Emily's Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
336 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by Jennifer L. Holberg
Yet another candidate for Emily's lover is the one that Giardina opts for in Emily's Ghost: Patrick Brontë's curate, William "Willie" Weightman. There is a long critical history (though a contested one, especially recently) which views him as having been attracted to Anne Brontë, but Willie has been imagined by novelists as a match for Emily since the 1920s. Isabel C. Clarke's Haworth Parsonage, Keighley Snowden's essay "The Enigma of Emily Brontë," and Elizabeth Goudge's The Brontës of Haworth all posit Weightman as, in the words of Clarke, the only man Emily "was ever known to tolerate." A ringing endorsement for romance, to be sure.
Despite the lack of any solid evidence of or critical support for a romantic relationship between Weightman and Emily, Giardina's Weightman is a compelling figure. Remembered for being a compassionate worker for the poor of Haworth and a conscientious clergyman, Weightman here is also an agitator for workers' rights and an active supporter of the Chartists. Giardina also embroiders his background to highlight this even further, filling in his pre-seminary years with service among the Yorkshire miners and imagining that his father has disowned him for his sympathies. Giardina's Weightman is wise and caring, funny and compassionate. He takes care of the Brontës' alcoholic brother, Branwell; eases Patrick's burdens as his curate; assists the villagers in sickness and in health; adopts stray dogs; and famously, sends the Brontë sisters Valentines when he hears that none of them has ever received one. Page after page about the wonders of Willie. In short, he is as close to a saint as the novel has. And of course, being utterly unconventional and modern, he is in love with Emily Brontë.
With Weightman and his working-class allegiance as, in many ways, its shaping consciousness, the novel is at its strongest in its evocation of Yorkshire in the early Victorian period. Admittedly building on Juliet Barker's monumental study The Brontës, Giardina does a very fine job of dramatizing Haworth not as the backwater that Manchester-based Mrs. Gaskell described in the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, but rather as a thriving region, culturally rich and politically active. Given Giardina's own excellent work (both fictionally and politically) on Appalachia, it is not surprising that she provides such a sensitive picture of the area.
It is unfortunate, then, that so much of the rest of the novel is so disappointing. One example is the ghost voices in the beginning, which reduce Emily's imagination to mere channeling, not true creativity. More ludicrous is when Emily speaks to her newly dead sister, Elizabeth, only to discover that Elizabeth has spotted the recently dead Percy Shelley—at six years old, it seems unlikely that even the precocious Emily knew who Shelley was, let alone had read him. Later, when Emily begins to converse with the departed Weightman and to crave reconnection with him, the book tries to out-Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights. And it's too much. This culminates in Emily's burial scene—Patrick Brontë breaks open the side of Weightman's coffin so it can be pushed together with a similar opening in Emily's—which not only strains credibility but is cringe-worthy in its bathetic Gothic over-indulgence.
Even more problematic, perhaps, is that Giardina in her stated objective to "free Emily from Charlotte's portrayal" does so at the expense of a fair rendering of Charlotte. Certainly, Charlotte is a complicated figure, one whose opinion shaped the reception of her sisters. As strong-willed people both, she and Emily would naturally have notable differences. But Emily's Ghost is squarely in the camp of what Lucasta Miller has called the "Charlotte-as-bitch" school of criticism. Giardina's Charlotte is conventional, petty, unforgiving, bossy, disapproving, small-minded, perpetually man-hungry and marriage-seeking. In fact, it is hard to reconcile the woman who wrote the revolutionary words of Jane Eyre, who conceived of a novel ending with the heroine unmarried in Villette, as anywhere close to the person represented here. (Readers who would like a more balanced picture of Charlotte should read Lyndall Gordon's Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life.) Moreover, in Giardina's rendering, Charlotte is mostly blind to her sisters' desires, unappreciative of their talent, and commandeering of their time. She is rarely mentioned in the novel without being simultaneously denigrated. Worse, Giardina propels the novel on the basis of Charlotte's ongoing grudge against Weightman: in Giardina's telling, Charlotte believes he has slighted her and led her on. Emily must hide her feelings, then, against the judgmental Charlotte. But none of this actually happened (Charlotte may indeed have had a crush early on, but her letters suggest she got over it quickly and wrote teasingly of him to her friend Ellen, who also had a crush on him). And since it didn't, it seems shaky ground for giving us a new version of Emily.