Jump directly to the content

Chasing Emily Farther

An exchange between Denise Giardina and Jennifer Holberg

icon1 of 4view all

I have generally considered it bad form for a novelist to respond to unfavorable reviews. Everyone has different tastes in fiction, and no one can be expected to like everything. But I feel compelled to respond to the review by Jennifer Holberg of my novel Emily's Ghost. The reading of my text and the reviewer's challenge of my research require me to defend the book against distortions of both book and historical sources.

I was initially taken aback by the tone of the opening. "Emily Brontë hears dead people," Holberg begins. She goes on to say "Emily gets all Sixth Sense-y in the beginning and ending section 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.)"

Well, no, nothing convenient or necessary about any of it. No one close to Emily dies in the middle sections of the novel, and in any event the "voices" are not meant to be some cheap special effect. The central point of Emily's Ghost is how we continue on with those who have died, our understanding that we are still connected through God's loving promise that death is not the last word. I have felt that with loved ones who have passed on; I suspect so have many people. This is not a subject to be treated trivially. To read such a flippant opening in a review from a Christian publication, of all places, was unsettling, to say the least.

But the problems with the review don't stop there. Holberg writes, for example, "Giardina's Emily is ardently and actively political (a Chartist, no less)." No, again. Emily Brontë was not a Chartist, nor do I depict her as such. Nor was she actively political. I do depict Emily as sympathetic to the plight of the poor in Haworth. Also, when she realizes William Weightman is a Chartist, she is supportive. Her father, Patrick, was on good terms with Chartists (a historical fact.) But that is not the same thing as Holberg's description.

A few other details: Holberg dismisses the idea that six-year-old Emily would have known about Shelley. But intelligent children in those days were not consigned to a "children's' literature ghetto." Yes, she would have heard Shelley's work before she could read, and read him when she could. And scandalously, Byron as well. Besides, there is ample evidence of Emily's precocious abilities.

The pastor William Weightman does not adopt a stray dog, he takes on an elderly dog that belonged to a deceased parishioner. There are several descriptions in Holberg's account of Weightman as Emily's "lover." But they hug once, for a few seconds. And that is the extent of the "affair." Holberg describes my portrayal of Weightman as "unconventional and modern" when it is just the opposite. Weightman is a conventional Victorian English clergyman; otherwise the "love affair" —which, despite Holberg's assumption, does not exist—might have taken fruit. But because of Weightman's ties to place and time, it does not.

My novel also does not throw in "a pinch of plot elements taken from Jane Eyre." (I would be fascinated to know what those would be.) Holberg states that Charlotte's future husband, Arthur Bell Nichols, "barely knew Emily—despite Giardina's portrayal of him in her novel." Mr. Nichols arrived in Haworth in May of 1845. Emily died in December of 1848. His lodgings could be reached from the parsonage, Emily's home, in ten long strides, his office was closer, the church an equal distance in a slightly other direction. "Barely knew" Emily? Only if she were locked away in the attic like Rochester's wife. And I do suspect that Emily would have detested him for his well-documented restrictive ways, which is the way I portray the situation.

Holberg wishes that I had written about an Emily Brontë who, to quote another critic, Janet Gezari, was engaged in "brushing the carpets, kneading the bread, feeding the dogs." In fact, I do write about that woman. Emily, throughout my novel, is engaged in all of those tasks. (And also blacking the fireplaces and taking care of the geese.) But I have supposedly also created an unreal Emily who fits some sort of stereotype of a fantasy writer who couldn't exist. What Holberg ignores is the Emily Brontë who not only performed her domestic chores but could also be described by her Belgian teacher, Monsieur Heger, in this way: "She should have been a man—a great navigator. … her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life." I have tried to imagine the sort of woman Heger described. Holberg apparently believes she didn't exist. I do.

We also have more documentary evidence about Emily than Holberg lists. We may not have letters from Emily, but we have Charlotte's letters about Emily. We have the letters of Charlotte's friends about Emily. Reading those letters sensitively can tell us a great deal. Especially we can parse Charlotte, who saw Emily as her beloved but obstinate opposite.

icon1 of 4view all

Most ReadMost Shared