Ill Will by Michael Stewart

Have you read Wuthering Heights? If so, you’ll remember that in the middle of the book, Heathcliff disappears after hearing Cathy say that it would degrade her to marry him. When he returns after a three year absence he has undergone a transformation, but we never find out where he has been and what he has done during that period. In Ill Will, Michael Stewart has created a story for Heathcliff to fill in the gaps.

In Stewart’s version of events, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights with two main goals in mind: first, to find a way to get revenge on Hindley and Edgar Linton, and second, to discover as much as he can about his own background. Knowing that old Mr Earnshaw, Hindley and Cathy’s father, brought him back to Wuthering Heights as a child after a trip to Liverpool, Heathcliff (taking the name William Lee) sets off for the west coast hoping that Liverpool will hold clues to the truth of his parentage. On the way, he rescues a ten-year-old girl, Emily, from a brutal whipping and as she is all alone in the world he allows her to join him on his mission.

As the daughter of a highwayman who has recently met his fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, Emily is used to living by her wits and she suggests that they make use of her unusual talents to earn some money for the journey. If her scheme goes wrong, however, they could find themselves in serious trouble. Will they make it safely to Liverpool – and if they do, what will they find there? Will the secrets of Heathcliff’s past be revealed and will he be able to return to Wuthering Heights as a rich and educated gentleman?

As Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite classics, I was immediately drawn to this book when I saw it on NetGalley, but at the same time I didn’t want to set my expectations too high as I have often been disappointed with sequels, prequels and retellings of classic novels in the past. This had the potential to be a good one – Heathcliff may not be the most pleasant of characters but he is certainly an interesting one and there are an endless number of stories which could be invented to fill in his missing years – but as I suspected, there were things that I disliked as well as things that I liked.

Starting with the positives, there’s some lovely descriptive writing which brings to life the countryside Heathcliff and Emily pass through on their way to Liverpool. These descriptions could only have been written by someone who had visited the area and felt a connection with it, so I was not surprised to read that Michael Stewart had spent some time walking across the moors as part of his research. The novel is set in the 1780s (although Wuthering Heights was published in the nineteenth century, most of the action takes place earlier than that), which is a time of change as the industrial revolution begins to transform the landscape and the lives of the people who inhabit it. The north of England is at the heart of this, and Heathcliff, who has been isolated at Wuthering Heights for years, takes note of the canals, bridges, factories and other signs of technological progress that they see on their journey.

A fascinating setting and time period, then; my main problem with the book was the language. I don’t mind some swearing in a book, if it feels like the natural way that a character would speak, but I didn’t really expect to pick up a novel based on Wuthering Heights and find the f-word and c-word on almost every page, especially coming from a ten-year-old girl (although to be fair, I suppose she is described as ‘foul-mouthed’ in the blurb). I found it irritating and a constant reminder that I was reading a contemporary take on Wuthering Heights, rather than being swept back into the world Emily Brontë had created, which is what I would personally have preferred. It won’t bother everyone, I’m sure, and I know that people did obviously swear in the eighteenth century, but it just didn’t feel right to me in this particular book.

The actual story is quite engaging, which is why I kept reading – and although the explanation of Heathcliff’s origins is predictable, it’s realistic given the time and place and the few clues we have to work with from Brontë’s novel, but despite my love of Wuthering Heights or maybe because of it, this book just wasn’t for me. Stewart’s portrayal of Heathcliff was too different from the way I have always imagined him, so I never felt convinced that I was reading about the same character. I’m sure Ill Will is going to be a big success with other readers, though, and as there’s already talk of a television adaptation I think we could all be hearing a lot more about it in the future.

Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

21 thoughts on “Ill Will by Michael Stewart

  1. Lark says:

    The swearing would bother me, too. I’ve always felt like less is more when it comes to using the f-word. Especially in this time period and setting. 🙂

  2. Elle says:

    I did a big old blink at “rescues a ten-year-old girl and allows her to join him on his mission”—I feel like Heathcliff is either too nasty or too self-absorbed to rescue anyone from a brutal whipping, certainly at the time that he leaves (he’s in emotional turmoil! He’s just been comprehensively rejected by his soulmate! He’s not paying attention to anyone else.) And even if he *did* end up journeying with a young girl, I feel like it wouldn’t be heartwarming so much as potentially quite weird; Heathcliff has the kind of obsessive personality that is capable of all sorts of creepy transference. As a reader, I would be expecting him to start idolising (in Cathy’s place) any young woman he gets close to. Interesting that you say he didn’t feel like the same character from Bronte’s book; I’m not sure I’d recognise him either.

