THE IDEA IS irresistible. The fabric of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is woven into our imagination: the dark brooding moors, the agony, the torture, the strong demonic powers versus the weak emasculated scions of civilization. Bronte created an immortal world but left us only one slim volume. Now a talented young countryman of hers, Jeffrey Caine, has written a book to fill that void, to tell the devoted and the curious what they thought lay forever buried in a Yorkshire churchyard.
The young Heathcliff, dozing behind the settle in the kitchen at Wuthering Heights heard his beloved Catherine Earnshaw tell Mrs. Nelly Dean, "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff," and by his precipitous exit failed to hear her proclaim, "My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath . . .Nelly, I am Heathcliff." Her soul mate than vanished from the moors and the Heights. It was three and a half years before he reappeared in the darkness outside nearby Thrushcross Grange where Catherine lived with her new husband, the effete Edgar Linton.
Upon his return Heathcliff startles Nelly in the garden. She finds him changed almost beyond recognition "Have you been for a soldier?" she asks him - a question that has lain unanswered for 130 years, until Heathcliff, Jeffrey Caine's highly inventive account of those lost years.
Caine had to work within relatively few constraints. Emily Bronte concerned herself with cosmic passions. She left it to Mr. Caine to get Heathcliff educated, to make him a trifle more socially adroit - at least enough to pass muster with Edgar Linton - and last, but by no means least, to provide him with a substantial disposable income with which to conduct his campaign to ruin Hindley Earnshaw and take over the Heights.
All this Caine does with flair and panache, if from his head rather than his heart. His scenario has the fleeing Heathcliff near starvation and in danger of his life meeting up with a highclass blackguard called Alexander Durrant. He later dabbles in the populist movement on the streets of London, but ends up back with Durrant. His education he acquires in the bed of Durrant's wife Elizabeth; his address while squiring her around the courts of Europe, and his money by taking over the brothels and protection rackets of her husband.
As this synopsis reveals, it is all very far from the wide open spaces and the obsessive loves of Wuthering Heights, although it is, of course, Heathcliff's determination to return and win Cathy that initially motivates his skull-duggery. It is with character rather than motivation that the problems lie. The gift wrap on Mr. Caine's package is beguiling. I was won over before opening the covers. But inside is only an adequate cocktail: two parts Mickey Spillane and one part Barbara Cartland.
There is plenty of blood and action in the underworld of 19th-century London. Heathcliff stops a bullet or two, cuts off an arm (someone else's) and finally ends up on the scaffold as a result of his cuckolded mentor's wrath. In between he nips in and out of elegant drawing rooms and reads Blackstone in his mistress' bed. Brutality and romance are united at Tyburn where Heathcliff duly dangles for half an hour on the gallows, but the faithful Elizabeth, who gets little thanks for it, has provided him with a device of leather, copper and human skin to preserve his life, so he is soon off again to perpetrate more hateful acts and make more people miserable.
Unfortunately, in the rush of events neither Elizabeth, her unscrupulous but fond husband Alexander, nor the villainous Heathcliff gains much of the reader's sympathy. One is glad to see them escape some gory fate but merely because the story is rattling merrily along and their presence is a necessity. When Alexander Durrant finally bites the dust, neither the protagonists nor the reader spares him a second glance. The spiteful, spoiled Catherine Earnshaw and the smug Netly Dean inspire more affection in a paragraph than Jeffery Caine's Heathcliff does in a whole book.
But enough - such comparisons are obviously unfair, though hard to resist. At the last the idea remains piquant and it would be ungracious to demand the impossible from Mr. Caine.He does give us a lot of fun and high-speed action, his style is pleasing and his research impressive. He manages to impinge on our memory of Heathcliff even while we attempt to keep him at a distance. I would be reluctant to struggle through wind and tempest across the moors to the bleak Heights to come by a copy of Heathcliff, but I might well stroll, on a bright and pleasant spring morning, across to Thrushcross Grange to obtain one.