We meet Mrs. (Nelly) Dean, the diehard housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange. When Lockwood finds out she had been there for eighteen years, he lures her into providing gossip about Heathcliff and his bad-tempered housemates. She is only too willing to tell him the story, and she becomes our new narrator.
Mrs. Dean lets us know some vital pieces of Heathcliff's story. It's important to remember that with each new narrator, we also get a new point of view. Where Lockwood is naïve, Mrs. Dean is cynical, having spent so many years taking care of Thrushcross Grange.
Here's what Mrs. Dean tells Lockwood about the cast of characters up at Wuthering Heights. Get ready because it's really a cluster:
Heathcliff is rich and greedy, which is why he is renting out Thrushcross Grange. His wife is dead. The young lady is Catherine Linton. Her father, Edgar Linton, used to own Thrushcross Grange.
Heathcliff was married to Edgar Linton's sister, Isabella. The fumbling young man is Catherine Linton's cousin, Hareton Earnshaw. He's the last of the Earnshaw family line (remember the inscription over the door?). Strange that he doesn't seem to be master of the house. What's the story with that?
So why, Lockwood wants to know, is Heathcliff such a jerk? (He calls Heathcliff a "churl," but you get the point.)
Mrs. Dean knows Heathcliff's whole story—"except where he was born, and who his parents were, and how he got his money at first" (4.33).
So now we know that Heathcliff is a big mystery—the dark-orphan-from-the-nineteenth-century-novel figure. But instead of becoming an orphan in the story (like so many Dickens characters), Heathcliff is adopted. So Brontë is reversing that popular Victorian motif. Anyway, back to the story:
Mrs. Dean worked up at Wuthering Heights for a long time. She starts her story by recalling when Mr. Earnshaw—"the old master" (4.40)—leaves and returns from a trip to Liverpool with a "dirty, ragged, black-haired child" (4.46): Heathcliff.
There's not a lot of excitement or love coming from Mr. Earnshaw's two children (Hindley and Catherine), and even Mrs. Earnshaw doesn't want the "gipsy brat" (4.46) in the house, seeing as they already have their own "bairns to feed" (4.46). Not the nicest reception for young Heathcliff, who, explains Mr. Earnshaw, was starving and homeless in the streets of Liverpool.
It's all very suspicious, but Heathcliff is now in the family, for better or worse. (Mostly worse.)
Immediately, Heathcliff is the object of abuse from everyone but Mr. Earnshaw, whose protectiveness and favoritism just makes everyone even more jealous and ticked off. "So from the beginning [Heathcliff] bred bad feeling in the house" (4.55), Mrs. Dean ominously informs Lockwood.
As a child, Heathcliff spends a lot of time threatening to tell on Hindley, and Hindley calls Heathcliff a lot of names, like "gipsy" and "imp of Satan." A lot of resentment accumulates all around.