In the book’s frontmatter, novelist David Drum explains how Heathcliff: The Lost Years fits in the extensive literary canon of the persistently popular gothic romance Wuthering Heights:
In Emily Bronte’s classic English novel, an adopted young man named Heathcliff flees his home in Wuthering Heights penniless, and with a broken heart. Heathcliff returns in three years, a ferociously changed man. How Heathcliff changed from stable boy to wealthy gentleman is one of literature’s unsolved mysteries. This is the story of those lost three years.
Heathcliff: The Lost Years is divided into seven parts. In “Wuthering Heights,” Drum recaps how Heathcliff is adopted by Old Earnshaw, came to live at Wuthering Heights, and has a childhood romance with his patron’s lovely daughter Catherine. The part concludes when he runs away from home, bullied by her jealous brother Hindley and thinking she’s decided to marry someone else. Thus begin the three lost years.
In “Liverpool,” Heathcliff signs onto the vessel Commerce, a slave ship bound for Guinea in East Africa. This voyage will be the first leg of the infamous triangle trade: luxury goods traded to chieftains for their prisoners of tribal wars, crossing to the West Indies where the slaves are auctioned off, and a return trip across the Atlantic loaded up with sugar, molasses, and rum.
The parts “Liverpool,” “Africa,” and “The Dark Continent,” comprise most of the narrative. Here are the hardships of the sea voyage to Africa and trading in “black ivory,” or “cattle,” including the prized “male bulls.” As you might expect, this part of the tale is fraught with floggings, sickness, fatalities, hazardous weather, and pervasive stench. Drum’s command of nautical detail and shipboard cruelties is both technically realistic and emotionally raw.
The Atlantic crossing of “The Middle Passage,” concluding in “Jamaica,” rounds out Heathcliff’s participation in the slave trade. In Kingston, a pair of tragedies befall him and his mates. After the Commerce has discharged its human cargo, a hurricane batters the island and reduces the ship to a salvage hulk. The captain, desperate to recoup whatever he can for his British investors, short-changes the crew, scraps the vessel, and absconds with the profits. Now resourceful and a seasoned sailor, Heathcliff signs on to a sugar transport as an apprentice navigator. After a comparatively uneventful crossing, he finds himself back in Liverpool.
In “Liverpool,” Heathcliff attempts to collect the money owed him by the owner of the Commerce and endures a series of financial reversals. Robbed again, he takes up with a gorgeous French sneak thief who dresses like a lady and insists he adorn himself as a gentleman. Together in “London” they plot the last scheme of this story, an elaborate fraud involving a diamond necklace stolen from Queen Charlotte. The booty from that scam is the fortune with which Heathcliff returns home. In this final episode of the lost years, he has learned to dress and act like a gentleman, but he still lacks both education and aristocratic experience.
From London, Heathcliff books passage on a ship to Bristol, then travels inland to reenter the plotline of Wuthering Heights.
Drum’s Heathcliff is leading-man heroic. Even when he’s acting less than honorably, as when he’s reluctantly abusing slaves as a deckhand or collaborating in the jewel theft, his sense of moral rightness comes through. On several occasions, he defends the welfare of captives and underlings who have no other champion. But Bronte’s Heathcliff, who lives out the rest of his life at Wuthering Heights, is a brooding character, prone to foul moods and flashes of anger. Her original novel is a dark, Gothic romance. By contrast, Heathcliff: The Lost Years is largely a seagoing action-adventure, perhaps more appealing to fans of Mutiny on the Bounty than of Jane Eyre.
Drum’s version lacks the baroque sentence structures and obscure allusions of Emily Bronte’s prose. That is, this new novel will be eminently readable by today’s audiences — despite Drum’s deliberately archaic spellings. I asked him about the challenges of making what’s new seem old and yet approachable:
I really strove to create an atmosphere similar to Emily Bronte’s original and to carry it through the book as much as possible. In addition to blending in some of her original dialogue and ideas in the opening section, I tried to duplicate her antique spellings. For instance, in Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte hyphenated the word today, which she wrote to-day. To me, the antique spelling helped transmit the idea that we were in a different era. So I duplicated that and also hyphenated to-morrow and to-night throughout my book. I didn’t want to Americanize the language, so I used several other British spellings, colour for color, grey for gray, neighbour for neighbor, and so forth to hopefully ground my story in England, where it all began.
Drum’s novel can be easily imagined as a movie. Its chapters are short and keep moving at a brisk pace. (In today’s action-adventure movies, there are scarcely any scenes longer than three minutes.) The Bronte sisters would not have understood the brevity of today’s attention spans. But they also would probably be astounded at the longevity of their romantic stories and the persistent fascination with the character of Heathcliff.
For all these reasons, Drum’s novel seems at the same time both authentic and contemporary. It’s therefore an impressive literary achievement and a significant contribution to Heathcliff lore.
Advance reading copy and illustrations courtesy of Burning Books Press.
Gerald Everett Jones is author of Clifford’s Spiral and Preacher Finds a Corpse and host of GetPublished! Radio.