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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Why does Heathcliff have only one name?

Richard Wilcocks writes:
A really impressive panel was lined up for us on the Saturday evening (9 June) of the AGM weekend – from left to right in the photograph, Terry Eagleton (Distinguished Professor of English Literature, Lancaster University), novelist and essayist Caryl Phillips (Professor at Yale University),  chair John McLeod (Professor at Leeds University) and our President Bonnie Greer. They were there to pass comment on a thirty-minute documentary with the title A Regular Black – The Hidden Wuthering Heights, which was shown after an introduction by its director, Adam Low.

Filmed on location in Yorkshire, Lancaster and Liverpool, it ‘examines the ambiguities of Emily Brontë’s classic novel and uncovers a shameful chapter in the hidden history of Black Britain.’ The story is located in Dentdale, home to the slave-trading Sill family, whose own history bears a strange resemblance to that of the fictional Earnshaws. The Sills were mentioned on this blog in a review of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights in November last year. The documentary features commentary by Caryl Phillips, historians Iain McCalman and Cassandra Pybus, and local historians Melinda Elder and Kim Lyon. Kim Lyon was in at the beginning of the research process back in the 1970s, and is responsible for much of the work on the adoption of an orphan boy called Richard Sutton, who was described as a ‘foundling’ when brought to Dentdale by Edmund Sill. Rather than bringing him up with the Sills’ three sons and one daughter, however, he was kept with the slaves used by the Sills instead of regular servants. Many questions are raised , many speculations sent flying by the thirty minutes of video, not least amongst  them the one about the naming of Heathcliff. Why is he given just one name, like a slave? Why is he not Heathcliff Earnshaw?

Terry Eagleton reminded us that Heathcliff is a fictional character, a ‘collection of black marks on a page’. Heathcliff is ‘nowhere’ before the beginning of the story, just as Hamlet is nowhere before the play starts.  That’s the nature of literature.  “Literature gives us the green light to speculate,” said Caryl Phillips, and Bonnie Greer agreed, describing Emily Brontë as “the greatest novelist in the English language” who provides us with “a poetic dimension we are still trying to unravel.” She told us that she was writing a screenplay based on the speculation that Emily Brontë actually met Frederick Douglass in Leeds in 1847.

“One isn’t bound to appreciate Wuthering Heights through the prism of slavery,” said Caryl Phillips. “These speculations lead us to some kind of a meditation on this great British enterprise, the Slave Trade, a meditation which began in 2007  when we marked the bicentenary of its abolition.” Liverpool, we should remember, was the biggest and busiest slaving port in Europe. Bonnie Greer said that her perception of Liverpool had changed drastically since the time she first visited, when it had been the city of the Beatles, and mentioned the William Wyler movie version of Wuthering Heights, in which the irony was in the fact that it was Cathy - Merle Oberon - who was of mixed race, a secret she kept until the day she died.

Terry Eagleton explained his case that Heathcliff is of Irish origin, a waif speaking Gaelic, one of the huge numbers passing through, or stranded in, Liverpool at the time of the Famine on their way to America: “He is an insider-outsider, a crucial figure in the English novel from Tom Jones to Harry Potter, a character brought into a domestic situation who becomes a joker in the pack, a disrupting influence… let’s examine Patrick Brontë, the foreigner who became more English than the English… and let’s not forget that Heathcliff is also a shit of the first water, relentless and pitiless.”

Caryl Phillips found Eagleton’s proposal on Heathcliff’s Irish origins to be persuasive. We should not forget Liverpool’s strong Irish connections, and the contemporary prejudice against Irish people. “Well, if we knew these things for sure, the novel would lose its attraction. We can pour into it what we need and what we want,” said Bonnie Greer.

Questions from the audience showed that most of the audience was open to the proposals made in the documentary. One member contrasted Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley to Wuthering Heights, pointing out that it was “very much more factually-based”, and another member revealed herself to be a descendant of Richard Sutton: “He was not like that at all,” she said. “Kim Lyon got it all wrong!”


B. Skilet said...

That sounds as if it was a very interesting evening and your excellent article does it justice.
Terry Eagleton's 'colourful' description of Heathcliff brought to mind John Sutherland's article 'Is Heathcliff a murderer' in his 'Puzzles of 19th century fiction.' In the article Sutherland wrote, ' He left an uncouth but essentially humane stable lad. He returns a gentleman psycopath.' Heathcliff does indeed seem to want to inflict pain on others- intimidating his son, hitting the young Catherine, throwing knives, hanging dogs and thrashing horses.Could the reason be it was because he was suffering such inner pain himself? In your article you mentioned Bonnie Greer's- 'We can pour into it what we need and want we want.' and Caryl Phillips'- 'Literature gives us the green light to speculate.' Perhaps those two statements are as near as we will ever get for the answers to the questions - 'Is Heathcliff a murderer or was he black or Irish and were his ancestors slaves?' It may be there are no clear ones and 'Wuthering Heights' will always remain an enigma and Heathcliff the most inscrutable enigma of all.

Altered Eras said...

I agree completely with what B Skilet has commented - we in fact will never know! But it is fun to speculate & hear 'new' views on the novel. I was there for the evening & is WAS very enjoyable.
I found Terry's comments in particular very interesting & now will definitely look into reading more of his work.
Thanks to all involved for a great event - all weekend in fact - and to all who made me feel very welcome.

Anonymous said...

Several interesting points emerged from this excellent discussion that I think bear mention, in addition to those made in the article. It struck me that the racial 'otherness' of Heathcliff under discussion (be that black, Irish or indeed Welsh) was mirrored by a tacit understanding (demonstrated by all the panelists) of the strangeness of the novel itself. Greer suggested the text could not be fathomed or exhausted, Eagleton suggested it was avante garde and Phillips (wittily) suggested it was bad, fragmented and incomplete in certain ways. All these pointed to its strangeness, its extremity and its enigma in the literary canon. The cross currents the debate might have opened between the form of Wuthering Heights and the radical nature of its social, cultural and political content were unfortunately lost in the final section of the evening. Questions and comments from the audience seemed to demonstrate the dangers of 'speculative' reading: reducing literature to the very historical 'facts' the way we are able to read it render impossible. An extremely thought provoking and engaging evening nonetheless. Congratualtions to all involved.

Anonymous said...

I heard that a comment from the floor by a passionate Bronte fan was the highlight of the evening!
Yet another event with intellectuals spoiling the sheer joy of being immersed in a work of imagination.

Anonymous said...

The comment from the floor certainly was entertaining!
The post referring to the evening being spoiled by intellectuals seems to have been made by someone that didn't attend? If so then they missed out. I appreciate the point, over intellectualising can often (to my mind as well) stretch the bounds of what can be achieved when speculating on what a writer may have "meant" in their work. However I don't think that this was the case on this occasion. The points raised by all of the panellists were well, and clearly, made. The discussion was accessible and very enjoyable to listen to. It was interesting to hear the possibilities of Heathcliff's origin discussed not only in the cultural context of the time but also in the context of what is known about the lives of the Brontes themselves. As Bonnie Greer said the novel just "opens and opens and opens", and this is one of the great things about it.None of the speakers drew any firm conclusions or tried to detract from the fact that whatever outside influences may have played a part in the writing of Wuthering Heights it was the work of a great imagination.