Filling the story gaps of literary characters:
Emily Brontë's Victorian masterpiece "Wuthering Heights", originally published in 1847, has at its centre the gothic love story between Heathcliff and Cathy. Heathcliff's heritage is never directly discussed in the novel. All the reader knows is that he was a foundling from Liverpool, brought to Wuthering Heights by his adoptive father, Mr. Earnshaw. The author also describes him as "a little lascar". The word lascar was used to describe sailors from India. This suggests that Heathcliff's heritage lies in South Asia. Heathcliff disappears from Wuthering Heights when he thinks that Cathy would never love him the way he wants to be loved. When he returns, years later, he is a rich man. The novel never explains where his fortunes have come from. Here is an attempt to fill in those literary gaps.
My darling boy, my Hitesh,
I am most happy you are reading these lines, for it means you will finally know about your past. I must hurry because the dear Mr. Earnshaw will be here soon to pick you up – but let me find the words to tell you why I am giving you away.
Your father, my beloved Ravindra, has been lost at sea for over a year now. He never returned from the last voyage he wanted to embark on, back to his home country, to receive his father’s blessing.
You see, Ravindra was from Cambay a port town in Gujarat, India. He had chartered on a British ship from Liverpool when he realised that his father had an arranged marriage in mind for him. To avoid his duty towards his family, he fled aboard a vessel of the British East India Company. He knew that he degraded himself in status by becoming a lascar, but he was ready to work hard and see the world.
He walked into our tailor shop one day. He was such a handsome man. My father recognised Ravindra’s effect on me and immediately asked him to leave the shop. Ravindra came back a few times, always smart enough to avoid my father. Finally, one day, he looked me in the eye and dropped a small piece of paper on my sewing work. In it, he declared his love for me and asked me to marry him. Marrying Ravindra meant losing all my family relations. Still, I said yes.
When Ravindra never returned from his journey, the money he had left behind ran out. We have been living on the street for more than a year now. When Mr. Earnshaw saw us today and offered to help us, I asked him to take you with him. I cannot believe the generosity of this good man.
I will give Mr. Earnshaw this letter to give to you when you are older, and I do hope sincerely that you will take it upon you to come looking for your old mother. Ask for me in my father’s shop on Derby Square. Hopefully, my family will know of my fate. I will always be waiting for you.
With all my heart, your loving mother,
It was a stormy night in Liverpool when Heathcliff reached the city of his birth. After finding an inn to leave his belongings, he asked his way to Derby Square and stood in awe at the sight of his grandfather’s tailor shop. Inside there was only an old woman. She looked at him in surprise, as if no one ever intruded on her quiet contemplation. With a slight head shake she seemed to remember that she was running a shop and asked how she may help. Heathcliff forced a smile and asked for Emma Kelly.
“Emma is not in. Who are you?” The bluntness of the old lady appealed to Heathcliff, he had always hated the fake politeness of the people living in Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights.
“My name is Heathcliff, and I am looking for her because she might know about my past.”
“You remind me of someone”, the lady replied haphazardly. “Oh well, Emma is upstairs. I suppose I can take you.”
Heathcliff was taken aback by her contradictory statements. Nonetheless he followed her with a muted smile. “May I ask, who runs this shop?”, he enquired, as they climbed the steep staircase, apparently leading to the living quarters.
“Well, since my thoughtless son died, Emma has been running it. I am just helping her with some of the sewing. But I am getting too old now.”
His great-grandmother smiled at Heathcliff over her shoulder, unaware of their connection. He saw what a great woman she must have been once. A day ago, he had no real family relations and suddenly here she was, a great-grandmother.
As they walked into a cosy kitchen, the old woman showed him the kettle and said she had to lie down. Perplexed, Heathcliff tried to get the stove going, when he heard her whisper: “You can call me Grams if you want, my beautiful boy.”
Amazed, Heathcliff wondered how she had known, when he heard a cough from another corner of the room. He let the kettle be a kettle and slowly made his way over. A fragile-looking woman was lying in a small bed, her forehead covered with a wet towel. She stirred as he stared at her and when she opened her pale blue eyes, there was disbelief in them.
“Ravindra?!”, she burst out.
“No, Hitesh.”, Heathcliff said, the unfamiliar name heavy on his tongue.
His mother blinked at him, wide-eyed. She lifted her hand, and he bent down, so she could stroke his hair away from his forehead. It was a gesture of habit, as if they had never been separated. Tears shot into his eyes.
“You look exactly like your father. Only your skin is lighter.”
That explained how his great-grandmother had known.
“So, you met Grams?”, Emma asked, looking over lovingly at the sleeping old lady. Heathcliff could only nod.
“Let’s sit down at the kitchen table and have a talk, shall we?”, she asked, pushing herself up with what seemed to be her last strength. Heathcliff moved to help her, but she lovingly patted his fussing hands away.
