Chasing Emily Farther

An exchange between Denise Giardina and Jennifer Holberg

2 of 4view all

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.

icon2 of 4view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide