In the heart of Brontë country in Yorkshire, an unexpected gathering: men, naked, reading Victorian novels to an audience of clothed, mostly female listeners. Appropriately dubbed Naked Boys Reading, this tongue-in-cheek literary salon plays up the perceived absurdity of the contrast between these full frontal dudes and the corseted women’s stories they often tell. The salon frames it this way: reading in the nude “provide[s] two things: a new lens and modality for the texts, and the care-giving experience of being read to.” As the founder of Naked Boys Reading concludes (with satisfaction), “it’s problematic.”
Being read to is a caregiving experience, but that is not to say it is an asexual one. Neither is reading itself without its erotics; in Wuthering Heights, for example, Hareton Earnshaw falls in love as Catherine the Younger reads aloud to . What the Naked Boys Reading really do is bring the sexuality that is just barely hidden inside the Brontë texts right into our frontal view. By making sex visible yet silent, adjacent to the narrative and impossible to ignore, the denuded salon doesn’t merely expose our assumptions about who the Brontë sisters were and how we read them. It also prompts us to rethink the currents of desire—even the implicit ones—that were always already in the Brontës’ books.
In Wuthering Heights, one such latent current is between Heathcliff and Nelly Dean. Heathcliff is the stand-out male member of the Brontë canon (as a romance writer would say); it’s interesting that he is also the most silent. Compare: in Jane Eyre, we get Rochester compulsively regurgitating all his post-Bertha rebounds; Paul Emmanuel’s tragic infanta-love comes out at the end of Villette; every detail of Arthur Huntingdon’s terrible degeneration is performed for us on the page. But Heathcliff’s story has all these gaps. Is he a “gipsy brat,” a little Lascar, an American or Spanish castaway, the son of the Emperor of China and an Indian Queen—all possible explanations for his origin story given by the book? Or is he (more likely) an Irish foundling or a bastard son of Mr. Earnshaw (who keeps on insisting, apropos of nothing, that he’s “fatherless”)? And later in the story, when Heathcliff gets back to Yorkshire to take revenge, we wonder, where has he been during all his years away from Wuthering Heights? All we know is that he’s a perfect male cipher, “athletic, well-formed,” with an “upright carriage”!
Balancing out Heathcliff’s unique reticence is the super-verbose Nelly, our most charming and perhaps unreliable of narrators. Whatever her morals, Nelly is amazing: she’s an eighteenth-century female servant who’s apparently never left home and she reads in multiple languages! (Some people think her education and “blood relative” fondness for the family means she’s Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard daughter; see Heathcliff, above.) Nelly might be the most forthcoming narrator ever: she tells the incapacitated Mr. Lockwood everything about Wuthering Heights and its denizens—everything, that is, except the nature of the relationship between Heathcliff and herself.
“I know all about” Heathcliff, Nelly tells us, “except where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money at first.” But garrulous as she seems on the Heathcliff point, Nelly says almost nothing about her relationship to him, except that she has a guilty conscience. Why does she feel so guilty about herself and Heathcliff? It’s obvious already that Nelly has been an instrument in Heathcliff’s revenge all along—in fact, she’s pretty forthcoming about her “double-dealing.” Her deep self-blame, which reaches this extraordinary pitch only to be instantly muted—“it was not the case, in reality, I am aware”—must come from another source.
Did Nelly sleep with Heathcliff? Well, maybe. There’s no smoking gun; Nelly’s quite careful to say that she never lived with him as an adult. On his side, although he clearly likes her and says so, he’s obviously (deathlessly) in love with Catherine. But he and Catherine barely see one another; they don’t reach full consummation, and unlike his soulmate, Nelly cares for Heathcliff’s personal needs. She takes real pleasure in maintaining Heathcliff’s body right from his childhood illness through his “dirty” adolescence, his attractive manhood, and his emaciated death. She’s careful to tell us that she is the only one in this story who has an investment in Heathcliff’s body. (We’re back to the erotics of caregiving.)
