I ask the students to read a passage in Great Expectations which ends with the sentence “I must obey.” One of them pretends to mishear me and asks in surprise “masturbate?” The whole class laughs at the fake Freudian slip and we start then a conversation on Pip’s (and Heathcliff’s) strange sexual lives. If they have one…

Unless Brontë wants us to read between the lines, we must accept that Heathcliff has no sex (at least in company) for almost twenty years, ages 21 to 39: from the moment his wife Isabella leaves him to the moment he dies. We may speculate about what goes on in his rambles in the moors with Cathy and during the three years of his mysterious absence but have no proof whatsoever that he’s ever had sex before his disastrous wedding night (that might explain Isabella’s wish to run away the following morning). Cathy, at least, bears a daughter, which suggests that Edgar and her are sexually active –at least once, yes, seemingly inspired by Heathcliff’s return. In Great Expectations Pip falls madly in love with Estella aged 7 and gives her up aged 23 when she marries, remaining a bachelor until the age of 34 when he meets her again, already a widow. Once more, Dickens keeps silent about the hero’s sexual life despite Pip’s ranting about his passion for the girl. We might infer from her marriage to the brutal Drummle that Estella does have sex, who knows of what kind -sadomasochistic would be a safe bet.

Students and teachers used to the explicitness of current narratives with an erotic component and to the openness with which matters like masturbation and orgasm can be discussed today don’t know what to make of odd fish like Heathcliff and Pip. The only option left is to think that they “must obey” their natural impulses and “masturbate” thinking of the women they fancy, yet it’s even hard to apply this term to Victorian fiction. Our current post-Freudian, post-Foucaltian discourse on sexuality is complicated enough to complicate matters even further with a discussion of celibacy in Victorian fiction.

If staying mentally and physically healthy requires regular sex (alone or not) as we believe, then Heathcliff and Pip must be mad, as their obsession for a particular woman shows. Yet, because they’re not presented as the pathological abnormalities we believe them to be today but as deluded, sad romantic heroes, we can hardly assess them as men. The women are, somehow, normalised by marriage but not Heathcliff and Pip. Perhaps a Victorian reader could automatically guess what kind of sex life they lead or accept they have none but us, 21st century readers, just puzzle and wonder.