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Chasing Emily Farther

An exchange between Denise Giardina and Jennifer Holberg

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.

And here, I suspect, is the crux of Holberg's discomfort with my novel: I do not portray Charlotte in the manner she desires. Charlotte is a mixed bag. She is not the caricature Holberg accuses me of creating. She has her admirable points. As Emily notes in my novel, "Were it not for Charlotte, the Brontë family would not try anything new under the sun." Charlotte was the one who pushed for achievement. But she also had her flaws, and they were many, and no honest portrayal could leave them out.

Charlotte did chase men. She turned down proposals of marriage from men she didn't love, but pursued those she did. William Weightman was perhaps the first; she did not write "teasingly" after her rejection, she wrote, "He [Weightman] ought not to have been a parson, certainly he ought not." She then relented somewhat when she noted his concern for a poor dying child, but when Weightman himself died, she wrote not a word.

Next came a brief infatuation with an employer, Mr. White (and a concomitant disdaining of Mrs. White). But following that were several years' pursuit—including a series of pleading letters—of Constantin Heger, her teacher and a married man, in Brussels. How one can know this and yet criticize another writer for picturing Charlotte as a man-chaser is beyond me.

Besides that, Charlotte pursued her own ideal of beauty when guarding the portrayal of her family. She repainted the portrait of her dead mother to beautify it. She rewrote her sisters' poetry after their deaths. She discouraged her publisher from reprinting Anne's Tenant of Wildfell Hall because she felt "the choice of subject was an entire mistake."

In charity, Charlotte was trying to preserve what she saw as her sisters' reputations in a time of strict morality and conservative attitudes toward women. But could a woman with these attitudes, and this hands-on approach to her sisters' work, have destroyed Emily's second novel? Yes, she could.

Could Emily have written a second novel? Yes, she could. Holberg denies this by pointing out 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."

But Holberg fails to mention, or perhaps does not understand, several things. First, a deal of time elapses between the completion of a novel and its publication. Wuthering Heights had been completed two years, or likely more, before Emily's death. In that same time period, Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, and began Shirley. Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (For that matter, I wrote Emily's Ghost in the same amount of time.) What would be odd is if the prolific Emily did not write a novel in this time frame, to match her sisters' production.

Second, the fact that Emily was dying of tuberculosis would not have been a factor. A study of TB shows that its victims are more energetic and prolific as the disease progresses. Anne was also dying of TB, yet produced her novel. Emily was dying and yet we know she performed her household chores even on the last day of her life. The idea that dying of consumption would have prevented her from writing does not make sense.

Finally, Holberg quotes a letter from Emily's publisher regarding her new novel as saying "not to hurry," as if the novel had not been written or was only just begun. The full line reads, "I would not hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your new work if it be an improvement on your first you will have established yourself as a first rate novelist, but if it fall short the Critics will be to apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel."

As a writer, I have to say this does not read as though it addresses a novel just begun, but a novel that is finished but is being polished. I then ask, where is the novel? And I am not the only one asking that question. Juliet Barker, the leading Brontë expert, writes "The likelihood, therefore, is that this [the destruction of the novel] was done by Charlotte after Emily's death, a possibility that would also explain Charlotte's silence on the subject of Emily's second novel."

Holberg rightly catalogues the wild variety of speculation about the life of Emily Brontë. The irony is that these accounts all appeared in biographies, supposedly factual. But where the Brontës are concerned, biography, including Lyndall Gordon's enjoyable work (but which draws a great deal on Mrs. Gaskell's almost entirely fictional account), has been a vast depository of fiction. What I have tried to do in my "fiction" is to get as close to the factual as I can, but then to imagine what must be filled in, based on what is actually known about the people involved.

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.

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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