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.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (re-read)

Since I started blogging in 2009 (which seems so long ago now) I have discovered lots of great books, have tried genres I had never thought about trying before, and have been introduced to some wonderful new authors. One thing that has been sadly neglected, though, is re-reads of my old favourites – something that used to form such an important part of my reading life. Making more time for re-reads has been a goal of mine for the last few years, but I have never actually done it; I’m determined that 2017 will be different! I have re-reads of Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo coming up soon for the Classics Club, both of which I’m looking forward to, but before I get to those two, I’ve been revisiting a book I first fell in love with as a thirteen-year-old: Emily Brontë’s 1847 classic, Wuthering Heights.

For those of you who have not yet had the unforgettable experience (in one way or another) of reading Wuthering Heights, here is a quick summary. The novel opens in 1801 with Mr Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire, paying a visit to nearby Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord, Heathcliff. Lockwood is hoping for some peace and quiet in which to enjoy his stay at the Grange and at first he is happy with what he sees in Heathcliff. It’s not long, however, before he discovers that what he had mistaken for quiet reserve hides a cruel and violent nature. After passing an uncomfortable night at Wuthering Heights, in which he is treated with hostility by the inhabitants and tormented by strange dreams, Lockwood retreats to the safety of his own lodgings, where he begs his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him what she knows of Heathcliff and his household.

Most of the novel is narrated by Nelly Dean, as she relates the story of Heathcliff’s first arrival at Wuthering Heights, a child brought back from Liverpool by old Mr Earnshaw, and raised alongside Earnshaw’s own children, Catherine and Hindley. As the years go by, the childhood friendship between Heathcliff and Catherine begins to develop into something more, but when Edgar Linton from Thrushcross Grange enters Catherine’s life, Heathcliff finds himself pushed aside. He devotes the rest of his life to causing misery for the Lintons – as well as taking revenge on Hindley who, unlike his sister, had never accepted Heathcliff as one of the family.

It seems that a lot of people who dislike Wuthering Heights approached it for the first time expecting a romantic love story and in that case I can understand why they would be disappointed. The relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is hardly a conventional romance and although there is love, it is an obsessive and unhealthy love. When I first came to this book as a young teenager, though, I had no idea what it was about and no expectations whatsoever, so none of that bothered me. At that age, I loved it for the darkness, the melodrama and the passion. The blurb on the back of my old Penguin copy (not the one pictured above) describes Wuthering Heights as “perhaps the most passionately original work in the English language” and I think I would agree with that. Who could forget the moment Catherine declares her love for Heathcliff:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

Another reason people have for not liking Wuthering Heights is the unpleasant, unsympathetic characters. Well, I can’t argue with that. They are certainly unpleasant – not just Heathcliff and Cathy, but most of the supporting characters too, from Nelly herself, who puts the child Heathcliff “on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow”, to the elderly servant, Joseph, “the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours”. And although I’ve always had a soft spot for Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley’s son, I struggle to find any sympathy for any of the others. But again, not liking the characters has never been a problem for me where this particular book is concerned.

This is not the first time I’ve re-read Wuthering Heights but it is the first time for quite a few years. I was worried that I would feel differently about it, but I’m pleased to say that I still loved it. I did find different things to notice and appreciate this time – with more knowledge of Emily Brontë herself than I had during previous reads, I could think about the ways in which she may have drawn on her own life for inspiration in writing her novel (the descriptions of Hindley’s drunken behaviour, for example, were surely influenced by Emily’s experiences with her brother Branwell). I also found myself constantly noting down favourite passages and phrases, such as the wonderful description of Cathy’s relationship with the Lintons as “not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn”.

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read and am looking forward to re-reading more old favourites during the rest of the year.

What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Do you love it or hate it?

Classics Spin #14: The result

The result of the latest Classics Spin has been revealed today – and I’m very happy with the book I’ll be reading!

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book I have to read before 1st December 2016. The number that has been selected is…


And this means the book I need to read is…


Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This will be a re-read of one of my favourite books. It seems that Wuthering Heights is a book people either love or hate; I’ve always loved it and am looking forward to revisiting it for the Classics Club. It’s been a while since I last read it, so I hope I’ll still enjoy it as much as I used to!


Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Nelly Dean by Alison Case

Nelly Dean I have always loved Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Not everyone does, I know – it seems to be a book that people either love or hate – but ever since I first read it at the age of twelve it has remained one of my favourites. That’s why, when I heard about Alison Case’s new book, Nelly Dean, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist reading it despite my usual dislike of prequels, sequels and re-tellings of classic novels.

Nelly Dean, as those of you who have read the Brontë novel will remember, was the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange who entertained Mr Lockwood with the story of Cathy, Heathcliff and the other inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. This new novel is written in the form of a letter to Mr Lockwood in which Nelly tells the parts of the story that weren’t told or that were brushed over in Wuthering Heights.

