This year, I wrote a short story about a couple of childhood sweethearts who grew apart but couldn’t quite let each other go. So far, so romcom. Only, this was for an anthology, I Am Heathcliff, published to celebrate Emily Brontë’s bicentenary – and it doesn’t have a happy ending.
Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights is one of those books you know even if you haven’t read it. Obsessive love on the Yorkshire moors between spirited girl Cathy and Heathcliff, the glowering orphan her father adopts. When she marries another man, he ruins multiple lives in revenge. Ghosts at the window and love on the rocks, race, class, the female condition, the call of the wild versus the bonds of civilisation and a brain-melting plot where everyone’s got the same name – Wuthering Heights is one hot mess of a novel.
It has also, for years, been held up as an epic romance. The title of the anthology comes from the book’s most famous quote. “I am Heathcliff!” cries Cathy. “We are one and the same… He is always in my mind. Not as a pleasure, any more than I am a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
I’ve heard that referred to as a goal far more often than I have a warning. Over the years, Heathcliff has become a shorthand for a certain type of person, a man so in love that he can’t control his cruel streak. Certainly, when I first read the book – 13, never kissed anyone – that’s how I took it. Imagine being able to rouse such passion in a man! By the time I re-read it for A Level, I was woke in several senses and saw Heathcliffs everywhere. I recognised it in my best friend’s boyfriend, charm in black leather until the day he slapped her face for talking to another man in the queue for a gig.
The sexy, possessive bad boy who won’t take no for an answer remained the default romantic lead. The success of the 50 Shades trilogy felt incredibly regressive, as publishers and filmmakers kept a straight face while selling us a coercive psychopath as desirable. You can trace a straight line from Heathcliff through Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre) to Maxim de Winter (Rebecca) to Christian Grey. The message is consistent: he only bullies you because he loves you so much. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre, or Rebecca – they’re among my favourite books. But I am thrilled that a sea change is occurring in the way we view their “heroes”.
The stories we read trickle down into the way stalky-stalky behaviour is celebrated as devotion, before it’s called out as dangerous
You can say “it’s only a book”, but culture matters. The stories we read trickle down into the way stalky-stalky behaviour is celebrated as devotion, before it’s called out as dangerous. Remember that guy who said he’d play the piano in the park until his ex took him back? What was that, but the kind of contempt for female consent that Heathcliff embodies? Then there’s the uncomfortable leeway that a bit of rock ’n’ roll swagger affords, which I see in the way men (and women) find it easier to denounce sexual or domestic violence in Harvey Weinstein, an old bloke in a too-tight suit, than they do when it’s Johnny Depp. And it’s in the context of what we now know about those men that we are finding new ways of reading the classics.
So, was I Am Heathcliff the collection of romances I’d feared? Was it bollocks. Sixteen writers contributed to the anthology – bestsellers, up-and-comers, literary heavyweights and genre writers – and the stories are as varied as their authors. We didn’t have a brief or discuss our work, yet there’s a theme that underpins almost every story, like rock under heather. Toxic, bullying relationships abound. Thwarted, violent love is scrutinised, never celebrated. It’s a strange thing to say, but my heart soared a little higher on every page; it felt like a collective overthrowing of the pervasive idea that real love hurts. The most powerful story, Louisa Young’s Heathcliffs I Have Known, is a slow creep into horror that shares the zeitgeist of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.
My contribution imagines Heathcliff and Cathy living separate lives in contemporary Yorkshire, where the moors are surrounded by housing estates, she’s never off Instagram and he hits the gym as often as he hits his wife. It’s one of the darkest things I’ve ever written.
I Am Heathcliff made me realise that we no longer live in a 50 Shades landscape, but a #MeToo world. Those stories, those female conversations that have been tapping on the windows for years, have finally broken through the glass.
I Am Heathcliff is published by The Borough Press.
Erin Kelly’s short story Thicker Than Blood is available as an ebook.