Clare B. Dunkle’s The House of Dead Maids

By Sonya Sawyer Fritz, University of Central Arkansas

Cover of House of Dead Maids, from Clare B. Dunkle’s website.

Cover of House of Dead Maids, from Clare B. Dunkle’s website.

One of the greatest mysteries of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) is the origin of Heathcliff. Plucked from the streets of Liverpool by the benevolent Mr. Earnshaw, Heathcliff is introduced as a strange, dark child who at first speaks nothing but “gibberish”

and who reveals over time an almost inhumanly cold and cruel nature; the narrator Nelly Dean speculates in the novel’s final chapter, “‘Is he a ghoul, or a vampire?….where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?’” (Brontë 313). Clare B. Dunkle’s The House of Dead Maids (2010) does not fully address these questions, but it does speculate on the situations and events that formed this orphan boy into the terrible yet compelling anti-hero he would become as Brontë’s Heathcliff.

This young adult novel follows Tabby Akroyd, an eleven-year-old orphan living at a charity school in eighteenth-century England, as she is hired by a mysterious lady to serve as nanny and playmate to a young child at a strange and gloomy estate called Seldom House. Tabby soon realizes that the house and its inhabitants are in no way ordinary or benign, and that she and her young charge—a wild and fearless boy with no name and no clear origins whom Tabby eventually just calls “Himself’—are in great danger. It is not until the end of the story that the novel’s connections to Wuthering Heights and the Brontës are revealed: Tabby grows up to become the Brontë family’s housekeeper, the real-life Tabitha Akroyd, who thrills her employer’s children with tales of her terrifying childhood experience at Seldom House. The last time she sees the child Himself is when a gentleman in Liverpool takes pity on him and decides to carry him home to a place called Wuthering Heights. But the Gothic elements that characterized much of the Brontës’ work are explicitly woven into Dunkle’s text from the beginning, reflected in the ghosts that terrorize the residents of Seldom House and the ancient, evil power the estate holds, as well as in the grotesque parody of family created by the house’s residents: the disingenuous Mr. Ketch, his prickly consort Miss Winter, and the two children Tabby and Himself/Heathcliff.

Overall, the novel is clearly inspired by its inter-text Wuthering Heights, but the scope of its relationship with the Brontës extends beyond that: by linking the fictional Heathcliff to the real-life Tabitha Akroyd, Dunkle seeks to provide a backstory not only for Emily Brontë’s most famous character but for the genre and tone of the Brontë sisters’ oeuvre itself, creating metafictional connections between what the Brontës created as writers and what shaped them as writers. As a result, while The House of Dead Maids works as a standalone novel, the book becomes its most interesting when read alongside Wuthering Heights and other Brontë novels or within the larger context of the Gothic tradition, making it a great work to include in a course on Victorian British literature or on Gothic literature through the ages.

Questions for Discussion:

Dunkle represents herself as having “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,” which includes first and foremost the character of Heathcliff. How might Dunkle’s novel change our interpretation or understanding of Heathcliff as Brontë originally represented him? In what ways is Dunkle’s portrayal of the character in dialogue or even contention with Brontë’s?

Aside from Heathcliff, how might other characters in the novel be interpreted as mirroring or speaking to the characters of Wuthering Heights in some way? Can we find echoes of Brontë’s original characters in Tabby, Miss Winter, Mr. Ketch, Mrs. Sexton, or Arnby?

One key element of the Gothic narrative is the way in which it builds psychological terror. What aspects of The House of Dead Maids might be considered particularly psychologically disturbing, especially when it comes to the novel’s representation of children and how they are treated by adults?

Through connecting a real-life figure, Tabitha Akroyd, to a fictional figure, Heathcliff, Dunkle’s novel blurs the line between fiction and reality, encouraging readers to interrogate the relationship between the two. How might this metafictional move affect readers’ perceptions of or attitudes toward Wuthering Heights as a work of fiction? What added meaning or significance might it lend to Brontë’s original novel?

Further reading:

Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Signet Classic, 1959.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1998.

