Kate Walker's latest romance, The Return of the Stranger, is based on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and on Saturday 17 September she gave a talk about them at the 2011 Brontë Festival of Women's Writing (organised by the Brontë Society and the Brontë Parsonage Museum). As stated in the programme, Kate is "A huge admirer of the Brontës, she wrote her MA thesis on the work of Charlotte and Emily Brontë." I was very pleased to be able to interview Kate on behalf of those of us who couldn't get to Haworth.
Laura: When I first learned that you'd be writing a romance based on Wuthering Heights as part of a four-book Harlequin Mills & Boon series (The Powerful and the Pure) based on classic novels I thought you perhaps had the hardest job of the four authors. They based theirs on Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. You have Wuthering Heights and although I suppose it's possible to argue that Wuthering Heights fits the Romance Writers of America's definition of a romance because it has "a central love story" (RWA) and "the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love" (RWA), by the time Catherine and Heathcliff are finally united they're both dead and have brought misery to almost everyone in their vicinity.
Who came up with the idea for the series and how did you end up writing a romance based on Wuthering Heights?
Kate Walker: Thanks for inviting me to do this interview Laura – it’s been fascinating wearing both of my ‘hats’ as an academic and a writer of popular romance to look at Wuthering Heights and answer your questions.
OK – so the idea for writing the mini series based on these classic books of romantic fiction was originally put to me by my editor. It was one of the editorial ideas that were being considered at the time and I’d recently written a book in a series on the Greek Myths which had been very popular, so with that and my MA in English Lit, I suppose I was a pretty natural choice as one of the authors involved. Originally, I was asked to write a book inspired by Mrs Gaskell’s North and South – I suppose because of the hugely successful TV production here in the UK, but I wondered if perhaps American readers might think this was the North and South by John Jakes that was televised starring Patrick Swayze. I was working on The Proud Wife at the time and there was a bit of a rethink, then next I heard was that they now wanted me to do Wuthering Heights. I’d recently appeared on a panel discussing the Brontës and Romantic Fiction at an event organised by The Brontë Society and of course Mills and Boon know about my MA thesis on Emily and Charlotte’s childhood writings and how they reflected in the adult novels they wrote.
So Wuthering Heights was mine – I think I’d have been very jealous of anyone who’d been asked to do this one! But yes, it was a problematic novel to work on as a romance writer. I’ve said several times that I don’t really believe it is a love story – it’s hugely romantic if you’re defining romance in terms of powerful, passionate emotions between a man and a woman, but it’s more a novel about passion and possession and power than a long-lasting love that would translate easily into the happy-ever-after ending romances promise the readers – the reason readers come back to them again and again. But the love these two share is ultimately a destructive one – it is a wild, ferocious storm of emotion and one that, as you say, is so self-absorbed that it has brought misery to so many others in their vicinity. It’s interesting that the real love story – that between younger Catherine and Hareton – seems so mild in comparison that in so many film adaptations it gets left out completely and yet this is a love of real strength that flowers in spite of the very rough ground it grows on and both Catherine 2 and Hareton defy the dangers of Heathcliff’s rage quietly and steadily as they grow to care for each other. In the end, the wild passion brings nothing but destruction, while the love story promises the hope of rebuilding a future. Together.
So that’s some of what I had to contend with - giving my Heath and Kat the understanding and strength of love, forgiveness, sharing while trying not to diminish them in the passionate, tempestuous love that readers remember from Wuthering Heights. I also had to make two characters who some readers find totally hateful, cruel and even downright evil, believably sympathetic and ultimately loveable.
Laura: You mention in your letter to the reader that when you were a child your
teacher started to read us Wuthering Heights. We only ever heard the start of the story - up to the moment when Heathcliff turned his back on Cathy and walked away to make his fortune - so I didn't know what happened until I found a copy on my mother's bookshelves [...] I had always hoped that Wuthering Heights would have a happy-ever-after for Cathy and Heathcliff. But even from the start I had somehow known that that wasn't going to be. (2)Heathcliff has often been described, along with Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester, as a romantic hero, but I wonder if, in order to turn him into a romance hero, a reader has to adopt the position of Isabella Linton who, as Heathcliff says, eloped with him "under a delusion [...] picturing in me a hero of romance" (Chapter 14), having dismissed Catherine's warnings:
'I wouldn't be you for a kingdom [...] !' Catherine declared, emphatically: and she seemed to speak sincerely. 'Nelly, help me to convince her of her madness. Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. [...] It is deplorable ignorance of his character, child, and nothing else, which makes that dream enter your head. Pray, don't imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He's not a rough diamond - a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man. [...] avarice is growing with him a besetting sin. [...] There's my picture: and I'm his friend. [...]' (Chapter 10)Is he a good template on which to base a Mills & Boon hero? Mills & Boon state that in the line of novels you write for,
When the hero strides into the story he's a powerful, ruthless man who knows exactly what - and who - he wants and he isn't used to taking no for an answer! Yet he has depth and integrity.
