On developing my novel: Heathcliff: The Lost Years

David Drum Writer
7 min readFeb 28, 2024
This is the cover of my novel, Heathcliff: The Lost Years

By David Drum

I began reading Wuthering Heights on a cold winter’s night in North Carolina. I’d happened upon a copy of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece at my grandparents’ house, where I had been sent to live. As snow fell quietly outside the old house, I sat down in an overstuffed chair by the fireplace and began reading. I didn’t intend to fall in love with the book, but I soon became enthralled with the passionate, tragic tale of Heathcliff and Catherine, a love story which has remained popular for hundreds of years.

I strongly identified with the dark, mysterious character of Heathcliff. For one thing, I was personally bitter and resentful at being kicked out of my home and shipped off halfway across the country to live with relatives. I’d had to leave a girl I dearly loved behind, and I wondered if I’d ever see her again. Because of this, I identified with Heathcliff’s bitter separation from Catherine Earnshaw and, less admirably, I thrilled to the revenge he wreaked on the people who wronged him after he’d been away.

Adopted into the Earnshaw family, and eventually spurned by the young mistress of the house, Heathcliff leaves home with a broken heart and returns three years later a rich and ruthless gentleman capable of extracting a cruel revenge. Upon his return, he’s described as taller, more confident and self-assured, and as the story unfolds the reader realizes he is a quite a different man.

Wuthering Heights never discloses where Heathcliff went. But clearly, the man who returned was not the heartsick, penniless, beaten-down young orphan who ran away after hearing the love of his life announce she planned to wed a man he despised.

The character of Heathcliff continued to fascinate me over the years as I occasionally returned to the book and wondered what could have happened to him during the time he was absent from Wuthering Heights.

My wonder eventually turned speculation, and then into the novel, Heathcliff: The Lost Years, which seeks to imagine what happened to Heathcliff during his mysterious three-year absence from Wuthering Heights. I wished to show the molding of his character, and to explain exactly how his experiences shaped and changed him. My goal was to tell Heathcliff’s story as a stand-alone bildungsroman which could also be read as a supplement by people who loved Wuthering Heights.

I sought to tell Heathcliff’s story sympathetically, simply and chronologically, and from his point of view. It was necessary to imagine what happened before and after Heathcliff left Wuthering Heights, and to explain how he’d managed to better himself when he was gone. And of course, I strove to be as true as I could to Emily Bronte’s masterful creation.

Wuthering Heights is a family saga, but the heart of the book is the story of Heathcliff and Catherine. This is mostly a story told by Nelly, a longtime servant in the Earnshaw household, to a visitor, one Mr. Lockwood. Nelly speaks of events she witnessed or heard about from others, sometimes second- or third-hand.

I began by imagining a few scenes from the young lad’s life preceding his encounter with Mr. Earnshaw on the streets of Liverpool as a penniless waif. I supposed he might have been abandoned by his mother to some sort of work-house or orphanage, likely a dismal, loveless place where conditions were so horrible they drove the young boy away.

Upon his being taken up at Wuthering Heights, of course I couldn’t change the story Bronte told, but I did need to simplify and straighten out the structure to make my tale logical and comprehensible while holding to what Heathcliff saw and experienced. I compressed scenes from Wuthering Heights and invented others when it seemed appropriate but strove to keep my story true to Bronte’s original.

Readers of Wuthering Heights understand that Heathcliff and Catherine had a very special relationship, which Catherine describes as a bonding of their souls. Unfortunately for me, the truly passionate and revealing scenes between Heathcliff and Catherine do not occur until after Heathcliff returns, a time period I did not cover in my novel. But I did think a girl and a boy growing up together in that desolate part of England would surely share secrets and intimate experiences that were not sexual but which helped create a powerful spiritual intimacy made even more powerful because their love was never consummated.

