Emily's Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
336 pp., 24.95
Reviewed by Jennifer L. Holberg
Emily Brontë hears dead people.
Or at least she does according to the latest entry in the Brontë family literary sweepstakes, Denise Giardina's Emily's Ghost . To be fair, Emily only gets all Sixth Sense-y in the beginning and ending sections of Giardina's novel (somehow, I guess, the otherworldly presences just aren't as convenient or necessary in the vast middle chapters of the novel). And lest the reader believe that these voices are evidence of schizophrenia or a matter of purely imaginative inner dialogue (the latter a possibility that Anne Brontë raises at one point in the novel), Giardina has her Emily affirm quite forcefully the reality of her auditory companions. What's more, Giardina's Emily is ardently and actively political (a Chartist, no less); strongly and nobly rebellious against everything well-established in early Victorian society; and the participant in a passionate, if unconsummated, romance. Throw in a pinch of plot elements taken from Jane Eyre and a dash of Jo March-style hair-chopping, and you begin to get the idea of the portrait of Emily Brontë this book gives us.
In some ways, none of this is surprising. Giardina simply amalgamates and creatively recycles several of the ongoing strands of Brontë myths. In the 161 years since her death, Emily Brontë has been the subject of intense curiosity and vast speculation. The verifiable facts about Brontë—who did not have a full-length biography devoted to her until 1883—are relatively sparse: Emily had no friends outside her family circle, and though she was shy with outsiders, she was forceful with her sisters. Her imaginative life was deeply submerged throughout her life in the imaginary kingdom of Gondal that she created as a child with her sister Anne. She enjoyed and performed the majority of the housework at her father's parsonage in Haworth. She was known to have been a great lover of nature and animals, an inveterate walker of the Yorkshire moors. She is said to have been an excellent pianist. Of the three sisters, Emily worked the least amount of time outside the home and had the least formal education, only 18 months total spread out over almost twenty years. Documentary evidence is similarly slim: in addition to Wuthering Heights and her poetry, we have three brief notes to Charlotte's friend, Ellen Nussey; essays she wrote while at school in Brussels; sketches; part of an account book; and four "diary papers." What does seem clear is that Emily Brontë was extremely inward-focused, deeply imaginative, highly connected to the natural world, and genuinely contented with her life at home. Yet this dearth of material has never seemed to stop the flow of biographical supposition, including Giardina's. As Lucasta Miller, author of the exceptionally astute The Brontë Myth has observed:
Lack of biographical data has made Emily's powerful and enigmatic novel [Wuthering Heights] seem all the more obscure, and the combination of the two has left her riper for mystification than the other members of her family. Wafting across the moors in a cloud of Yorkshire mist, the so-called sphinx of English literature has acquired almost supernatural status. The absences surrounding her have made her all the more magnetic and some colourful apocrypha has emerged to fill the gaps.
And it is colorful stuff, indeed. Emily Brontë has been portrayed as an anorexic, a psychic, a psychotic (given to Heathcliffean levels of violence and temper), and a "sadistic goddess." A cousin to Giardina's ghost-haunted Emily is the frequent depiction of Brontë as a mystic, given to descending into trance-states or to receiving visions. Her religion has been described as pantheistic, progressively Christian, heterodox, atheistic, and even (surprisingly) Roman Catholic. She is said to have been suicidal—willing her death so she could merge with the Eternal—and to have been strongly opposed to death, fighting to the bitter end (though refusing to receive medical help).
Though not a shred of evidence exists in contemporaneous sources that points to Emily Brontë ever having even a romantic interest of any kind, speculation about her love life abounds in similarly contradictory and bizarre directions. She has been figured as a lesbian, an asexual virgin, a tomboy filled with "sexless purity," "a fierce, impassioned Vestal." It has been variously claimed that she had an incestuous relationship with her sister Anne, with her brother Branwell, with her father Patrick (who, in one play, fathers a child by Emily). Others have suggested a relationship with a demon lover (a vampire version of Wuthering Heights surely cannot be far away) or a spiritual "union" with God, a love affair with a farmhand or with her teacher in Brussels (and Charlotte's unrequited love), Constantin Heger. Charlotte's eventual husband, Arthur Bell Nichols (who barely knew Emily—despite Giardina's portrayal of him in her novel) has also been a candidate. Perhaps most amusing is the case of Virginia Moore, author of The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontë (1936), who confidently asserted that, based on one of Emily's poems, she had finally discovered the name of Emily's lover: Louis Parensell—only to have it exposed that she had misread Brontë's handwriting of the poem's title, "Love's Farewell."
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 Heights Wuthering 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.
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 .
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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