Kate Walker: Your question makes me think of the many different ways I’ve ‘read’ Heathcliff over my lifetime, and more rereadings of Wuthering Heights than I can count. When I first heard the story of Heathcliff – just the beginning as you’ve described above – I fell head over heels with the hero of that story. I saw him so much as the wronged victim, lost, orphaned, treated appallingly by Hindley. It wasn’t until I found the whole book and read the complete story that my opinions started to change. I could see exactly why my schoolteacher had stopped where he did – and never finished the story for his class of 10-11 year olds. And yes, I think that early feeling, seeing him as a romantic hero, does have to be “under a delusion [...] picturing in me a hero of romance.”
Ever since then, each time I read the book I feel slightly different about Heathcliff. He’s brutal, cruel, he treats his own son appallingly, he hangs Isabella’s dog – when I said I was reworking Wuthering Heights, it was amazing how many people cited that as a reason to detest him rather than the way he treats the people who have the misfortune to be part of his plan of revenge and then his savagery after the loss of Cathy.
That’s when he ceases to be a hero for me now – when he loses depth and integrity. If I create a hero who is looking for revenge then he needs to take out his revenge on the person who deserves it, not her sister-in-law or her daughter or someone else who is linked to the person who hurt him, but isn’t directly involved in the hurt he has suffered. So my Heath can take revenge on Kat’s brother Joe, who, like Hindley, treated him appallingly and in Wuthering Heights Hindley is the author of his own downfall.
Writing a Modern Romance for Mills and Boon today, the trick is to make the hero ambiguous and open to different interpretations so that the reader initially believes that he is “an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone.” But in reality he “conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior!” Heathcliff is as Cathy describes him – “He's not a rough diamond - a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man” but he has intense romantic appeal in that so many people say ‘who wouldn’t want to be loved like that?’ - but that’s a dangerous, destructive ‘love’ even if it is intensely passionate.
So – both as a writer and as a person, I couldn’t justify Heathcliff’s behaviour, no matter how badly he has been treated in his youth; the revenge he exacts – and the people he destroys as a result – are out of all proportion. I need to have a hero who is a man of honour, who is a powerful, ruthless man who knows exactly what he wants but who doesn’t lie, cheat, hurt people just for hurting’s sake. Ambiguous maybe – but not downright cruel and evil.
Laura: I don't want to spoil the fun for readers who'd like to compare the two novels, so I shan't discuss this in detail, but it struck me that in addition to the changes you've made to the personality of Heathcliff, you've also made very significant changes to Edgar Linton and (I don't think this is a spoiler since it's revealed very early on) in a sense you've also literally sacrificed him so that your Kat can have her happy ending. Did you to some extent merge Edgar Linton with Linton Heathcliff to produce your Arthur Charlton? It certainly seemed to me that your Kat is a mixture of both Catherines, and that your Heath is a mixture of Heathcliff and Hareton. If so, it seemed to me that you had some textual justification for writing them like this because Linton bears a "strong [...] resemblance" (Chapter 19) to his uncle Edgar, the Catherines are mother and daughter and share the same name and, towards the end of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff says that "Five minutes ago, Hareton seemed a personification of my youth" (Chapter 33).
Kate Walker: One of the problems of writing a very much shorter book and one that obviously cannot possibly have the depth of Emily Brontë’s amazing original is that there isn’t space in 55,000 words to develop anything more than the central plot, or to bring in a large cast of secondary characters. (Though interestingly several people have commented on the fact that The Return of The Stranger actually has a bigger ‘cast’ than I usually deal in!) Some characters had to go, some had to be changed. Wuthering Heights has so many deaths in it but more than one would overload a short romance, but if Kat and Heath were to have their happy ending, I had to deal with the question of her marriage to Edgar/Arthur – and do so within the short space of the timeframe of a romance. No chance for 31 years and several generations as Emily Brontë had. Just as I’ve always had ambiguous feelings about Heathcliff, I’ve never seen Edgar as a sweet, lovable, caring man who was going to be a good husband to Cathy. When we first see Edgar, he and his sister have been fighting over a puppy – “That was their pleasure – to fight over a heap of warm hair, and each begin to cry because both, after struggling to get it, refused to take it” (Chapter 6). They hurt the puppy in this exchange – shades of Heathcliff’s callous treatment of Isabella’s dog. And later Edgar can be petulant, petty, mean . . So I already had a feeling of Edgar having a lot in common with his nephew Linton – and really Emily Brontë doesn’t show either of the Lintons as being anything but spoilt and pretty selfish. So I could combine all of these characteristics – with the strong possibility that one in particular might apply to Linton Heathcliff to create the character of Kat’s husband.