    • Helen says:

      Heathcliff does a lot of things in this book that don’t fit with my idea of the character – and rescuing and befriending a young girl is one of them. There just wasn’t enough of the obsessiveness, anger and passion that I associate with Bronte’s version. The writing was generally good, though, so I suspect I would have enjoyed it more it it had been an original piece of fiction without the Wuthering Heights connection!

  3. FictionFan says:

    Oh, dear, a foul-mouthed ten-year-old! Whatever next? If people want to write books like that, all well and good, but I wish they wouldn’t connect them up to classics where that would be utterly unthinkable. Ugh! And although I don’t know Wuthering Heights well, having only read it once, way back in my teens, I tend to agree with Elle – the whole idea of him teaming up with a ten-year-old girl feels… odd. Great review – you’ve given a very clear idea of the good and the not so good. Thank you!

    • Helen says:

      It just seemed so unnecessary. If it was intended to shock or impress the reader, all it did was make me want to stop reading! It’s a shame because the book wasn’t badly written otherwise.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    I can certainly see what drew you to this book. It seems it would have been better for the author to write more in the style of the time to be convincing. He must have had fun writing it though.

    • Helen says:

      I wouldn’t have expected him to try to copy Emily Bronte’s style exactly, but I think something more in keeping with nineteenth century literature would have been a lot more convincing for me.

  5. Yvonne says:

    I think any Wuthering Heights spin-offs would have to capture the essence of the original, both in characters and atmosphere, to be successful. Alison Case tried with Nellie Dean which didn’t quite hit the mark with me and it sounds like this book won’t either. However, I’ll still give it a go.

    • Helen says:

      I think it’s worth giving it a go – hopefully you will enjoy it more than I did. I wasn’t all that impressed with Nelly Dean either, although it was more to my taste than this book.

  6. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, I love the idea of a story about the time Heathcliff disappears off, but I sympathise as the bad language has really put me off; especially the c-word! That is never needed!

    • Helen says:

      No, especially not in a book based on a Victorian classic and set in the 1780s. It just felt wrong and nearly made me stop reading after a few chapters. It’s a shame because it was well written apart from that.

  7. Carmen says:

    Too bad it didn’t completely appeal to you as the story had potential. I would hate to see so much cursing in a story like this because it wouldn’t sound authentic or having anything in common with the original characters. As I said, too bad. I see why it wasn’t a complete success with you.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it had the potential to be a great book – and for some people maybe it was, but not for me. I would have preferred Heathcliff to feel and sound like Bronte’s Heathcliff, otherwise he might as well have been an entirely different character.

  8. thelurkinglibrarian says:

    Michael Stewart isn’t the first author to write a novel that attempted to account for what happened during Heathcliff’s three years away from Wuthering Heights

    Have you read Jeffrey Caine’s 1977 novel, “Heathcliff: The Missing Years”? I’ve just started to read it and am enjoying it so far. I found your review of “Ill Will” by accident when searching the web for background information on Caine’s novel.

    There was also a stage musical called “Heathcliff” written in the 1990s, that offers an explanation of what happened when Heathcliff was away and how he made his fortune. The show featured music by John Farrar (“Grease”) and lyrics by Tim Rice (“The Lion King” & “Jesus Christ Superstar”). Cliff Richard starred in the lead role and co-wrote the story with director Frank Dunlop. The explanation for Heathcliff’s years of adventure in this show is not based on Jeffrey Caine’s earlier novel, but is a completely different theory.

    • Helen says:

      This is the only book I’ve read about Heathcliff’s missing years, but it doesn’t surprise me to hear that other authors have had the same idea. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Jeffrey Caine book – if I do decide to read another Heathcliff novel I’ll try to get a copy of that one. I remember hearing about the Cliff Richard musical in the 1990s but I didn’t see it.

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