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Nobody knows exactly where Emily Brontë found the inspiration for Wuthering Heights but there are some stories that she may have heard which could have been sources.
From "Emily Brontë" by Katherine Frank. Law Hill was a school where Emily taught for a short time. It is also an interesting piece of trivia that there was a servant called Earnshaw at the school during Emily's time.
Walterclough Hall [about a mile/1.5 kilometers away from Law Hill] had belonged to the Walker family since the seventeenth century; by the 1720s, its inhabitants numbered one John Walker, his wife, four children, two married and two maiden sisters. Walker farmed his land and was also a prosperous woollen manufacturer. Though he had two sons of his own, he adopted and favoured his nephew, a rascal named Jack Sharp. Walker trained Sharp to take over the thriving family woollen business, which in due course Sharp did and, along with it, Walterclough Hall as well. By the time John Walker died in 1771, Jack Sharp was in full possession of the Walker estate. But not legally. After a good deal of protracted negotiation and bad feeling on all sides, John Walker's rightful heir, his son, also named John Walker, managed to oust Sharp from Walterclough Hall. Before vacating it, Sharp in retaliation first destroyed most of the Hall's fixtures and heirlooms, and then carried off whatever he could of its furniture, plate, silver and linen, leaving a virtually empty and badly damaged house behind him. Sharp proceeded to build his own home, Law Hill, as close as he legally could to John Walker's seat. Sharp named his new house after the hill from which, it must have seemed to the Walkers, it mockingly looked down on Walterclough Hall.
But Sharp's carefully nursed wrath at the Walkers was not yet appeased. He apprenticed a Walker cousin named Sam Stead, the son of one of old Mr Walker's sisters, to his woollen business. Sam Stead was as dubious a character as his so-called benefactor but far less clever. He was also given to drinking and gambling, and was thus putty in Jack Sharp's hands. In a short time and with no apparent motive other than causing further pain and injury to the Walkers, Jack Sharp worked Sam Stead's complete degradation with drink and gaming.
From "A Brontë Companion" by F B Pinion. This story relates to Emily's grandfather, Hugh Brunty, and may have been told to the Brontë children by their father.
Hugh's grandfather had a farm near the banks of the Boyne. He was a cattle-dealer and often crosses the Irish Sea from Drogheda to sell cattle in Liverpool. On one of his return voyages, a strange child was found in the hold. It proved to be a very young boy – dark, dirty and almost naked. There was no doctor on the vessel, and only one woman, Mrs Brunty. As nobody would take care of him, and there was no foundling hospital nearer than Dublin, she decided to adopt him. From his gypsyish complexion, the boy was thought to be Welsh, and called 'Welsh' by the Bruntys. He grew up to be sullen, envious, and cunning, and attached himself to Mr Brunty who took him, instead of his own sons, to fairs and markets to listen to farmers' conversations and gain the information needed to drive hard bargains. Welsh was taken to Liverpool for the same reason, and in time Mr Brunty became prosperous; the more attached he became to Welsh, however, the more his children disliked the interloper. Ultimately, Welsh gained almost complete management in business matters. When his master died suddenly on board ship after selling the largest consignment of cattle that ever crossed the Irish Sea, he professed to know nothing of the proceeds or the documents relating to the sale.
The Bruntys were well-educated, knew very little about farming or dealing, and were unable to support themselves. Welsh arranged a meeting at which he proposed to tell them how they could be rehabilitated. He appeared dressed as he had never been before, in black broadcloth and fine linen, white as his prominent teeth. He would continue dealing and supplying the family needs provided Mary, the youngest sister, married him. The proposal was indignantly rejected. As he left, Welsh shouted "Mary shall be my wife, and I'll scatter the rest of you like chaff from this house, which shall be my home!" The Bruntys had friends and three of the brothers obtained good positions, two in England. They were able to send home enough money to pay the rent of the farm and maintain their mother and sisters.