I think you’re right in that yes the two Catherines could be said to merge in Kat, and Heathcliff and Hareton could be said to merge into Heath. Catherine Earnshaw certainly needs softening - she is a very difficult, wild and selfish character. Though it was never that deliberate or thought out. I had created my central characters, and then they took on a life of their own – but because I needed to add in those ‘lovable’ elements to make their happy ending work, they inevitably ended up with aspects of the two people who in the original novel are capable of a loving relationship. It’s interesting that you’ve read it in this way when you are studying the book objectively and I would say that I didn’t rationalise these elements, but was working creatively - and now I can see that yes they are there. It’s one of the questions that fascinates me with my two ‘hats’ on – how much of the symbolism and the elements that critics analyse so much were deliberate planning on Emily’s part, and how much was just the burning flow of her imagination working on a deeper instinctive level.
Laura: The Harlequin/Mills & Boon line you write for is characterised by "smouldering intensity and red-hot desire." There's certainly intensity in the relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Catherine, for example, states that
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. (Chapter 9)However, this isn't exactly the same as 'red-hot desire' and Patsy Stoneman has recently argued that
The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff [...] follows the many intense brother-sister relationships found in the Romantic poetry of Byron and Shelley, and is inevitably tragic since it cannot be consummated except in nostalgia for childhood or anticipation of death.I noticed that in your novel it's revealed that, at the point when Heath left Kat, her feelings for him were childlike: "He had become a man when she was still lingering in girlhood - still in so many ways a child - so that she hadn't recognised what was growing between them" (135-36). What's your view of the nature of the relationship between the original Catherine and Heathcliff?
Kate Walker: There’s a lot of evidence for Patsy Stoneman’s argument – if you study a timeline for Wuthering Heights, Catherine is only just 15 when Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights to make his fortune. Her birthdate is around 28th May 1765 and Heathcliff leaves about August 1780. Catherine is in fact only 18 when she dies. And Heathcliff is just about 20. So they are very young in the early part of the story. Some film versions and TV adaptations have made their early relationship a very sexual one, but the passion and devotion inspired by longing and non-consummation of their relationship is perfectly believable too. Today we tend to think in terms of passion being sexual but sexual anticipation, sexual tension builds the intensity harder and stronger in a story as in life.
There’s a possibility of interpreting Catherine’s ‘madness’ and decline to her death as being strongly connected with her pregnancy as well as the emotional upheaval of Heathcliff’s return etc. If Cathy and Edgar marry about 12th March 1783, and she dies giving birth to young Cathy, I have felt that there it is possible to read into the book the fact that in marriage, coming up against the reality of sexual love between a man and a woman, she longs for the ‘innocence’ and intensity of the relationship of their youth and the loss of the freedom of their childhood.
Again this is something that I’ve read differently at different stages of my own life – when I first saw a TV production of Wuthering Heights it was the 1967 version with a young Ian McShane as Heathcliff. I was young and impressionable too - and I couldn’t imagine how anyone could not want to go to bed with him! But even at 25, McShane was older than Heathcliff ever was when Cathy was alive. But then I didn’t register quite how young Cathy and Heathcliff were. It wasn’t until I studied the book as a critic rather than swallowed it whole as a passionate reader that I started to wonder and question. I suspect that if Heathcliff and Cathy had slept together then their relationship would not have been lived at the intensity it is. And if Heathcliff knows that Edgar has been Cathy’s lover his jealousy will be all the more savage. Certainly I found that this worked very well for me with the characters I had created and the relationship that developed between them.
This all of course begs the question of what Emily Brontë, spinster, clergyman’s daughter, knew of sex. I still remember when I did my MA thesis reading a totally serious discussion of Emily having a French lover – possibly one she met in Belgium – called Louis Parensell. This was in fact the result of Virginia Moore misreading the handwritten title of Emily’s poem Love’s Farewell. So we don’t know - but there is a lot of the same ardent yearning and passion in Emily’s sister Charlotte’s relationship with M Heger so she might have drawn on some of that for inspiration.
I used the fact that Cathy was so young when Heathcliff left as part of the story of The Return of The Stranger because it’s in the original and because it fitted well with adding another dimension to the reason Heathcliff left. The famous words “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff” (Chapter 9) that Catherine Earnshaw declares were perfectly justifiable when they were written – even more when you consider that Wuthering Heights is in fact a historical novel, set over 70 years before the date when Emily wrote it. It would have degraded her to marry the servant Hindley had made him. But that wouldn’t fit with the 21st century mentality. We would expect love to conquer all, no matter what position in life the hero and heroine hold. And I couldn’t make Heath stay under Joe’s oppressive rule for too long or he wouldn’t appear heroic if he didn’t fight back. But if he went away to make something of himself and because he knew that the feelings he was having for this young girl were sexual then that fitted.
