOUGH.

    No, the language is just right. It matches the language in Wuthering Heights.

    In order to write this book, I read Wuthering Heights enough times to memorize key passages. I also read works by the other Brontë sisters. And I studied the language of Wuthering Heights extensively, reading some of the best research and literary criticism available today.

    As I wrote my book, I would stop every two or three sentences (or, often, two or three times a sentence) in order to consult Wuthering Heights, which I had in keyword-searchable form. I also searched Jane Eyre and the examples in the Oxford English Dictionary. I was looking not just for words themselves but for idioms and sentence structures in order to capture the sound of Emily Brontë's English.

    Some readers object that my text is too old fashioned and that modern teens won't be able to handle it. I doubt that. My experience has been that teens can handle quite a bit more than their elders give them credit for. But I wrote my book for one audience only: those readers who already enjoy Wuthering Heights or who would enjoy it if they got to know it. If readers can't handle my book, then they can't handle Wuthering Heights. And if they can't handle Wuthering Heights, then my book is not for them.

    Some readers object that my text is not old fashioned enough—that it's modern, with a few old-sounding words in it. This isn't true, but it is an understandable objection from those who read Victorian or Regency literature but who don't know Wuthering Heights well. Emily Brontë's classic work sounds surprisingly modern to readers who are used to Austen or Dickens. Why is that?

    The difference lies in Emily Brontë's "voice": the author's own choice of words. Emily Brontë did not write in the literary style of her day. A poet first and foremost, she rejected complex, flowery phrasing in favor of spare, direct sentences. Her prose is natural and plain, and her characters are uneducated. Since she stuck more closely to spoken English than to literary English, her prose has not become dated, and it is not nearly as much of a struggle to read as the prose of, say, Dickens.

    Contrast these two paragraphs, chosen entirely at random, from Jane Austen and from Emily Brontë:

    An hour passed away before the general came in, spent, on the part of his young guest, in no very favourable consideration of his character. "This lengthened absence, these solitary rambles, did not speak a mind at ease, or a conscience void of reproach." At length he appeared; and, whatever might have been the gloom of his meditations, he could still smile with them. Miss Tilney, understanding in part her friend's curiosity to see the house, soon revived the subject; and her father being, contrary to Catherine's expectations, unprovided with any pretence for further delay, beyond that of stopping five minutes to order refreshments to be in the room by their return, was at last ready to escort them.

    This is the beginning paragraph of Chapter 23 of Austen's Northanger Abbey. I chose it "blind" by clicking on a link from a table-of-contents page; I did not sift through multiple paragraphs, hunting for "difficult" Asten prose. We see here fairly difficult prose nonetheless. It is literary English—very fine literary English. A modern reader may have to read the paragraph twice in order to figure out what is going on.

    And here is the matching paragraph from Wuthering Heights, the opening paragraph of Chapter 23 (which is Book II, Chapter 9, in my Penguin Classics Deluxe edition)—again, this was chosen "blind" because I did not know what the matching paragraph in Wuthering Heights would look like ahead of time:

    The rainy night had ushered in a misty morning -- half frost, half drizzle -- and temporary brooks crossed our path, gurgling from the uplands. My feet were thoroughly wetted; I was cross and low, exactly the humour suited for making the most of these disagreeable things.

    This prose has a few "old-fashioned" words in it, but the vigorous style here is very close to spoken English, and most modern readers can manage it without difficulty. The short paragraph, easy for modern readers to follow, is typical of Emily Brontë's style. Contrary to what one would expect of a Victorian author, Emily did not indulge in long descriptions. (I should note here that some editions combine Emily's short paragraphs into longer ones, but this is an edition faithful to the original text.)

    This brisk style, which does not hide brutal actions behind flowery words, is one of the things that made Emily Brontë controversial in her day. But it makes her the perfect Victorian author for modern readers to explore, and helping readers to learn that fact is the goal of my little novel.

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    YOUR TABBY SPEAKS VERY DIFFERENTLY FROM THE WAY THE REAL TABITHA AYKROYD SPOKE.

    It is true that my Tabitha Aykroyd is far too eloquent. We know from Emily Brontë's diary papers that the real Tabby sounded like Wuthering Heights' Joseph: "Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate [peeling a potato] ..." (Barker, 29-30) And Charlotte Brontë may have put a portrait of Tabby into Jane Eyre, in the person of Hannah, the housekeeper of the Rivers family. Hannah, too, speaks in simple sentences and thick dialect: "I'm fear'd you have some ill plans agate, that bring you about folk's houses at this time o' night." (319) Shouldn't my Tabby speak like that?

