Books: More News of the Dark Foundling

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In Return to Wuthering Heights, Anna L'Estrange (pen name of Author Rosemary Ellerbeck) sticks closely to the original Brontë formula. Lockwood's son Tom inherits his father's manuscript and becomes intrigued by the story of Heathcliff and Catherine. He returns to the vicinity of Wuthering Heights to learn what happened to the survivors after Heathcliff's death 38 years earlier. He meets Nelly Dean's great-niece Agnes, who has served virtually all the Earnshaw and Heathcliff descendants since. She has plenty to tell.

Catherine's daughter, also named Catherine, and Hareton Earnshaw were to marry at the end of Wuthering Heights. Well, they did, and things went swimmingly until Heathcliff's natural son showed up and wooed Catherine away to Wuthering Heights. The child produced of this union is thus another illegitimate little Heathcliff who robs the nest of the next generation of Earnshaw men. "History," Agnes remarks blandly, "was repeating itself."

All this intermarriage and intermingling produce some tangled relationships and considerable confusion. When Agnes talks to Hareton about his father, she has to tell him and the reader exactly whom she means: "Your father Mr. Hindley, Mrs. Linton's brother." Later, things reach a prettier pass. Agnes is appalled to think that "not only was the Colonel Margaret's husband and the father of her unborn child, and the enemy of her father but he was also the lover of her mother and the father of Anthony and all this unbeknownst to the children. No wonder the knowledge of it made Mr. Earnshaw ill." When such awkwardnesses of her own creation threaten to overwhelm the story, L'Estrange keeps things moving by simply brazening through. She produces a page-turner rather than art, but she does not drag Wuthering Heights into blithering depths.

Rather than picking up after Brontë's novel, Heathcliff begins and ends during it. Novelist Jeffrey Caine attempts to show where Heathcliff was during the roughly three years he was absent from Wuthering Heights. L'Estrange suggests in passing that he was in Liverpool, working on the docks. Caine insists that he went to London and made a fortune in the underworld.

Ordinarily, such speculation is about as profitable as wondering what Hamlet studied at Wittenberg. But given its woolgathering premise, Heathcliff is a remarkably accomplished and engrossing novel. It is also a first-rate act of literary impersonation. Caine introduces convincing versions of Lockwood and Nelly Dean and, at some risk, a long autobiographical letter written by Heathcliff himself. Bereft because he knows Catherine will never marry him, the ferocious young man flees the Heights with a vague plan to wreak vengeance on the world. No sooner does he reach London than he joins a mob wrecking a house in Bloomsbury Square. The work invigorates him: "I longed to cross the square and start on Bedford House, then begin elsewhere, until I had demolished every great house in London; after which I'd unleash myself on the provinces and not quit till I had the razing of all such dwellings from Land's End to Carlisle. And maybe Scot land, too."

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