It’s not just me that has her suspicions about Nelly and Heathcliff. The book features multiple places where characters slip up and tell us that Nelly and Heathcliff have more between them than just fellow-servant camaraderie. And later we see Catherine and Nelly competing for Heathcliff’s attentions in the famous deathbed tableau, where Nelly, now (in name only) the servant of Edgar Linton, has seemingly done everything she can to bring Heathcliff together with his estranged beloved. Here’s Nelly, an excited voyeur to their embrace for literally hours, when Edgar returns:
I heard my master mounting the stairs—the cold sweat ran from my forehead: I was horrified.
“Are you going to listen to her ravings?” I said, passionately. “She does not know what she says. Will you ruin her, because she has not wit to help herself? Get up! You could be free instantly. That is the most diabolical deed that you ever did. We are all done for—master, mistress, and servant.”
Look at Nelly’s shifting sense of who her master is! Edgar is the legal master—but Heathcliff becomes the master of the trio caught in the erotic act. As tension builds with Edgar’s approaching step, the imagery of sexual release is split between the two women: Nelly “cr[ies] out… in the midst of my agitation,” while Catherine might be “fainted, or dead.” (“So much the better,” says the jealous Nelly).
The notion that Heathcliff and Nelly have sex is only hinted at in the original Wuthering Heights, but it’s taken up explicitly in modern afterlives of Emily Brontë’s book. In Max Ferguson’s CBC Radio play of Wuthering Heights (which was bizarrely created for children, including a young Margaret Atwood), the final scene reveals that Nelly and Heathcliff marry after Catherine dies. Nelly and Heathcliff’s marriage is not without its struggles: a Cocknified Nelly admits that “if I’ve ’ad too much beer and chips before going to bed, often in my dreams I see ’eathcliff,” and on the hero’s side, the marriage is yet another form of revenge against the dead Catherine, undertaken after his vow to “write dirty words all over your tombstone, Cathy!” But in a final encomium to his new wife, Heathcliff, who is apparently unperturbed by Nelly’s bedtime carb-loading, says, “you ain’t as good-looking as old Cathy but boy oh boy can youse cook!” The radio adaptation plays the erotics of Wuthering Heights for laughs.
Another revivalist Heathcliff-Nelly sex scene, this time with more serious social commentary behind it. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel resets Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan and America. After his beloved Yoko (Catherine) dies, Mizumura’s hero Taro Azuma gets revenge in typical Heathcliffian fashion on both her and her husband’s ancient families, who’d kept him as a servant during childhood, by buying their Nagano estates with his newfound American millions. The eleventh-hour plot twist comes with the revelation that Fumiko, the servant telling the story (that is, the Nelly equivalent), had an affair with the teenage Taro. For six months, they were lovers—then Taro left Fumiko for a new life in America.
We hear about the details of Taro and Fumiko’s sexual relationship (“hot and heavy, night after night”) indirectly from a third party long after the affair is over—when Taro, who’s acquired everything from the family in decline, wills all the properties to his former lover and fellow-servant out of a lifelong sense of guilt over breaking her heart. This matches up almost exactly with the end of Brontë’s book, where Nelly, who’s almost the only survivor of Heathcliff’s implacable revenge, becomes the de facto possessor of the now-derelict Wuthering Heights. As the ancient landowners decline, the self-made servants rise: A True Novel helps to reinforce the class breakdown that Wuthering Heights only hinted at. The explicit sex in A True Novel confirms what was already there in the Brontë original: there really is something going on between Heathcliff and Nelly. But in the light of Mizimura’s adaptation, Heathcliff and Nelly’s sexual affair is less a broad joke than it is a provocative drama of star-crossed love and class solidarity.
Back in the real world, and with a different attitude to artistry, the Naked Boys Reading make Victorian subtext not just text but also live flesh. Facing a man in all his glory reading Nelly’s lines about her “dereliction of duty” can make one laugh while also feeling, fully, the often-misunderstood provocations of Victorian desire. If it is, I want to say with satisfaction, “problematic,” then so are the erotic currents of everyday life—caregiving, sex, desire—that emanate, it seems, straight out of those boggy, seductive moors/amours.
—Arden Hegele, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University