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Chasing Emily Farther

An exchange between Denise Giardina and Jennifer Holberg

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As for the ghosts: Giardina claims in her response that the ghosts disappear because "no one close to Emily dies in the middle section of the novel" and that the ghosts signify connections with those we have lost. If so, this implies that the only ghosts at the novel's beginning are Emily's newly dead sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, and that Emily encounters ghosts only after their deaths. But that isn't the case. And if Giardina's response is right, then the opening pages of the novel are very confusing indeed. In chapter one while Elizabeth and Maria are still very much alive, Emily lies in bed and "[t]hen the ghosts came and told her stories." These ghosts—Henry and Mary and Edward—are described as "friends" who lived "many hundreds of years ago," and they appear to Emily and tell her stories—which she then repeats. Giardina's Emily distinguishes between people who "make up" their stories and Emily herself, who hears them from her ghost-friends. Indeed, the entire section at Clergy Daughters' School features Emily discussing (and being rebuked for) her association with these ghosts. So unless Henry and Mary and Edward are some ancient Brontë relatives (and even Barker doesn't mention them), I am at a loss to understand how these spectral storytellers have anything to do with "God's loving promise that death is not the last word." Instead, they seem tied to Emily's storytelling ability, and as such, their disappearance in the middle section of the book is indeed rather odd.

On a more minor note, Giardina is quite critical of some of the terms I use: she claims Emily was "supportive" of Chartism and Weightman's work; I read that support as "active": for example, Emily helps Willie with the letters, allowing the Chartists to communicate. It seems appropriate to think that "active" can take a number of forms. And yes, the dog Weightman takes in had a previous owner—I used "stray" as shorthand for "a dog that needs a home." Finally, as for "lover," at which Giardina takes particular offense, she might have noted that in the first full paragraph of my review I am careful to say "passionate, if unconsummated, romance." "Lover" needn't mean only a sexual relationship, and I certainly didn't intend it as such. But if Giardina's novel is successful anywhere, it is in its portrayal of the intense love in the Emily-Weightman relationship—so Giardina's response to "lover" seems overblown to me.

Elements of Jane Eyre How about much of the Clergy Daughters' School section (except for the ghosts, of course). The scant food, the nasty teachers, and of course, the evil Carus Wilson. Like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (who, of course, was based on Wilson), Wilson has an obsession with girls' hair, wishing to "tame" it. He also interrogates Emily on matters of religion, particularly who is saved and who is destined for hell; reads to her from a pious book; and punishes her by having all the students shun her while she stands on a stool. Sound familiar?

And Mr. Nicholls? Giardina's response certainly paints him in a negative light when she refers to his "well-documented restrictive ways." That's a rather broad brush, especially given that Nicholls himself is a complex figure, long a subject of controversy in Brontë studies. But to Giardina's more specific critique of my claim that Emily and Arthur Bell Nicholls did not know each other well, I defer to Lucasta Miller, writing in The Brontë Myth, who states: "In real life, Nicholls hardly knew Emily. He told Clement Shorter that whenever he took tea with Patrick at the Parsonage, Charlotte and Anne would be present but Emily preferred to have hers alone in another room."

Giardina implies that I think doing housework is somehow at odds with being a "man—a great navigator." Not at all. In fact, that is my point. As everyone who knew Emily Brontë well seems to have observed, she was a woman of strong will and deep intelligence, combining her domestic duties with a life of intellectual and artistic rigor. But my larger argument remains: Emily Brontë did not need ghosts or a passionate relationship to kindle her imagination or make her a writer. And she wrote Wuthering Heights, one of the most singular novels ever, without most of the drama Giardina imagines for her. Weightman and the ghosts are the fantasy here, not my desire for a certain portrayal of Emily. As such, I still believe that we can do better and tell a wider variety of stories about the women and men who are blessed with the gift of story.

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