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Emily's Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters
Emily's Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters
Denise Giardina
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
336 pp., $24.95

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Reviewed by Jennifer L. Holberg


Chasing Emily

The latest entry in the Brontë family literary sweepstakes.

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Alas, Giardina seems to have never met a conspiracy theory about Charlotte that she didn't like. Not only is Charlotte and Emily's relationship essentially portrayed as a clichéd love triangle, Charlotte is so diabolical, so jealous of Emily's talent, so scandalized by Wuthering Heights that Emily's Ghost ends with her destroying Emily's second novel. The only thing missing, really, is maniacal cackling from Charlotte as she watches the flames leap up around Emily's manuscript. (Some critics have speculated that a second novel existed, largely on the basis of a letter from Emily's publisher telling her "not to hurry" on her next book. But there is no evidence beyond this casual encouragement that Emily ever began one. Given the fact that Emily died only a year after the publication of Wuthering Heights, a year which included the death of her brother and her own prolonged illness, it seems more likely that no such novel existed.)

Still, Giardina's account of Emily and her sisters is a work of fiction. Do any of these criticisms matter, or are they simply missing the point? After all, there is nothing new under the Brontëan sun, and Giardina offers just one more in a long line of fictional portrayals of the Brontës. Who cares if Emily Brontë and Willie Weightman never had a romantic relationship, who cares if Charlotte Brontë was something altogether different from Giardina's portrayal? We should. Certainly, fiction should be allowed a measure of invention, but with real subjects the parameters must be carefully limited. After all, in telling stories about women writers, we are telling stories about what is possible, examining paradigms of creativity. We need as many models as we can get, and yet, we seem to revert again and again to only a limited few.

For example, in Emily's Ghost and in recent films like Becoming Jane, the portrayals of Emily Brontë and Jane Austen are distressingly similar, despite the vast differences in their biographical records. Brontë and Austen come across as real-life versions of some combination of spunky all-around great gal Elizabeth Bennett and spunky writer Jo March—just with better romantic lives (well, at least until Lizzy marries Darcy). The men in these renderings are not only fabulously supportive of these wild, untamed writers, they also introduce them to the passion that both women will chronicle in their novels. The implication seems to be that only through direct experience can a woman write. Even when we know such representations are more fantasy than fact, surely, these cultural texts seem to say, Jane Austen and Emily Brontë did more than we know about. Surely these virginal ministers'daughters couldn't write such things, couldn't know such things, unless they had themselves experienced significant romantic relationships. But this facile assumption undercuts and underestimates their genius. What should fascinate us is that these women could write such powerful and insightful books living in the circumstances that they did. Our need to have everything fit into a romantic paradigm shows the shallowness of our own worldview, the limited stories to which we are willing to turn.

Critic Janet Gezari has observed that "Brontë's daily life, the life of the poems and her novel, was not a life of doing with others but a life of watching alone. What she did, apparently with great pleasure, was the repetitive, inconclusive work required in a household: brushing the carpets, kneading the bread, feeding the dogs." Writing the story of that kind of woman writer is something that needs doing and doing more often. Perhaps that is a narrative that Giardina can turn her considerable talents as a prose stylist to in the future.

Jennifer Holberg is associate professor of English at Calvin College and founding co-editor of Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture.

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