By Sonya Sawyer Fritz, University of Central Arkansas
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?
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.