Wuthering Heights. A classic gothic novel that many would remember studying at secondary school (I included). What’s more I revisited the novel this summer after coming across it whilst clearing out of halls! Within minutes I found myself flicking through a few pages to completing chapter after chapter on the long journey home. What struck me after reading this novel other than the love triangle and gothic imagery was the heritage of the central character, Heathcliff and how the other characters of the novel help shape the many possibilities of where he originated from. It is a topic that I believe fits very well for a WU History review and that sparks much lively debate.
Firstly it is important to establish the evidence from the novel and what certain characters have guessed about Heathcliff’s past. This is conveyed through the narrator of the story Nelly and suggested by Heathcliff’s guardian Mr Earnshaw. Nelly mentions about the ‘gibberish’ that Heathcliff spoke on arrival at Wuthering Heights, her speech suggested Heathcliff possibly came from as far afield as India and Mr Earnshaw himself stated that he ‘found’ Heathcliff wandering the streets of Liverpool.
Looking back at what the narrator, Nelly mentions, the ‘gibberish’ is sound evidence to provide an explanation about the possibility of Heathcliff being a Roma gypsy. A valid reason for this claim could be to do with how he attempted to communicate upon he’s arrival to Wuthering Heights. He’s speech was described as ‘gibberish’ and somewhat ‘foreign’. The Romani language itself deviates from the English language. The English language is from the Germanic groups of languages that include; German and Norwegian, whilst the Romani language comes from the Indo-Aryan language groups that include Hindi and Gujarati. This provides readers with some evidence about Heathcliff’s supposed Roma upbringing because it indicates why Nelly and the Earnshaws could not understand what he was saying.
Throughout the novel there is more evidence to suggest that Heathcliff was descended from Roma gypsies and this reason allows readers to make a connection to the later piece of evidence. It is clear that because of his foreign language the characters at Wuthering Heights shunned him, including Cathy initially. Gypsies faced much persecution throughout history and this occurred during the late Eighteenth century when the novel was set. In Western Europe the Romani people faced much persecution. For instance in 1749 Roma gypsies were rounded up in Spain and forced to remain in labour camps. Further persecution of the Romani community occurred in the English-speaking world too, where they were often distrusted and despised, including in England. This makes a valid argument, as in the novel many of the characters loathed him. In particular Heathcliff’s foster brother Hindley often abused him and referred to him as a ‘dirty, rotten gypsy’ frequently. This provides an adequate explanation as to why certain characters did not take too kindly to Heathcliff as many people in England at the time were distrusting of gypsies, indicating that Heathcliff himself was one as only a few characters accepted him into their society.
However, there are some flaws to this more common assertion, regarding Heathcliff as a Roma gypsy. Firstly the ‘gibberish’ that Nelly described did not directly state that Heathcliff was of Roma origin. It can be argued that readers should treat Nelly’s comment as a potentially flippant remark as Heathcliff could have spoken any unrecognisable language, not merely Romani. What’s more Nelly later in the novel provides further flippant comments about Heathcliff’s origins and suggests he could have been an ‘Indian prince’. It is comments similar to that which appeared to make Nelly’s account of Heathcliff unfeasible to readers. Nevertheless there was some truth in how he could have come from India, yet it was not probable to suggest he was a Roma gypsy who travelled to England from India. This is because recent genetic evidence suggests the Roma peoples of India travelled to Europe across the Middle East years before the Eighteenth century. However, Heathcliff could have travelled to England as a Lascar Indian. There is a valid argument for this point of view as Mrs Linton makes a reference that Heathcliff might have been a ‘Lascar stowaway’. This point of view seems likely as Lascars were seamen that came from India and were employed on British ships from the sixteenth century. The time frame of Wuthering Heights fits in nicely with this explanation as many Lascars entered Britain in the Eighteenth century and many remained in the county, circa 10, 000. Also, the significance of Mr Earnshaw finding Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool indicated that there was a high probability that he was a Lascar Indian as Lascars sailed to ports and Liverpool was and still is a port city.
Having said that in spite of using this evidence to suggest Heathcliff was a Lascar Indian, some readers could interpret the evidence differently and I myself because of the city of Liverpool. Liverpool was a place synonymous with the slave trade and the slave trade was not abolished in Britain and its empire at the time when the novel was set, allowing some readers to make the connection that Heathcliff could have been a freed or an escaped slave that arrived in Liverpool. This is a probable alternative to other explanations in regards to Heathcliff’s origins. Likewise, Mrs Linton exclaims that Heathcliff could have been an ‘American castaway’. From Mrs Linton’s account it is likely he could have been an African-American or perhaps mixed race as it would indicate again reasons as to why many characters ill-treated him and perhaps more so then the other explanations to his origin.
To conclude in spite Emily Bronte neglecting Heathcliff’s exact origins of he’s past, she had only given readers hints about the possibilities of where he had come from. After reading the novel I came to the conclusion that he was likely to have either been a Romani gypsy, a Lascar or an African-American and wanted to explore the three possibilities. Although after careful reading the most likely of the three, (a Romani gypsy) was Heathcliff’s likely upbringing as unlike much of evidence suggesting he was black or a Lascar it only seemed to be from a snapshot in time within the novel. The evidence suggesting Heathcliff was a Roma gypsy was consistent as there was frequent references to him being a gypsy, a term in Eighteenth century England for Romani peoples. I hope this review was an enjoyable read and that it will inspire you to come to your own conclusions based on what Emily Bronte had written and for you all- to delve through a classic of English Literature again and again…