... but, then again, I've always rather fancied a bad-boy hero
As Emily Brontë’s 200th birthday approaches, it's worth reflecting on why literature’s Heathcliffs are so irresistible
I don’t quite know how to mark Emily Brontë’s 200th birthday a week on Monday. I’d bake a cake or take a bath and read her one and only novel Wuthering Heights, as I used to do every year, but unfortunately the celebrations can only inspire mixed feelings, because they bring memories of my toxic relationship with Heathcliff, her doomed antihero.
I like to describe myself as a recovering Heathcliff addict. In fact, he was my gateway drug. After I first read Wuthering Heights at 12, I also fell for Rhett Butler, Rupert Campbell-Black, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike and (Hilary Mantel’s) Thomas Cromwell. But none of them was as perfect a literary bad boy as Heathcliff.
He had it all: a dark past (found starving on the streets of Liverpool); a wild soul (even his name says how much he loves the moors); and of course, he was tall, dark and smouldering.Heathcliff also loves big. His love is not mealy-mouthed, it’s never careful; it’s operatic, it’s lunatic, it’s vast. Wuthering Heights makes you hope that Heathcliff and Cathy’s love could survive if everyone else wasn’t so small-minded and pernickety. I wanted a love like that. I wanted a love so intense it could send me into a brain fever or make the man who loved me gnash his teeth and dash his head against a tree till he bled. Dig up my grave and be so blinded by love that he’d swear that, even after seven years in the ground, my face was still my face, uncorrupted.
This was not helpful to my romantic life. As I hit my teens, I actively chased bad men. And not because I wanted to save them or tame them – if Heathcliff were safe and tame, I wouldn’t fancy him any more. In my twenties, I went out with men who were not always honest to me, or nice. It was only when my best friend suggested I have a rethink that I went back to Wuthering Heights.I was shocked to find that Heathcliff is no hero, certainly not to Isabella, the woman he eventually does marry.He tricks her into marriage (knowing it will estrange her from the brother she loves), beats her, calls her a slut, hangs her dog, terrorises their son and lets him die of neglect.
I’m not the only reader who missed all this; the 1939 Laurence Olivier swoonfest ends with Cathy’s death, skipping the bit where Heathcliff turns into a psychopath. It was punted as “THE GREATEST LOVE STORY OF OUR TIME ... OR ANY TIME!”
But the love in Wuthering Heights is not that great. “I am Heathcliff,” says Cathy, meaning she is not herself; she feels obliterated. Love makes Heathcliff unhappy too. He rages about, saying things like: “I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails.” Imagine trying to get a man like that to do the washing up.
Eventually, I started to realise I would have to tear Heathcliff out of my heart. But what kind of man would make me happy? With a sigh, I tried to face the idea I might have to go for a boring, good-on-paper milquetoast like Edgar Linton, Cathy’s husband, whose only positive attribute is that he is “cheerful”. Is there a more damning adjective for a romantic hero?Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre also has a rum choice of husbands (and she only meets two men! The Brontë sisters met curates galore). St John Rivers is worse than Edgar Linton – no one wants a mad missionary with ice in his heart. And Rochester is not much better than Heathcliff.
Charlotte may have said it was not “right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff” but what about her “hero”, who locks up his wife in his attic, goes on a sex tour of Europe, seduces Blanche Ingram and then turns his attentions to his ward’s governess? Mr Rochester lies to Jane, gaslights her, bullies her about her clothes, demands that she run away to be his mistress and, when she refuses, he shakes her and threatens to crush her.At 14, Charlotte Brontë wrote a story praising “tall, strong, muscular men going about seeking whom they may devour” and, despite her prissiness about Heathcliff, she never quite got over the type.
I kept working through my own Heathcliff obsession, mainly on the page, first in a memoir of my reading life, How to be a Heroine, then in a play called How to Date a Feminist, in which the heroine tries to stop fancying bad boys. I even wrote her a whizz-bang monologue where she jubilantly declared “I’m over Heathcliff”, but the truth was I could have called both book and play Getting Over Heathcliff, and I couldn’t quite put my quest to forget him in the past tense.
Not yet. I learnt that as early as 1863, Caroline Norton, the Victorian feminist, had railed against literary bad boys: “Ever since Jane Eyre loved Mr Rochester,” she wrote, “a race of novel-heroes have sprung up whose chief merit seems to be that ... they could ‘knock down a Mammoth or a Megatherium’. Brutal and selfish in their ways, and rather repulsive in person, they are, nevertheless, represented as perfectly adorable.”Why did so many writers represent bad boys as “perfectly adorable”, I wondered? And how could I stop believing them? I had to try. I spent six years, single, trying to work out what to do with my heart. And then I re-read Anne Brontë, who was way ahead of me, saw what her sisters were doing, and called them on it.
In her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë takes on both her sister’s books. Helen, her heroine, falls for a sexy, self-destructive cad. She actually gets to marry him. And the book doesn’t end. Anne Brontë shows what happens when you marry an abusive alcoholic, and it is terrifying. Helen ends up fleeing the marriage, taking her son with her – which wasn’t just bold but also illegal – and she holes up in a ruined house on the edge of the moors, makes her own living as a painter, and falls in love again, with Gilbert Markham, a gentleman farmer. He isn’t perfect, but she educates him, and when he’s worthy of her love, she proposes to him.Although she was prim and miserable and felt “debased, contaminated”, and “indifferent and insensate” with her first love, with her second she feels strong, open and creative. She knows who she is, she isn’t needy or dependent, she is loving with her whole heart.
It was a revelation to me. You might snog Heathcliff (but never try to marry him), you should definitely avoid Rochester, but you could marry Gilbert Markham. Or you could do what I did and marry a man more like Mr Weston, the hero of Anne Brontë’s first novel, Agnes Grey, a curate who is kind to Agnes, and to the poor, the sick, the lonely, and to animals; he saves a cat from a gamekeeper, and a dog from a ratcatcher. He’s also (that word again!) cheerful.
– © The Daily Telegraph