Welsh did not return to cattle-dealing; he became a sub-agent for an absentee landlord, with responsibility for collecting rents, including the Bruntys'. He could exploit his cunning to the satisfaction of his master and overlord but, as he could never get the better of the Bruntys, who continued to pay their rent regularly even when it had increased, he decided to change his tactics and employed an unprincipled woman to impress on Mary how much he had done and spent to save her family from eviction. Forged receipts were shown. Finally Mary was induced to meet Welsh one night in a plantation in company with the go-between in order that she might express her gratitude. Her fate was sealed. Marriage to Welsh was preferable to scandal. He had no difficulty in bribing his agent into making him the tenant of a farm.
Years later the agent was assassinated after a bout of heartless evictions and Welsh's house was burnt to the ground. He was so poor that he could no longer retain the favour of the new agent and soon lost his sub-agency. As he and Mary were childless, they offered to adopt one of his nephews. So it was that Hugh Brunty, whose father lived in the south of Ireland, was allowed to be taken by the pair from his comfortable home on the condition that his father should never visit or communicate with him, and that he should never be told where his parents lived. Hugh was five or six at the time. Four nights were spent on the road, partly to save the cost of lodgings, more particularly (so the story goes) that the boy should be unable to recall his way home. From the outset he was treated harshly, and even brutally. He received none of the education Welsh had promised his parents but had to work on the farm. Welsh's right-hand man was a tall, gaunt, rather primitive and hypocritical peasant (rather like Joseph in Wuthering Heights); he had a habit of invoking 'the Blessed Virgin and all the saints'. Hugh's best friend was the farm dog, Keeper (the name of Emily's favourite dog). Aunt Mary was sorry for him and told him the story of her husband's villainies. The discovery that his uncle was not a Brunty afforded Hugh great relief.
The story of his escape at the age of fifteen and how he swam naked down the Boyne to a rendezvous with an enemy of Welsh, a neighbouring farmer, who was waiting with a suit of clothes to assist him, is romantic. He settled in the north of Ireland, eventually becoming overseer of some lime kilns. One of his friends was a red-haired youth named McClory. During a Christmas holiday, he stayed at McClory's home and soon fell in love with his beautiful sister Alice. Their marriage was opposed by her family on religious grounds, and preparations were made for her wedding to a Catholic farmer. All was ready for the ceremony when it was discovered that the bride was missing. Soon it was heard that she had been seen galloping with a tall gentleman towards Banbridge; later a boy rode up on his horse to say that she had just been married to Hugh Brunty at the Protestant Church of Magherally (this was 1776). The clergyman who took the service thought the bride the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Their first home was the cottage at Emdale in the parish of Drumballyroney.
We can also see similarities between Hindley Earnshaw and Emily's brother, Branwell. Branwell was talented and educated, and had high hopes of success in the arts. In fact, he planned to travel to London (and may have done so) to apply for the Royal Academy in 1834/5 but his high hopes disappeared as he moved from job to job, and scandal to scandal. He wasted his life in drinking and drug-taking and was going through some of his worst situations when Emily was writing her novel. It is likely that she based much of the degradation of Hindley on observations and experiences with the decline of her brother.
For more information, see his timeline at the Emily Brontë Timeline.
The Brontës read many books and antecedents for Heathcliff can be seen in many Byronic figures. But Juliet Barker in "The Brontës" points out that "Rob Roy" by Walter Scott could have been a particular inspiration for Wuthering Heights.
The powerful combination of religious cant and Yorkshire dialect, which Emily was later to use as her model for Joseph in Wuthering Heights, was probably derived as much from
Andrew Fairservice in Walter Scott's Rob Roy, as from personal observation of Haworth Methodists.
Echoes of his novel Rob Roy, for instance, are to be found throughout the book. In Wuthering Heights, one is irresistibly reminded of Rob Roy's setting in the wilds of Northumberland, among the uncouth and quarrelsome squirearchical Osbaldistones, who spend their time drinking and gambling. The spirited and wilful Catherine has strong similarities with Diana Vernon, who is equally out of place among her boorish relations. Heathcliff, whose unusual name recalls that of the surly Thorncliff, mimics Rashleigh Osbaldistone in his sinister hold over the Earnshaws and Lintons, and his attempts to seize their inheritances.