Laura: You've made your hero Brazilian and called him Heath Montanha (which means "mountain," I think). I thought that was quite clever, and it also occurred to me that you have some textual authorisation for giving Heathcliff a new nationality. After all, Nelly Dean once suggested to him that
Who knows, but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week's income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together? And you were kidnapped by wicked sailors, and brought to England. Were I in your place, I would frame high notions of my birth. (Chapter 7)Indeed, your own novel recalls that passage when Heath states that "you were the one who once told me that my father could have been an emperor of China" (29). In addition, the original novel is told by one narrator (Mr Lockwood) who is recounting the details told to him by another narrator (Nelly Dean) and questions have been raised about their reliability. Did these things make you feel more comfortable about creating your own version of the story?
Kate Walker: There’s lot of justification for considering that Heathcliff is not English, that he might have a partly or totally foreign heritage. In fact, because he is so dark in appearance there is the possibility that he was black. And the latest actor to be cast as Heathcliff, James Howson, is black. Lockwood describes Heathcliff as: “a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect...” (Chapter 1) and Mr Linton says in Chapter 6:
Oho! I declare he is that strange acquisition my late neighbour made, in his journey to Liverpool—a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway.And when he is first brought to Wuthering Heights, no one understands him:
yet when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand. (Chapter 4)So there was plenty there to give him a different nationality.
Then there was the fact that Mr Earnshaw had found Heathcliff in Liverpool, a busy international port – and Heathcliff could have arrived there on any of the boats. I assumed that boats would arrive there from the west, from the Americas – and that was also where Heath could go to start his new life after he left High Farm. I also needed to explain his absence and his return as a wealthy man. No one says how Heathcliff made his money and in fact Emily Brontë didn’t really need to say how he came by it, but I did. There are suspicions that he was a gambler, or in the army – or even connected to the slave trade. The reference to America meant that I could use that, and send him back there to make his fortune. But I wanted something wilder, more elemental for Heath so South America worked better for me. It also gave me a chance to give him a surname that was as close to Heath Cliff as I could go!
Laura: Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances are short novels and having read the Mills & Boon guidelines on 'How to Write the Perfect Romance', in which it's stated that
I don't like secondary characters - use with caution! You're writing a romance, readers are interested in your hero and heroine so keep the focus on them.I think it would be fair to say that a Mills & Boon editor would not respond to Nelly Dean's detailed account in the same way that Mr Lockwood did:
'Sit still, Mrs. Dean,' I cried, 'do sit still, another half hour! You've done just right to tell the story leisurely. That is the method I like; and you must finish in the same style. I am interested in every character you have mentioned, more or less. (Chapter 7)Were there elements or aspects of Wuthering Heights which you'd have liked to include (or include in more detail) but which you had to cut out (or down)?
Kate Walker: Emily Brontë’s book is a far more lengthy and complicated story than the one I’ve written. I am only dealing with one small section of the whole book and focussing on one element – the Cathy/Heathcliff story and working it into a love story. I needed to concentrate on that. I also have to make it clear who is the hero, the heroine and what is the truth about their relationship. Like all the narrators in Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean isn’t a trustworthy reporter, she’s partial and inclined to slant her narrative in a way that leaves questions unanswered and makes answers unreliable. As a result, obviously, I’ve had to cut and simplify, make sure that the focus stays on the hero and heroine and nowhere else.
One of the obvious things I had to do was to remove Edgar/Arthur from the scene, and to have his relationship with Kat come out in talk between her and Heath. Originally I had planned that Heath would flirt more with Isabella to make Kat jealous, but this didn’t work from the point of view of a man of integrity. I would have liked to work more on Heath’s relationship with Kat’s brother Joe, and Joe’s son Harry. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s relationship with Hareton is complicated and ambiguous – Hareton is his enemy’s son, the child of the man he hates, but he is also Cathy’s nephew – and constantly reminds him of the woman he has lost. Hareton is one of the few people who has feelings for Heathcliff, he is loyal to him and he weeps “in bitter earnest” (Chapter 34) when Heathcliff dies. I would have liked to show Heath work through the demons of his past with the man who had treated him so badly. But I was writing a romance and as you have quoted, the focus of a romance has to be on the hero and heroine, so that’s where my spotlight had to stay through the book.
Laura: Thanks very much for visiting Teach Me Tonight and answering my questions!
The picture of Emily Brontë came from Wikipedia.