Book review: Ill Will. The Untold Story of Heathcliff

Book: Ill Will. The Untold story of Heathcliff

Author: Michael Stewart

Reviewed by: Samantha Keogh

Review made possible by: Random House Penguin South Africa

“I am William Lee: brute, liar, and graveside thief.

“But you will know me by another name.”

So starts the telling of Heathcliff’s life after he leaves Wuthering Heights to travel across the moors to Liverpool looking for his past.

Yes, avid readers will remember that having had visions of his deceased childhood sweetheart Catherine, Heathcliff died towards the end of Emily Brontë’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, so the premise of this book seemed odd, to say the least.

However, the author tries to accommodate this death by labelling this the book about Heathcliff’s “missing years”.

I ask myself, do we need to know, and more to the point, how can we know what Brontë envisioned for her character?

What does ring true to the original story is that the orphaned boy, who was found by Mr Earnshaw and brought to the Heights to be raised, is still the uncouth chap we met in the classic novel.

Having left the Heights, Heathcliff happens upon and saves the foul-mouthed daughter of a highwayman, Emily, from a beating.

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The two pair up and journey on together, traipsing from one graveyard to another, making a living on the back of Emily’s apparent ability to commune with the dead.

They lie, cheat and scheme their way across the North of England towards a series of deeds which will eventually send Heathcliff home to Wuthering Heights, which (neatly) allows him to then have his visions and died as per Brontë’s novel.

In discussing his work, author Michael Stewart says: “Like the spirit of Cathy, the ghosts of the Brontës have been tapping at my bedroom window” which he contends drove him to “chart the disappearance and return of one of literature’s most fascinating antiheroes.”

In an interview with David Barnett, he explains that in the name of research he travelled 65 miles (105km) on foot, from the moors above Haworth in West Yorkshire to the city of Liverpool on the west coast.

He says he undertook the three-day journey as part of his bid to understand a literary mystery that has niggled at him for more than two decades … and which now forms this novel.

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But can the author really recreate the same journey when the terrain of Heathcliff’s England in 1847 is not the same terrain of 2018?

While struggling through this book, which isn’t badly written or particularly offensive in any way, it constantly struck me that it’s extremely arrogant of Stewart to assume that he has the ability to even attempt to fill in the life of a character created in 1847 buy a far superior writer.

I really didn’t enjoy this book purely because I kept coming back to the notion that he was ruining, rather than enriching, the original tale with his conceited belief that he knows the character and his back story better than the author who created Heathcliff.

It seems that this is Stewart’s fifth book, although I had never heard of him before, and I certainly won’t be seeking out his other works if his premise is to ruin great literature rather than create and write about original characters.

But, that said, If you aren’t offended by the premise of “improving” another’s work you may just find this novel to your liking.

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Samantha Keogh
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