In the YA adventure The House of Dead Maids, author Clare B. Dunkle bring Heathcliff and Seldom House to life before Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights takes place. Learn why Dunkle fell in love with the classics and some of the alternate beginnings, middles and endings that she would weave into four other classic tales.
Lots of readers come to the classics through well-meaning but boring school assignments, and there’s nothing like making a thing mandatory to suck all the thrill out of it. But I didn’t have to go to school to find the classics. My mother was an English professor, so our house had a room stuffed with the greatest books ever written, and she was always ready to help me find more interesting layers in those books.
That’s how I wound up writing a prequel to Emily Brontë’s classic, Wuthering Heights. I’ve been fascinated by the savagery and mysticism in that gloomy story ever since I read it as a child of nine. So my latest book, The House of Dead Maids, tells my own version of Heathcliff’s backstory. My little book is dark and spooky. Gray-skinned, eyeless ghosts slip through its pages. But my young heroine, Tabby Aykroyd, has the heart of a lion, and she manages to save herself from a hideous fate—which is good, because she has to become the real-life housekeeper for the famous Brontë sisters.
I don’t plan to write any more prequels to classics, but when I was young, I spent long summer days daydreaming my own beginnings, middles, and endings to them as I loitered in my mother’s incredible library. I was Brynhild, a Valkyrie maiden, flying through the sky on my winged horse, and I had much better taste than to settle for that forgetful fathead, Sigurd. I was an elf girl who joined the Fellowship of the Ring in the Mines of Moria, and I saved Boromir’s life.
One classic that I had a love-hate relationship with as a teen was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I loved Mr. Rochester, and I was furious that Charlotte maimed and blinded him just so Jane could have a quiet life at home. In my version of that story, Jane comes home to find him lonely but uninjured, and he whisks his young bride off on a tour of foreign capitals, just as he had planned to do. Jane thinks she won’t enjoy all the bustle and confusion. But you know what? She does.
Another classic that I couldn’t resist playing around with was Hamlet. Ophelia fascinated me. She hardly got a word out and got bossed around by everybody until she went mad. Then she could finally say whatever she wanted. I thought about Ophelia and her madness, and I decided that maybe she wasn’t mad. Maybe, watching Hamlet, she had learned that madness allowed freedom, so she was only pretending to be mad. And then, during that memorable death scene (which feels so well staged), maybe she was falling into a deathlike sleep in order to escape to a place where she live the life she wanted. A wild plot twist? Sure, but it almost worked for Juliet.
So I liked to imagine Ophelia as the sole survivor of that Titanic of a play. I pictured her knocking on her coffin lid at midnight to some fellow conspirator in the graveyard, calling for him to hurry up as he shoveled off the dirt, and then tossing aside Queen Gertrude’s flowers as she walked off to her new life. Ophelia, crazy like a fox. That’s my kind of drowned dead girl.
- Clare B. Dunkle
You can pick up your own copy of The House of Dead Maids on shelves now!