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.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Carrie Sickmann Han

DodgerThe Artful Dodger, arguably one of Charles Dickens’s most beloved characters, abruptly appears and then disappears in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), leaving both his past and his future tantalizingly untold. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) provides readers with a glimpse into the street urchin’s early history, when he lived alone in the attic of Solomon Cohen—a Jewish watchmaker modeled after “Ikey” Solomon (the original Fagin).  Pratchett’s Dodger remains the swaggering, streetwise, but lovable rogue we so fondly remember. In the first few pages, he interrupts his thievery to rescue a defenseless young lady, Simplicity, from two assailants. When two additional gentlemen enter the scene to assist the damsel in distress, readers watch fictional and historical worlds collide: “Charlie” Dickens, a journalist at The Morning Chronicle, becomes Dodger’s employer and advisor. Pratchett embeds the novel with many such impossible “twists.” In this literary and historical pastiche, the Dodger hobnobs with Benjamin Disraeli, thwarts the plans of Sweeney Todd, poses for John Tenniel, and meets Queen Victoria.
Mayhew, Tosher illustration2Pratchett acknowledges that the book “is a historical fantasy—and certainly not a historical novel” (359-360). But for a fantasy novel, the story conveys a surprising amount of historical information that’s usually reserved for graduate courses on the Victorian period. Pratchett dedicates the novel not to Dickens, as the title might suggest, but to social advocate and author Henry Mayhew, whose detailed survey of the London working class, The London Labour and the London Poor (1851), provides the foundation for Dodger’s setting and characters. Pratchett’s Dodger is a “tosher,” or a sewer-hunter—one of the subjects of Mayhew’s study. He uses a crowbar to slip through drain covers and enter the grimy underworld of the London sewage system, where he battles the stench, the rats, the dangerous waters, and other toshers for the treasures that dropped through the drains above into the filth below. Pratchett brings Mayhew’s working-class type to life, using the Dodger’s occupational expertise to expose the “layer[s] of dirt” and “dirty deeds” that abounded in Victorian London (1). This young adult novel—a Michael L. Printz Honor Book—serves as a bridge between popular fiction and Victorian history and literature. “If you like fantasy,” Pratchett promises, “in a very strange way fantasy is there [in London Labour and the London Poor] with realistic dirt and grime all over it,” and  he insists that Mayhew’s work “ought to be in every library” (356). This attempt to introduce fantasy fans to Victorian social issues, history, and literature is a fitting legacy for one of the last novels that Pratchett published before his death in March of 2015.  This quick and fun read would be a great addition to a British literature and culture syllabus—particularly if paired with Dickens’s Oliver Twist and/or excerpts from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Questions for Discussion:

Pratchett investigates what Thomas Carlyle calls the “Condition of England Question.” How does he represent the Victorian working-class poor? What are some of the social problems he identifies? Who are the victims and who are the perpetrators? Who is able to effect change?

Pratchett dedicates Dodger to Henry Mayhew. How is this novel in conversation with London Labour and the London Poor? Which of Mayhew’s types of workers does Pratchett represent? Which characteristics does he emphasize and de-emphasize? How do those creative decisions alter or enhance Mayhew’s social agenda?

The title, Dodger, is one of several allusions to Dickens’s Oliver Twist. How does approaching Dodger as a prequel to Oliver Twist change the way we interpret Oliver Twist? How does this backstory affect our understanding of Dickens’s characters (Fagin, Dodger, Oliver, Nancy)?

Pratchett blends his original characters (Simplicity, The Outlander, Grandad) with canonical characters (the Artful Dodger, Sweeney Todd), Victorian authors (Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew), and political figures (Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, Angela Burdett-Coutts). How does he represent these figures differently? What does he suggest is the relationship between contemporary fiction, canonical fiction, and history? What are the different functions of these different genres? How does he represent authorship? fictionality? politics?

Pratchett is known for his fantasy fiction (particularly the Discworld series), and he calls Dodger a “historical fantasy” novel. What characteristics of Victorian literature and culture correspond with the fantasy genre? Why do you think the Victorian period is often depicted in contemporary films, video games, and television shows?

Further Reading:

Carroll, Rachel, Ed. Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Kate. History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Saler, Michael. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.