Heathcliff and the ghosts of slavery

James Howson playing Heathcliff. with Kaya Scodelario as Cathy
James Howson playing Heathcliff. with Kaya Scodelario as Cathy
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A new film version of Wuthering Heights featuring a black Heathcliff is based, in part, on a little-known legend from a remote part of Yorkshire. Roger Ratcliffe tells the story that is thought to have inspired the greatest romance in English literature

Until the M6 was built to within half an hour’s drive of Dentdale in the early 1970s it was one of the most isolated and least visited parts of northern England. Even today the dale is still largely ignored in comparison to other beautiful areas of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and because all roads into it from the outside world are steep and tortuous, Dentdale almost has the feel of being a lost world.

It is easy to understand, then, how the bringing of enslaved Africans to Dentdale in the second half of the 18th century and early years of the 19th century took decades to reach the outside world. Less easy to comprehend is that to this day local people are still reluctant to talk about it.

The legend has lived on, though, and is traceable by visiting old houses and seeking out some graves in the neat churchyard at Dent village containing the remains of Edmund Sill, his wife Elizabeth and other members of the wealthy Sill family.

The Sills owned a farmhouse called High Rigg End situated on the flanks of Whernside, Yorkshire’s highest mountain. Their fortune came not from farming, however, but from the ownership of plantations on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

That the Sills brought slaves to Dentdale to work as their servants is not merely local folklore. It has been shown by the discovery of a Liverpool newspaper advertisement in 1758 placed by one Edmund Sill of Dent in which a “handsome reward” was offered for the return of a slave who had escaped. He was said to be named Thomas Anson, “a Negro Man, about five feet six inches high, aged 20 years or upwards”.

For those people who’ve heard the story it comes a shock to find that slavery was not something which happened thousands of miles away but was present in one of the most picturesque corners of the Yorkshire Dales. Now, the tale is likely to become widely known because of a new film version of Wuthering Heights in which the part of Heathcliff is played by a black actor, James Howson from Leeds.

The casting of Heathcliff as black may seem like PC gone mad. After all, the role was played by Laurence Olivier in the first film adaptation in 1939, and since then the wild romantic hero has been played at least half a dozen times, by actors like Ralph Fiennes and ex-007 Timothy Dalton. They all had one thing in common. They were white.

This is despite the author, Emily Brontë, describing Heathcliff’s skin colour “as dark as though it came from the Devil”. Until now, this description somehow never registered with film producers. Heathcliff – the greatest romantic character in 19th century English literature – black? Surely not.

However, the idea of a dark-skinned Heathcliff was not a wild flight of Emily Brontë’s imagination. There is evidence that she based the character on real events in Dentdale.

But how could that be? As the crow flies, Dentdale is the best part of 50 miles from the famous parsonage at Haworth where Emily Brontë wrote her dramatic love story. The answer is that between 1824 and 1825 Emily and her sisters Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, on the main route from Leeds to Kendal but, more pertinently, it was fairly close to Dentdale and a place which had known connections with the Sills family’s social circle.

The link between the Sills and Wuthering Heights has been known to Brontë scholars for some time, and in 2002 an annotated edition of the novel, by Christopher Heywood of Sheffield University, was published showing a black Heathcliff on its cover.

Much of the story has been traced by Dentdale historian, Kim Lyon. She began researching the rumours of the Sills’ slaves back in the 1970s and came across an intriguing story. It related to their adoption of a white orphan boy called Richard Sutton, who was described as a “foundling” when brought to Dentdale by Edmund Sill.

Rather than bringing him up with the Sills’ three sons and one daughter, however, he was kept with the slaves.

When she began researching the Sills of Dentdale, Kim soon found herself on the trail of similarities between Richard Sutton and Emily Brontë‘s Heathcliff. Both were orphans taken in by well-off families, both were badly treated, and both lived fairly wild lives.

In a short book called The Dentdale Brontë Trail which Kim Lyon self-published in 1985, she wrote that by 1805 Edmund and Elizabeth Sill were dead, as were their three sons. Only an unmarried daughter, Ann, survived them and she inherited huge estates which included some 20 farms in Dentdale and neighbouring Deepdale, as well as the Sill family’s fine new Colonial-style residence called West House, half a mile from their farm of High Rigg End.

Sutton, meanwhile, rose from being the foundling brought up with the slaves to become the Sills’ estate manager. But more interestingly as far as the Brontë connection is concerned, he had what Kim described as an “enigmatic relationship” with Ann.

Sutton now lived in the bleak location of High Rigg End, while Ann lived the life of a lady at West House, just as Heathcliff lived in the remote moorland farmhouse of Wuthering Heights and Catherine Earnshaw resided at Thrushcross Grange.

Kim wrote that Sutton’s character “was not of a very high moral standing on other peoples’ eyes. He had so displeased Ann that, on one occasion, she’d had him flogged.” Yet her will proved that she was fond of him, because she left him High Rigg End as well as another property and one-tenth of her income.

The parallels between fact and fiction are obvious, although in her book Kim suggested that Emily Brontë combined another scandal from Dentdale for the story of Catherine and Heathcliff’s doomed romance. She appears to have mixed the relationship between Richard Sutton and Ann Sill with local gossip that Ann fell in love with a black coachman.

The coachman subsequently disappeared without trace, and it is said that Ann’s brothers had decided such a union would be inappropriate. A century later, in 1902, a human skeleton was found beneath flagstones in the cellar of West House. The implication is that this was the remains of Ann’s lover.

Today, the Sills’ homes can still be seen in Dentdale. West House is now known as Whernside Manor, where local legend has it there were iron rings on cellar walls for chaining up slaves. The current owners have found no evidence of this, however.

There is a small display about slavery in the Dent Village Heritage Centre but questions about the Sills’ keeping of slaves at West House go unanswered. “It’s all a long time ago,” is the evasive response.

This has left the legend of the slaves to magnify in size. One version is that locals won’t talk about it because many of the slaves were murdered together, and the River Dee which drains Dentdale turned bright red with their blood. Another is that some long-established Dentdale families are, in part, descended from the slaves.

But there’s no denying that the remote location brings the story of Catherine and Heathcliff to life. As Kim Lyon wrote in conclusion, “The astounding comparisons that can be made can be accepted or ignored… These observances are not written as a dictate, but as an exploration into an absorbing literary mystery that has intrigued Brontë scholars for years.”

Wuthering Heights, starring James Howson as Heathcliff and Kaya Scodelario as Cathy opens November 11.