Jackson, Anna, Roderick McGillis, and Karen Coats. The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise, and Christian Gutleben, eds. Neo-Victorian Families: Gender, Sexual, and Cultural Politics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011.

Stoneman, Patsy, ed. Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

April Lindner’s YA Bronte Novels

by Sara K. Day, Southern Arkansas University

Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights, both originally published in 1847, offer readers strong-willed heroines, moody romantic heroes, and memorable settings. They Jane coverhave also become touchstones of the Victorian era for many readers, due at least in part to their frequent appearances on high school and college reading lists. April Lindner’s two recent young adult novels Jane (2010) and Catherine (2013) capitalize on the existing link between the Brontё sisters’ novels and adolescent readers by retelling these works set in modern-day America.

Jane opens on the struggles of college student Jane Moore as she struggles to regain her footing after the sudden death of her financially secure but emotionally bankrupt parents. Already distanced from her two older siblings—who stand in for the cruel cousins of Brontё’s tale—she must leave school and secure employment. She quickly finds herself employed as a governess by Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star. Though Jane considers herself plain and unlovable, Nico engages her in a whirlwind romance that soon culminates in a proposal, a series of tragic revelations, and an eventual happy ending.

Like Jane, Lindner’s Catherine puts a rock and roll spin on its Victorian source material: in this case, the title character grows up not in Wuthering Heights but in an apartment above The Underground, the famous rock club her father owns. Decades later, her teen daughter Chelsea travels to The Underground to search for her long-missing mother and finds Hence, a one-time rock star who had also been Catherine’s first and enduring love. In a narrative that pairs Chelsea’s modern-day story with diary entries from her mother’s adolescence, Lindner slowly unravels the mystery of Catherine’s disappearance.

Because many adolescent readers will encounter the original Brontё novels (either as class assignments or through other cultural references, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga), Lindner’s works can act as accessible ways to engage with some of the major themes and conflicts of the source material. Notably, though, some of the most important discussions that might emerge from comparisons of these novels to the Brontёs’ texts should involve the portrayal of gender roles and attitudes towards romance, passion, and marriage, since Lindner’s modern adaptations might in many ways be understood as more “conventional” than their Victorian roots. These texts may also be a useful starting point for the differences between adaptation and fanfiction, as some readers have raised questions and debates about how Lindner’s novels might blur those boundaries.

Questions for Discussion:

The English moors in which both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are set have become important elements of the ongoing critical conversations about both novels. How does relocating these tales to modern-day America affect other textual elements such as mood, atmosphere, and characterization? Can New York City, in particular, be understood as an analog to the English moors?

The Brontёs’ novels begin with extended descriptions of their main characters’ early lives, from Jane’s time in the home of her uncaring aunt and as a student at Lowood to Catherine and Heathcliff’s wild childhoods on the moors. In her retellings, Lindner offers only a very brief consideration of her protagonists’ experiences as children; indeed, Catherine and Hence do not even meet until late adolescence. Why would Lindner omit or abridge her protagonists’ childhoods, and what impact does this have on our understanding of Jane, Catherine, and their respective romantic partners?

The Brontё sisters—including Anne, whose Tenant of Wildfell Hall has not (yet) inspired a retelling by Lindner—have all been credited with expressing protofeminist ideas in their personal and fictional writings. How do these YA retellings engage with the potential feminism of the original Jane and Catherine?

Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights feature famous Byronic heroes in the form of Rochester and Heathcliff. How is the figure of the Byronic hero portrayed in Lindner’s novels, and how does their status as YA literature shape these portrayals?

Further Readings:

Franklin, Caroline. The Female Romantics: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists and Byronism. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Kapurch, Katie. “‘Unconditionally and Irrevocably’: Theorizing the Melodramatic Impulse in Young Adult Literature through the Twilight Saga and Jane Eyre.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37.2 (2012): 164-87. Print.

Rubik, Margarete, and Elke Mettinger-Schartmann. A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Intertextual and Intermedial Reworkings of Jane Eyre. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Print.

Stein, Atara. The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Stoneman, Patsy. Brontё Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996. Print.