Nelly begins by talking about her childhood and her relationship with her parents. To keep her away from her abusive father, her mother is happy for her to spend most of her time at Wuthering Heights with the Earnshaw children, Hindley and Cathy. Later, Nelly becomes housekeeper for the Earnshaws, but by this time life at Wuthering Heights is changing significantly. First, Mr Earnshaw comes home from a trip to Liverpool with an orphan boy called Heathcliff, and then Hindley – with whom Nelly is falling in love – goes away for several years and breaks her heart when he returns.

The rest of the novel follows Nelly as she struggles with her feelings for Hindley and her own change of status in the Earnshaw household from friend to servant. The major events of Wuthering Heights are covered, but in far less detail than in the original; Heathcliff and Cathy are pushed into the background so that the focus is on Nelly and her personal story. And this, I think, is why I had a problem with this book. There’s a reason why Emily Brontë chose to write about Heathcliff and Cathy rather than Nelly: it’s because Nelly’s story is just not as interesting. The novel started off promisingly enough but by the time I’d read several chapters devoted to Nelly’s attempts to find a wet nurse for baby Hareton, I was bored. Even the hints of a shocking family secret in Nelly’s past failed to interest me, mainly because it was far too easy to guess what that secret was.

There were things that I liked, of course. I liked the overall concept of the book – the idea of taking a beloved classic and reading between the lines to fill in the gaps and to bring a new interpretation to a well-known story. I liked Nelly herself; she is much easier to warm to than the Nelly of Wuthering Heights, and while the original character can be seen as an unreliable narrator, there’s a sense that this Nelly is being more open and honest with the reader. And I liked some of the minor characters, particularly Bodkin (Robert Kenneth), the doctor’s son who befriends Nelly. But the novel lacked the drama and the Gothic atmosphere I associate with Wuthering Heights and, although it was well written, there was none of the passion I admire so much in Emily Brontë’s writing.

Having finished this book and written my review, I decided to have a look and see what other readers thought of it. It seems that most people loved Nelly Dean and some even prefer it to Wuthering Heights, so I am clearly in the minority and wouldn’t want to put anyone off trying it for themselves. I couldn’t help feeling that I would have enjoyed this novel more if it had been presented as an original work of historical fiction with the names of the characters changed and the references to Wuthering Heights removed. The Victorian period is a big favourite of mine and if Alison Case decides to write a second book set in that era – one that is not based on another book – I will happily read it.

The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

The Taste of Sorrow is a fictional retelling of the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, beginning with their childhoods and ending just after Charlotte’s wedding. Before I started reading this book if you’d asked me how much I already knew about the Brontës, I would have said I knew very little. And yet a lot of the story felt familiar to me – their early attempts at writing stories set in the fantasy worlds of Angria and Gondal, their experiences of working as governesses, their brother Branwell’s alcoholism – so I must have known more than I thought.

Although The Taste of Sorrow does seem to stick to the historical facts as far as I could tell, it’s important to remember that this is a novel and not a biography. Jude Morgan brings the Brontë sisters to life by giving us insights into their feelings and emotions, their hopes and dreams. His fictional Brontës are realistic, complex and three-dimensional, and would have been interesting characters to read about even if they had not been based on real people. We can obviously never know exactly what thoughts would have gone through the minds of the real Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but I had no problem believing that they may really have said and done the things that Morgan has imagined them to have said and done. And that’s the highest praise I can give to an author writing this type of historical fiction.

The Taste of Sorrow, as the title suggests, is not the happiest of books. The Brontës had a lot of sorrow in their lives, beginning with the death of their mother and two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. They also had to deal with the usual challenges and obstacles that came with being a woman in the 19th century. When Charlotte suggested that she would like to be an author she was discouraged by her father simply because she was female. Instead, Mr Brontë pinned all his hopes on his son, Branwell.

I had read very little about Branwell before I started this book, though I knew he had caused his family a lot of pain because of his drinking. I thought Morgan portrayed him quite sympathetically, attempting to show the pressures and disappointments that contributed to his downfall, and how his sisters struggled to reconcile their love for him with their despair in him. Although I couldn’t like Branwell, his character felt as real to me as the characters of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

The book itself is very well written, although the style is unusual and takes a while to get used to, but the strong point of the book is the characterisation and each sister is shown as having her own distinct personality. Morgan does focus more on Charlotte than the other two, though I can see that as the sister who outlived the others it probably made sense to tell most of the story from her perspective. But my favourite Brontë book is Wuthering Heights (I love it even more than Jane Eyre, which I know puts me in a minority within the book blogging world) and for that reason, the sister I was most interesting in reading about was Emily. Although we don’t get to spend as much time with Emily as we do with Charlotte, I thought Morgan’s portrayal of her was excellent and I could easily believe that his Emily was the person who wrote Wuthering Heights.

I was also pleased to see that Morgan does give Anne a lot of attention and she is not shown as being in any way inferior or less important than her sisters. Personally I loved both of Anne’s books, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, and I think it’s sad to see how often she is overlooked or dismissed.

The Taste of Sorrow will obviously be of particular interest to Brontë fans, but I think it would also be enjoyed by a wider audience as an interesting and compelling historical fiction novel in its own right. Now I just need to read the remaining two Brontë novels I still haven’t read: The Professor and Shirley.