At the break of dawn, Heathcliff made his way back to the inn. His mother had spoken to him all night of his origins and her fate since she had given him to Mr. Earnshaw. He had in turn only told her the necessary details of his upbringing, omitting some of the cruel things he had experienced at Wuthering Heights. He did not want her to regret her decision. She had done what was necessary to survive.
Shortly after Mr. Earnshaw took Heathcliff to Wuthering Heights, Emma’s father found her, starved and very ill. She kept to bed for almost a year recovering from her life as a beggar. As she was talking about her hardships Heathcliff saw the gauntness of her cheeks, the exhaustion in her slumped shoulders. But when she started speaking of his father, new life went into her. Her eyes were glowing, and she got up to retrieve something from one of the cupboards.
“I kept these for you”, she said, as she handed him a bundle of well-read letters with her trembling hands.
“Would you like a glass of water, mother?” Heathcliff asked with concern in his voice, as he took the letters gently, as if they were his greatest treasure. She shook her head and started to tell him the story of his adventurous sea faring father.
“Your father had been lost at sea. Until one day a letter arrived from Cambay. Upon his arrival in Cambay, he had found out that his father was very sick and that his family would lose the estate if they could not provide the male heir. So, Ravindra promised his father on his death bed that he would stay in India and become the next Nawab Babi. As he explained to me only then, he is an Indian prince, and he rules the state Balasinor. You can imagine how surprised I was at reading this. I knew that he had come from a wealthy family, but I certainly did not know that he was of aristocratic blood. In that letter he begged me to come to India. He promised to marry me there again under Indian law and you, our son, would become the next Nawab Babi. I could not tell him that I had given you away and so I told him I had met another man who wanted to take care of us here in England. His next letter came a long time after I had sent my answer. In that one he told me of his impending marriage to an Indian girl to produce heirs. He wrote that he could not stop thinking of me and you and that he regretted dearly having left us in Liverpool. I did not reply but he kept writing one letter each year on your birthday. Read them later. In every one of them he writes that you should come visit him. I think that you should go to Cambay, my son. You should do what I did not have the courage to do. Will you, Hitesh? Will you go to India?”
Entering his room at the inn, Heathcliff shook his head in disbelief for the hundredth time that night. The son of an Indian prince? Was it possible? He considered the idea of going to India. Why shouldn’t he? Cathy had made her feelings clear and maybe this was his way to establish some status. He might come back as a wealthy man.
At lunch time, Heathcliff awoke to such a bright future that he spent his morning singing and humming. He made his way to his mother’s shop cheerfully and when he arrived, he was surprised to see it still closed. He knocked three times until a young girl came running down the stairs. The words she said in an explanatory greeting broke his heart a second time that week.
“I’m sorry, sir, the mistress died early this morning. We have all been in quite a huff. But may I assist you? Are you picking up a garment?”
Steadying himself on the door frame, Heathcliff pressed out: “No, I’m her son. I need to see her.”
The shocked girl stepped back into the shop floor, giving him room to rush past and up the stairs. There was his Grams sewing in a chair guarding his mother’s dead body. He walked over and took his mother’s cold hand.
“She never recovered from her time on the streets. Neither from her broken heart.”
Heathcliff turned to his great-grandmother, looking for answers. Answers he knew he would never get.
“She wrote you a letter. Over there. When you left last night, she said she wanted to tell you so much more, so she got up and started writing.”
Grams’ voice was shaking with emotion. He heard her sorrow yet saw the strength in her set jaw.
“She loved you and Ravindra so much. I am so sorry for what my foolish son has done to you and your parents.”
Heathcliff gently let go of his mother’s hand and walked over to embrace his great-grandmother. She was startled by the close physical contact but returned the hug before pushing him off and gesturing at a small table.
“There, there now. Read the letter, Hitesh.”
My darling boy, my Hitesh,
Finally, we have met. I feel regret for not telling you the full extent of my health tribulations, but I do not have the heart to bear such sorrowful news on the happiest day of my life. I hope you can forgive me for indulging my old soul. And I do hope we get to have many more conversations before the Lord calls me away.
Still, I want to write this letter to make sure, I tell you at least this: Your father and I are the proudest parents you could think of. The first months with our little baby Hitesh, before your father had to head off on his journey, were the happiest months of both our lives.
Oh, darling boy, I do hope that you will get to meet your magnificent father. Promise me this; travel to India once I’m gone. Tell your father the whole story of what happened to you and me and tell him how much I loved him, how much I still love him. Be brave my son. Show the courage I was lacking.
I wish you could tell me many more stories about Wuthering Heights. I wish you could take me to meet your Cathy. I wish we had more time.
With all my heart,
Your loving Mother
Note from the author:
This text is the first part of a series of "Literary Gap" texts, which will be published in the weeks to come. Thank you for reading!