Did Emily Brontё envisage her most famous fictional protagonist, Heathcliff, as a black man? In recent years there has been extensive debate about whether Heathcliff is supposed to be black. Much of this discussion centres on the proximity of the action in her most famous novel, Wuthering Heights, to Liverpool – which was a world centre for slave-trading during the period in which the novel is set.
Critics have also focused on the way in which Heathcliff is portrayed in Brontё’s novel. Much has been made of the words of the novel’s main narrator, Nelly, to Heathcliff: “If you were a regular black …” she says. There has been a great deal of discussion of what this might mean.
The novel’s most famous action takes place on the moorlands surrounding the quaint Yorkshire village of Haworth – and moorlands are traditionally associated with uncivilised regions. Heathcliff embodies this idea – he is depicted as the quintessential “savage” whose foreignness establishes his position at civilisation’s periphery.
But historians have found abundant evidence to suggest that Heathcliff’s foreignness is not merely symbolic – it makes historical sense. The novel is set in 1801, when Liverpool handled most of Britain’s transatlantic trade in enslaved people. Evidence of this terrible trade could be seen everywhere – the Brontё critic Humphrey Gawthrop records that: “[William] Wilberforce’s colleague, Thomas Clarkson … saw in the windows of a Liverpool shop leg-shackles, handcuffs, thumbscrews and mouth-openers for force-feeding used on board the slavers.”
So if Heathcliff was not a black African or descendant of one, historians have comprehensively demonstrated that he very easily might have been. And while the recurrent critical question has been whether Brontё meant him to be black, research on Yorkshire’s black histories makes it more pertinent to ask why was he not depicted as black until as recently as 2012?
In the late 1970s, a Latin American television adaptation of Wuthering Heights, entitled Cumbres Borrascosas portrayed Heathcliff as the mixed-race son of Mr Earnshaw. When he brings the boy home, his wife berates him for sleeping with a black woman. This act of cultural translation is likely to have made sense to Latin American audiences, for whom slavery looms large in the collective historical memory.
Slavery in Yorkshire
Until recently, however, generations of Anglophone literary critics overlooked the impact of slave-trading and slave-produced wealth on Yorkshire. Literary critic Terry Eagleton said: “Heathcliff disturbs the heights because he … has no defined place within its … economic system.” This flies in the face of a large body of evidence that Heathcliff’s enslaved contemporaries were once central to the region’s economy.
It has been left to Caryl Phillips’s recent novel The Lost Child to finally explore the region’s forgotten colonial connections. In his account, Heathcliff is the illegitimate son of Mr Earnshaw, born of a formerly enslaved woman who is brought to Liverpool docks from the Caribbean. The significance of this was lost on reviewers, who overwhelmingly implied that Phillips’ novel gave Brontё’s story the multicultural treatment and his choice of a black Heathcliff was an exercise of artistic licence rather than basing his depiction of the character on any historical foundation. But Phillips’s knowledge of history clearly trumps theirs.
Phillips was interviewed in Adam Low’s documentary, A Regular Black (2009), and pointed out that gentlemen like Mr Earnshaw went to Liverpool on business – and the city’s main business was slave-trading or slave-produced sugar, tobacco and coffee. Low’s documentary also highlighted the significance of Heathcliff’s name – a single moniker which serves as forename and surname, as with enslaved people.
The Brontё sisters’ school was just a few miles from the Dentdale home of a notorious slave-trading family called the Sills. The Brontё sisters knew about the Sills family, who worked more than 30 enslaved Africans on the grounds of their estate. The Legacies of British Slave Ownership database confirms that the Sills family had a large number of Jamaican slaves. The database shows that Ann Sill was posthumously compensated with £3,783 in 1876 for the loss of 174 enslaved people from the family’s Providence Estate. Emily Brontё was aware of local debates about abolition and she knew about the impact of sugar wealth on her neighbourhood through a host of personal associations.
Historians have uncovered many more compelling details of how slave-produced wealth shaped the region. These details combine to suggest that, when Nelly says that Heathcliff is not “a regular black”, she is not being merely metaphorical – she is clearly saying that while Heathcliff may not be like most black people she was aware of, he was indeed black.
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. It was written in the shadow of two formative international political events which alarmed the British public: the late 18th century French and Haitian Revolutions. Many of Brontё’s readers would have known that the violent Haitian Revolution ended in independent rule and led to the decline of the plantation economy. Christopher Heywood details the ways in which the Dales were shaped by the “plantation economy”, with well-known local families making their money from the slave-trade and slave-produced goods, also lobbying parliament against abolition.
The Heathcliff of Andrea Arnold’s 2011 remake of Wuthering Heights is also black. Arnold makes no reference to Yorkshire’s real black histories in interviews about the film. Indeed, her choice of actor happened almost by chance – Arnold does not herself challenge the idea that Heathcliff is not really black. Instead she alludes to “five or six clear descriptions of him in the novel” as a lascar, as “Chinese-Indian” and as a gypsy. Without referring to Yorkshire’s slavery connections, she simply said: “I wanted to honour … his difference.” Philip French’s review in the Guardian, for example, contained no suggestion that it might be historically legitimate to foreground a black presence in Brontё’s world. Instead, he concluded that the film’s depiction of a black Heathcliff is rather “a puzzle”.
But as the historical evidence builds up, writers and filmmakers are busily uncovering Yorkshire’s obscured histories of immigration and slave-produced wealth. Whether by accident or design, Arnold may well have got it right when she cast Solomon Glave and James Howson as Heathcliff.