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Chasing Emily Farther

An exchange between Denise Giardina and Jennifer Holberg

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It is odd when "fiction" is criticized even though more factual, and biography based upon legends is accepted as "factual". And yes, I do believe that Emily, and her "ghosts" still exist. I do not make fun of their presence as Holberg does. They do speak. They are not "dead people," they are as alive as you and me.

—Denise Giardina

Jennnifer Holberg replies:

I thank Denise Giardina for her response to my review of her novel, Emily's Ghost. Though we undoubtedly have significant points of disagreement, I do not think my review is disrespectful in any way. Most of the points of contention that Giardina raises implying that they indicate a lack of scholarly acumen on my partare more accurately places where her interpretation of the Brontës differs from mine or is an invention of her own. I'm sure it is difficult as an author to receive a less than enthusiastic response to one's work, but my review was based on careful (and multiple) readings of Giardina's novel and on a desire to put this work into the larger context of Brontë studies.

Let me take one of Giardina's last claims first: that my "discomfort" with the novel arises from my one-sided, overly positive view of Charlotte Brontë. Not so. Indeed, I accepted this review assignment because of a respect for Giardina's previous work as a novelist, because of an admiration for her political activism (particularly in the area of mountaintop removal), and especially because I was eager to see a novel attempt an Emily-centric narrative. I do not disagree with Giardina when she claims that Charlotte's view has predominated histories of the Brontës. That is natural given Charlotte's comparative longevity and the amount of textual material associated with her. But Giardina mischaracterizes my description of Charlotte's character: my review states clearly, "[c]ertainly, 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 while I do not believe Charlotte Brontë was a saint, equally I do not believe that she is the unmitigated villain that Emily's Ghost makes her out to be. (Interestingly, the sentence Giardina cites which praises Charlotte is one of the few I had myself recorded in my notes as positive.) Perhaps Giardina did not intend Charlotte to be so one-dimensional, but unfortunately, that is how she comes across. Like some other reviewers of the novel, I simply pointed out that Charlotte's character could have been more evenly portrayed, and I stand by that criticism.

My critique of Charlotte's supposed destruction of Emily's second novel as Giardina portrays it, then, is not first of all a criticism of those who argue for the possible existence of this second novel. Rather, I was citing it as yet another example of Charlotte-as-villain. Even so, Giardina's response implies that there is (or should be) no legitimate critical debate as to whether Emily in fact wrote a second novel. In my review, I concede that some scholars, including Juliet Barker, support the idea of Charlotte's destruction. But Barker herself is very clear that her position is supposition only—she does not claim it at the level of gospel which Giardina seems to desire. And, impressive as Barker's achievement is, she is only one of many fine Brontë scholars working today, some of whom do not agree with every theory in Barker's 1,000-page text. Further, what Giardina does not point out is that the letter (from which she provides a fuller quote) is addressed, not to "Ellis Bell," but to "Dear Sir," leading some scholars to believe the letter was actually intended for Anne Brontë, not Emily. With all of this in mind, it seems obvious that there is room for a range of opinions. I felt it important for readers not familiar with this debate to understand that one existed.

As for Giardina's claim that I underestimate the documentary evidence related to Emily: naturally, I am well aware of the other texts produced by people around Emily. But Giardina cannot have it both ways, wanting to "rescue" Emily from Charlotte and the tyranny of her viewpoint, but then in her response pointing out Charlotte's view. My point was that our access to Emily's self-representation is limited. That seems evident.

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