Drawing from phrases Catherine utters when delirious after Heathcliff’s return, I constructed their spooky moonlit visit to the graveyard at Gimmerton Kirk, and a scene in the Fairy Cave at Penistone Crags where Catherine announces to Heathcliff that she will someday marry him. Based on an experience Lockwood had with what seemed to be Catherine’s ghost, I invented a short scene where Heathcliff dreams that Catherine’s spirit comes crying out for him at his garret window, a spirit which turns into a skeleton, startling him awake.

The long and crucially important scene in which Heathcliff overhears Catherine tell Nelly she will marry Edgar Linton explains why Heathcliff left. I shortened and expanded this scene.

In Wuthering Heights, when Catherine tells Nelly she’s accepted Linton’s offer of marriage, Nelly realizes Heathcliff is hiding and listening nearby but doesn’t immediately tell Catherine. Nelly couldn’t know what Heathcliff heard or thought, but I imagined he surely had a passionate, emotional reaction. I invented a physical confrontation with old Joseph in the barn, his snatching back the horse Hindley had taken away from him, and his fleeing into the teeth of a furious, blinding storm.

I presumed a penniless lad with no family support might have a very difficult time making his way in late 18th Century England, where the commons and the cottage life it supported were disappearing. I believed Heathcliff’s pride and his broken heart would prevent him from immediately returning to Wuthering Heights, but I knew memories of Catherine would haunt him wherever he went.

It seemed logical that Heathcliff would make his way to Liverpool, a prosperous port city approximately 60 miles from Wuthering Heights. Many of Liverpool’s more prosperous merchants participated in the African slave trade. I thought Heathcliff might get work on a slave ship, perhaps without understanding the horrors of the experience he had signed up for.

Growing up in the American Midwest, I knew little of sailing and life aboard an English slave ship hundreds of years ago. What did they wear? What did they eat? What did they do, on a ship crammed with human cargo, and how did it all work? It took a great deal of research for me to feel comfortable writing about this. I looked through maritime and historical museum collections and articles online, talked to friends who sailed, read nonfiction books and articles on sailing and the slave trade, and consulted classic sea stories including Moby Dick, Treasure Island, Two Years Before the Mast, Roots, and Sacred Hunger.

Eventually I became comfortable enough to imagine what life might have been like for a young Englishman entangled in the Triangle trade, which traded English goods for slaves on the Guinea Coast of Africa, carried human cargo to Jamaica (then an English colony and a center of the English slave trade), and returned home with goods for England. To illustrate the horrors of this, I imagined an epidemic on board ship, a rather long time in the doldrums, a burial at sea, a mutiny and other chilling scenes which not infrequently occurred on these terrible voyages.

London seemed like the place to end my novel. I’d written a screenplay years before which attempted to imagine Heathcliff in London. I thought Heathcliff might meet a mysterious Frenchwoman, become entangled in a bizarre plot, and wind up with enough money to return home.

I wasn’t familiar with life in London around the time of the American Revolution, either. I studied the mechanics of a public hanging, the manufacture of gunpowder, the art of fencing, life in the English military, and the floating prisons, theaters, operas, and the gin mills of the era and used these to give my hero adventures, additional hardship, betrayals, and close calls.

After I had run my hero through three years of this, I imagined him much more wary, and a much tougher and more cynical man. If his experiences had stripped away most of his illusions, I thought Heathcliff would hold fast to his hope of seeing Catherine again, perhaps just as he’d left her. He’d dreamed about her for years, perhaps, yearned for her and mourned all that he had lost, and when he finally got together the money and confidence to return to Wuthering Heights, he did so. There I ended my book.

I imagined Heathcliff’s heart turned to stone when he returned to find Catherine pregnant with Edgar Linton’s child. Catherine practically dies in his arms, forever separating their souls on this earth. I presumed the shock of this would destroy the last shreds of love and kindness that remained in his strong, passionate heart, leaving behind only the husk of a tragically thwarted love.

David Drum is the author of three novels, several nonfiction books, and one book of poems. Heathcliff: The Lost Years is the untold story at the heart of Wuthering Heights.



David Drum Writer

David Drum has worked as a newspaper reporter, ranch foreman, a funeral director, and more. MFA from the University of Iowa, author of several books.