Arts: Best of brood

English fiction has no more potent character than Heathcliff. John Sutherland compares versions of Emily Bronte's anti-hero
Run a web search on "Heathcliff" and you may come up with as many as 1,000 hits, depending on the efficiency of your search engine and the phase of the moon. Only Hamlet, among literary names, will yield more. Emily Bronte indubitably invented the name by fusing two topographical elements; her heirs, like Shakespeare's, might wish she had trademarked it. Among all the banalities and opportunists (you'd be surprised how many building firms use it), there are rich oddities for the connoisseur to relish. A homepage, for example, that argues with paranoid urgency that Xena, Warrior Princess (she of the thighs like Doric columns) was "obviously" inspired by Heathcliff. I can't see it myself but can.

Academics add their own distinctive craziness. The Emily Bronte homepage lists learned articles and monographs "proving" that Heathcliff is Irish (was the novel not published in 1847 - the year of the Famine?), that he is black (does not Nelly call him "swarthy"?) and that he is Earnshaw's illegitimate child (thus rendering his relationship with Cathy incestuous). There is, it seems, something about this novel that turns otherwise sensible critics' wits to porridge.

The bulk of the items swirling around in cyberspace in February 1999 are, however, attributable to two sources. One is the achievement on the baseball diamond of that rising star, Heathcliff Slocumb - 220 pounds of 20-year-old muscle with a golden right arm. Heathcliff, pitcher extraordinaire, has just signed a one-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles for a million dollars a year. He is, as they say, hot.

Mr and Mrs Slocumb named their boy, I would like to think, after watching a re-run on TV in the early Seventies of the black and white Laurence Olivier/Sam Goldwyn film. There is, one might conjecture, a certain intensity about young Slocumb's dead eyes and an aggressive jut of the chin which recalls Larry at his fiercest. Attractive as the hypothesis is, there is a less romantic explanation. Thirty years ago a New York advertising man, George "Gately" Gallagher, resolved to break into the cartoon business.

Disney had sewn up (and trademarked) mice and dogs. Gately opted for a friendly cat with a sinister name. It was a brilliant gimmick. Heathcliff was the first solo-cat to feature in a long-running comic strip. The name, with its heavy literary baggage, was irresistible. Dubbed the Cat of the Century (edging out Tom of Tom-and-Jerry, Garfield and Felix) Heathcliff has been phenomenally successful.

Millions of furry friends have been named in his honour. He is syndicated (and the name at last trademarked) in over a thousand newspapers worldwide. He has been animated in more than 80 television shows, and there are over a million Heathcliff books in print. Heathcliff cartoons, it is proudly recorded, have even hung on the walls of the Louvre in Paris alongside Mona Lisa. My guess is that some of those drawings amused Mr and Mrs Slocumb as they were thinking of a name for their child.

Heathcliff is an appropriate name for a cat. Appropriate, because cats can instantly switch from irresistible charm to cold savagery. They are, although the most home-exploiting of pets, the least domesticated. They despise us, and we love them. Pure Heathcliff.

George Gately's mog is, it must be confessed, the least feral of felines. I like to think of the Heathcliffs that have been spawned over the years on a "cosiness" scale of one to 10: one being as nasty as you can get and 10 as cuddly as you can get. Heathcliff the cat scores nine. He's tubby, jolly and - need one ask? - neutered.

I must confess I didn't see Cliff Richard's Heathcliff musical, although his four websites (all of which go out of their way to call him Sir Cliff) think extremely well of it. They are not, of course, the former Harry Webb's sternest critics. On the evidence I have, I would have to score Cliff-Heathcliff at around eight. Nine when he sings. Ten when when he sings hymns. And, unworthy as it is, I can't help wondering if, like Heathcliff the cat, he lacks some of the necessary physical equipment.

And what about the most venerable Heathcliff of them all, Laurence Olivier? The greatest of our 20th-century actors, Olivier was capable of creating a subtext to the parts that Hollywood thrust on him, subversively suggesting more than the scriptwriters ever meant him to. In close-ups Olivier projects a kind of glinting venom that still chills - particularly in Cathy's death scene. When he turns it on, Olivier can score as low as three. A Heathcliff con cojones, as Hemingway would say.

I always thought Timothy Dalton's TV Heathcliff of 1970 underrated. There's a stillness about his acting which makes him look wooden when action is required (was there ever a less dynamic James Bond?). But he can brood very effectively. His portrayal of adolescent Heathcliff, the most mixed- up teen in literary history, was most impressive. I'd rate Dalton at two and a bit. Getting very close to the real stuff but not quite violent enough.

Still swirling around on the Net are the lyrics and music to Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights", the song that launched her career in January 1978 (and sold a record number of Emily Bronte's novel in the same year). Underneath the shrieks which are Ms Bush's contribution to contemporary culture, the words can be read less as an anthem of love than as the refrain of a battered and abandoned wife: You had a temper like my jealousy! Too hot, too greedy! How could you leave me! When I needed to possess you! I hated you, I loved you too! Cruel Heathcliff, my one dream! My only master! Every woman, as Sylvia Plath put it, adores a fascist, the boot in the face (what a terrific Heathcliff Ted Hughes would have made).

Kate Bush, like no actress, captures the screaming pain that Heathcliff inflicts on women. If only she could have been cast opposite the nastiest of Heathcliffs - Ralph Fiennes in the 1992 TV version. Him raving in his mad scenes and her raving in her ghastly-ghostly grief would make a wonderful duet. Two for Ms Bush and Mr Fiennes as the Heathcliff fantasy team.

And whose version scores highest? Whose is purest, nastiest essence of Heathcliff? Emily Bronte's, of course.

When he returns to Wuthering Heights after his mysterious exile, Heathcliff has become someone very cruel. He left an uncouth but essentially humane stable-lad. He returns a gentleman psychopath. His subsequent brutalities are graphically recorded. They are many, and very unpleasant. Heathcliff beats his wife Isabella. "You'd hear of odd things, if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face," he tells Cathy before he claims his bride. "The most ordinary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two." Which, indeed he does. For good measure he throws a kitchen knife at her, scarring her for life.

Heathcliff has no compunction about punching young Catherine when he finds her hoarding a miniature of her father (which he takes pleasure in grinding underfoot). Young Heathcliff is watching.

"I winked," he tells Nelly, "I wink to see my father strike a dog, or a horse, he does it so hard." On a casual level, Heathcliff is given to killing household pets (he strangles his wife's favourite dog by way of a wedding present) and desecrates graves.

Bronte's Heathcliff, we may assume, is not a nice man. And, in a later age, his violence against women and lawlessness would have earned him a prison sentence - or, at the very least, a string of restraining orders and court injunctions. And yes, he is a murderer.

Professor John Sutherland is the author of `Was Heathcliff A Murderer?' and will talk this evening on `Versions of Heathcliff' at the Voice Box at Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, 7.30pm (0171-960 4242)