Tuesday 17 October 2023

Michael Stewart on walking to Liverpool

Award-winning writer Michael Stewart gave the Brussels Brontë Group a delightful talk on Friday 13 October 2023 about his journey into “Brontë nerd-dom.”

Dr Stewart is the author of “Walking the Invisible: Following in the Brontës’ Footsteps” – about hikes across the Yorkshire moors and other Brontë places in the north of England – and the novel “Ill Will” – about what Heathcliff was up to in those three missing years in Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.” He is also the creator of the Brontë Stones project, which celebrates the Brontës on the moors that they loved. 

It seems that it all started for Stewart when he did poorly at school, which stemmed in part from a dodgy room-womb analogy. But then he fell in love. He fell in love with a woman who was studying Emily’s novel. So “for all the wrong reasons,” he became immersed in the world of Heathcliff and “it took a hold of me,” Stewart told the members-only meeting. 

Then, with a little extra impetus from Edgar Allan Poe, he embarked on an A Level in English. Shakespeare was his next catalyst, though he hadn’t really read the bard before. His first session featured the opening scene of “The Tempest,” and Gonzalo’s line about “as leaky as an unstanched wench” struck him. “I thought it was something quite different, that showed how something coarse and earthy could be alongside this elegance and poetry,” he said. 

A good introduction for studying the Brontës, who were criticized as overly coarse in early reviews. Then Stewart came across John Sutherland’s essay "Is Heathcliff a Murderer?" That highlighted the mysteries in Emily’s novel about not only where Heathcliff comes from but also where he goes. Something that Stewart would later explore in his novel “Ill Will.” 

Sutherland says Heathcliff left Wuthering Heights as an “uncouth stableboy and returns a gentleman psychopath,” Stewart said. But he challenges that assessment. “He’s not quite a psychopath. He actually has a surfeit of emotion,” Stewart said. “A psychopath is someone who doesn’t emote, who doesn’t empathize.” 

In “Ill Will,” Heathcliff sets off for Liverpool to find out who he is. Stewart undertook the same journey, as does Mr. Earnshaw in Emily’s novel. But perhaps the trip was easier in the 18th century. “He walks to Liverpool and back in three days. It took me three days to get there,” Stewart said, bemoaning the rain on the way.

His fascination with the Brontës would also lead Stewart to create the Brontë Stones project, which celebrates the literary family in a series of engraved poems between the sisters' birthplace of Thornton and the better-known Haworth, with walks on the moors devised around each of them. The inscribed poems are by Kate Bush, Carol Ann Duffy, Jeannette Winterson and Jackie Kay. 

While doing this project, an epiphany flared. “It became obvious to me that in order to appreciate all the Brontës, but particularly Emily, you’ve got to encounter the landscape,” said Stewart, who teaches creative writing at the University of Huddersfield. That ethos suffuses his book about trekking over northern English landscapes – “Walking the Invisible: Following in the Brontës’ Footsteps.” 

“It’s a memoir. It’s about my Brontë geekhood, but it’s also a guide,” Stewart said.

Note: If you would like to become a member of the Brussels Brontë Group, you can use the contact form on our website.

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