    Perhaps—but if she did, there wouldn't be a book. Mark Twain had the brilliance to handle a dialect-speaking first-person narrator, but I do not. I don't think my readers have the ability to navigate archaic Yorkshire speech, either. (Joseph's canting speeches in Wuthering Heights require their own series of annotations nowadays so that modern readers can decipher them.)

    Besides, in adjusting my Tabby's speech to meet the needs of her literary task, I've followed the very best of role models: Emily Brontë herself. For the sake of readable narrative, her Nelly Dean is very eloquent, despite having been Joseph's counterpart in the same household. My editor asked me at one point, "Should Tabby really say 'ascertain'? It seems like too sophisticated a word for her." And I answered that my Tabby says 'ascertain' because Nelly Dean says 'ascertain'—no fewer than seven times!

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    YOU MENTION THAT TABBY TELLS THE BRONTË CHILDREN GHOST STORIES BECAUSE MR. BRONTË DOES NOT KNOW SUCH TALES.

    In my prequel, I do say this: "I tell them tales that their pious father cannot know, about the red-eyed Gytrash, the slavering devil dog who waits for the wicked, and about the young girl who was murdered by her lover on the moor and who roams barefoot on the bleak hills yet." But those who know the histories of the Brontës very well know that Patrick Brontë, the son of a legendary Irish storyteller, did indeed tell his children hair-raising ghost stories. We have this information on good authority from Charlotte Brontë's friend, Ellen Nussey, who did not at all approve of such outragious conduct. (Irish, 100-101)

    Unfortunately, I didn't learn this fact until after the prequel was written. When I wrote it, I was drawing upon Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë, which mentions Tabby as the source of the family's otherworldly tales, as this excerpt from the beginning of Chapter V reveals:

    What is more, [Tabby] had known the “bottom,” or valley, in those primitive days when the fairies frequented the margin of the “beck” on moonlight nights, and had known folk who had seen them. But that was when there were no mills in the valleys; and when all the wool-spinning was done by hand in the farm-houses round. “It wur the factories as had driven 'em away,” she said. No doubt she had many a tale to tell of by-gone days of the country-side; old ways of living, former inhabitants, decayed gentry, who had melted away, and whose places knew them no more; family tragedies, and dark superstitious dooms; and in telling these things, without the least consciousness that there might ever be anything requiring to be softened down, would give at full length the bare and simple details.
    Tabby seemed, then, an excellent narrator for the tale of the "dark superstitious doom" that engulfs the family of Wuthering Heights.

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    THE CHRONOLOGY OF YOUR PREQUEL DOES NOT MATCH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

    That is quite true. Instead, the chronology of my prequel matches the chronology of the Brontës' lives. It could not match both, so I stayed true to history.

    Tabitha Aykroyd's gravestone in the Haworth churchyard gives her birth year as 1770. But Heathcliff, according to Charles Percy Sanger's careful chronology, arrives at Wuthering Heights in 1771. (296) How can these dates be reconciled? The answer is that they can't. My Heathcliff does not meet up with his foster father on the streets of Liverpool until 1781.

    Only three dates show up in the text of Wuthering Heights: Lockwood's famous dates at the beginning of the two major sections of the book, 1801 and 1802, and Nelly Dean's mention of 1778—but that date, as we have already noticed in my webpage concerning Wuthering Heights' mysteries, is employed in an incorrect statement. 1801, then, the first "word" in the book, seems to have determined the entire remainder of the chronology. Edward Chitham, who has studied Emily Brontë's primary texts minutely, opines that she may have chosen that date because she had read it many times stamped on a plaque at Ponden House. He states that it was characteristic of Emily Brontë to choose numbers or dates because of some personal connection she felt to them. (Birth, 98)

    And why shouldn't Emily Brontë choose any date she liked for her novel? "Why ask to know the date—the clime?" we might say, as she herself wrote in a poem composed during the revision of Wuthering Heights. (Birth, 146) She had no requirement to conform to historical events. She could set her novel in any decade she chose. You see, my story of Tabitha Aykroyd's extraordinary childhood is "fact"—but Emily Brontë's sequel to it is fiction!

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

    Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Bantam Classic Edition. New York: Bantam, 1981.

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

    —. The Brontës' Irish Background. St. Martin's Press, 1986.

    Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1906.

    Sanger, Charles Percy. "The Structure of Wuthering Heights" in Wuthering Heights: An Authoritative Text with Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed. Edited by William M. Sale, Jr. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1972.

    Webpage copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Permission is given to print one copy of this page for educational or private use, provided the author's name appears as author on the printed copy and all citations are preserved. Excerpts may be made only if the author is credited in a full citation. It is forbidden to copy, distribute, or use this text in electronic form. This text may not be emailed or used on another webpage.