It is often said that Heathcliff makes for the perfect example for a Byronic Hero. Did Emily Brontë purposely write him that way?
Few of Emily Brontë’s private papers and letters survived her death, so that we can’t say much about her intentions beyond that which we can deduce from the text of the novel. Nonetheless, the conjecture is plausible, as there is a strong through-line from Byron to Wuthering Heights via Lamb, Polidori and Dumas, that I will describe below.
One of the inspirations for the plot of Wuthering Heights was the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The Dumas novel first appeared in serialized form in 1844–1846, the same period when Emily Brontë was beginning to compose Wuthering Heights (completed 1847). Brontë was fluent in French, having studied at the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels in 1842–1844, so she could have read Dumas in the original language (her sister Charlotte wrote in 1845 that “I read all the French books I can get”), or the popular English translation that came out in 1846. The similarities between the plots of the two novels are extensive:
In both books the male protagonist of low birth is deeply in love with, though not married to, a young female. This love is not allowed to be consummated because of the machinations of people close to the protagonist who have taken an instinctive dislike to him and wish to see him thwarted. The protagonist then must suffer years of deprivation and exile, yet almost miraculously he returns, far wealthier and more refined than he was previously to find his loved one married. He insinuates himself back into the society from which he was expelled. His purpose is revenge. Methodically and irresistibly he puts himself into a position of power over his enemies, but chiefly by exploiting the children of those enemies. All the while he is careful to remain within the law. However, at the precise point when he can culminate his vengeance upon the second generation of victims (the first generation safely dealt with), the vengeance is perceived as unfulfilling and the need for it evaporates.
Robert Stowell (1996). ‘Brontë Borrowings: Charlotte Brontë and Ivanhoe, Emily Brontë and The Count of Monte Cristo’. Brontë Society Transactions 21:6, p. 249.
In Dumas’ novel, Monte Cristo is a Byronic figure: a sailor before his imprisonment, he is transformed into a suave nobleman of magnetic character and sinister appearance—he is unnaturally pale as a result of his long immurement in the Chateau d’If.
One of the inspirations for the character of Monte Cristo was the story ‘The Vampyre’ (1819) by John William Polidori, a friend of Byron’s. The influence was explicitly acknowledged by Dumas, because another character comments on the appearance of Monte Cristo thus:
“Why, that he is no other than Lord Ruthven himself in a living form. […] Byron had the most perfect belief in the existence of vampires, and even assured me that he had seen them. The description he gave me perfectly corresponds with the features and character of the man before us. Oh, he is the exact personification of what I have been led to expect! The coal-black hair, large bright, glittering eyes, in which a wild, unearthly fire seems burning,—the same ghastly paleness.”
Alexandre Dumas (1846). The Count of Monte Cristo, chapter 34. Project Gutenberg.
Lord Ruthven is the vampiric and Byronic protagonist of Polidori’s story, which on its original publication, and for some time afterwards, was falsely attributed to Byron. The name “Ruthven” comes from the novel Glenarvon (1815) by Caroline Lamb, in which the character Clarence de Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon, is an unflattering portrait of Byron.
A further link between ‘The Vampyre’ and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is a remark by Nelly, who asks rhetorically of the latter:
“Is he a ghoul or a vampire?” I mused. I had read of such hideous incarnate demons.
Emily Brontë (1847). Wuthering Heights, chapter 34. Project Gutenberg.