Brief spoiler warning - this tells you quite a bit about Rachel's book, one of the best contemporaries I've read this year! If you want to go in there with minimal knowledge, it may be worth bookmarking the post and coming back to it after you've read the book. But either way, please do read the post AND the book - really fascinating!
Why I Broke Up With Heathcliff
If you’re a bookworm and you live in Yorkshire, one day you will inevitably find yourself on a school trip to the Bronte parsonage. You will stand in the bedroom and look at a pair of Charlotte’s doll-sized shoes (She was only 4’9’’!) and downstairs in the parlour, you will feel incredibly sad staring at the couch where Emily died. Then (although it’s freezing and blowing a gale) you will hike up to Top Withens. And if, as I did, you also grew up on street named after the Brontes, you are pretty much destined to read Wuthering Heights (Emily’s only novel) at an impressionable age.
I know Wuthering Heights Chinese box narrative structure backwards, forwards, inside out. I’ve analysed it from Feminist, Post-colonial, Marxist and Gothic angles…but something has changed in recent years. Not the book, obviously: my love for it hasn’t altered since the day my 13 year old self first picked it up, but my take on it definitely has.
It’s Heathcliff who’s the problem. Whereas younger me book-crushed on this doomed romantic hero, now (having lost the rose tinted glasses sometime in my twenties) I want to warn every character to get the hell away from him. (Even when he is being played by Tom Hardy.) Poor Isabella! Poor Linton! Poor Cathy-the-younger! Poor Edgar! Poor Hareton! Poor Isabella’s dog! Poor starved baby birds!...everyone is a victim of Heathcliff’s s ruthless obsession with the (equally unpleasant) Catherine.
Yes, he had a terrible childhood thanks to Hindley and Catherine destroys him by marrying Edgar and then dying… I feel achingly sorry for him, but I can’t forgive him. He’s the baddest of the bad boys: selfish, cruel, fuelled by revenge and more of a stalker than a lover.
When I came to write The #1 Rule For Girls, I’d recently read a string of books featuring mad, bad and dangerous Byronic heroes in the Heathcliff mould. You know the type: he’s mysterious, aloof and tortured by hidden angst. The heroine is drawn into his world, simultaneously fascinated and compelled to cure his inner anguish so they can live happily ever after. And it set me thinking about the difference between bad boys in fiction (sexy, dangerous, keep you hooked, end up tamed) and bad boys in real life (annoying, mess you about, make you sad, stay the same).
Alongside this, an episode from when I was teaching kept nagging me. Imagine this: two college students, a couple, in the canteen. The boy sitting with his mates shouts over at his girlfriend using a very unpleasant term, his friends laugh. And she walks over to sit with them without a word of protest.
This triggered memories of me at that age (and older…), in particular the bad boyfriend behaviour I put up with because I didn’t really recognise I was being manipulated or bullied. Sometimes, it was because I didn’t have the courage or the self-confidence to object. Mainly, though, it was because I grew up in a household where domestic abuse was a fact of life: I honestly just didn’t know any different.
Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire crossed with Heathcliff were my biggest influences in writing the character of Toby. Handsome, aloof and mysterious, sexually compelling but, in the end, irredeemably bad. Not sexy-bad, just bad-bad.
Daisy – the main character- has fantastic role models in her soulmates-turned-parents, but she’s lonely and vulnerable when she meets Toby and makes two classic mistakes: 1) being too nice and 2) thinking he’ll change. He’s manipulative, she forgives him. He lets her down, she forgives him.
I wanted readers to think about how it’s easy to see the red flags flying from the outside. But when you’re on the inside and emotionally vulnerable, it’s easier to kid yourself they’re teething troubles; to be persuaded everyone deserves a second chance.
People can and do change in the real world, but it happens with a lot less frequency than fiction would have us believe. As the story progresses, I want the reader to lean into the pages and shout Don’t take him back! (Interjection from Jim - this worked, I was doing this A LOT! But I found it completely believable each time Daisy did.) But of course, when you’re emotionally vulnerable, it’s hard to make any decisions, let alone the sensible ones. Daisy has to learn the hard way.
Bad boys in YA fiction tend to be the “tameable” kind but Toby in The #1 Rule for Girls isn’t. Like Heathcliff and Stanley Kowalski, he’s a fictional bad boy who stays bad to the end. Nowadays, I’m all about the real world nice guys but I can still appreciate a bad boy hero who has the potential to be tamed.
Me and Heathcliff, though…well, we’re never getting back together.
Thank you for a brilliant post, Rachel! For more from Rachel, follow her on Twitter at @rachinthefax! and don't miss the #1rulechat on Sunday at 8pm GMT. The #1 Rule For Girls was published by Electric Monkey yesterday and I highly recommend rushing to a bookshop to buy ASAP!
If you enjoy reading classics, or if you want to read more, why not join the fantastic Classics Challenge hosted by my friend Stacey over at Pretty Books? It's a great way to find other classics lovers, discuss books, and get and give recommendations. Check out this post and don't miss the hashtag