Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Emily's Journal by Sarah Fermi - a review

Pegasus generously sent us a review copy of Emily's Journal by Sarah Fermi. We have now not only read the book but done our homework and revised biographies, diary papers, letters and poetry to try and be half as knowledgeable as Sarah Fermi seems to be on all these. She brings them up very to the point and with the strength of someone who knows very well what they are talking about. Not for nothing has Mrs Fermi been working on her theory for over 15 years.

Despite the many years behind it, we first heard of it through an article published in Brontë Studies (Emily Brontë: A Theory. Volume 30, part I, pp. 71-74) and afterwards, through Sally Wainwright's radio play 'Cold in the earth, and fifteen wild Decembers' and Mrs Fermi's debate with Juliet Barker on the matter.

The main plot line/argument in the book is that Emily Brontë had a relationship with Robert Clayton, a weaver's son from Haworth, who was involved in the creation of Gondal and is given credit for 'teaching' Emily the local dialect, when we think credit for this should go to Tabby and - why not - Emily herself. But Emily wavered in her love for him when James Greenwood (an Edgar-Linton kind of person) came into the picture. Robert Clayton died in 1837 just at the point when Emily's poetry took a turn for the obscure. The Journal spans from 1831 until 1848.

We admire anyone able to construct a new Brontë theory these days. There is such a wealth of material that it seems nearly impossible to make room for a plausible theory. Mrs Fermi has most certainly made room for hers among dates, poems and parish records. All these, as she says, helped her create a theory based on circumstantial evidence. Factual evidence is apparently not forthcoming but that works both ways. Just as it is impossible to give 100% credit to her story, it is impossible to completely discredit it.

Mrs Fermi explains that given these circumstances, she concluded the best approach would be from a fictional point of view, as Emily Brontë's own personal diary 'with annotations by her sisters, Charlotte and Anne Brontë'. Together they help shape Fermi's theory and give it a real aspect. However, we feel we must say that reading all three voices, so well-known to us through both public and private documents, we didn't feel we were actually reading the Brontës' own words. We know imitating their style and prose is an almost impossible task and perhaps Fermi avoided it by simply not trying, which would have been worse. But to our ears, the language, style and prose felt too modern and not Brontë-like (eg. Emily writing an entry about her first menstruation, however justified both afterwards in the narration and afterword was completely unsettling to us). This kept us somewhat out of the story and - where suspension of disbelief would have been needed - we found it somewhat difficult to get into the story.

Along these lines, it wasn't only the prose and style that made us doubt this was written by Emily and her sisters, but also the personalities here shown do not match the idea we have formed of them over the years. But this doesn't signify much - it's a fact that each of us will have shaped our own Emily Brontë - an Emily Brontë who won't match other people's and, in all probability, neither will she match the real Emily Brontë. But we considered Fermi's Emily to be too vain and too simple-minded to write Wuthering Heights and her exquisite poetry. However, we were pleasantly surprised not to find an Emily Brontë à la Gérin who wills her own death despite the given circumstances. Anne we found too resentful and not the good Christian we all know her to be; and Charlotte too self-involved and despairing to the point of talking of killing herself twice when there wouldn't have been a most sinful thought for a Parson's child. The Byronesque grand gesture is quite out of context here.

We are also very sorry for the portrait of Aunt Branwell we are given. She is shown to be a cold-hearted woman with next to no maternal feelings for these children. It is our opinion that a woman who gave up everything she had in order to rush to the northern climate to care for her brother-in-law and his children can't have been so bad. We are sure it wasn't just Branwell who regretted her loss.

However, Fermi's knowledge of the social convulsions taking place in the north of England in general and in Haworth in particular is awe-inspiring. She puts it to good use too and manages to 'explain' some Brontë mysteries along the way, all most deftly done.

As for her knowledge of Emily Brontë's poetry and novel, it is, as we have said before, outstanding. But the problem we see when it comes to reading too much into poetry is, how does one determine where to stop reading personal events and consider them fictional? There is no way of doing that in a scholarly way - it's all very instinctive. So we are obliged to take that with a pinch of salt. Used in this context it works, but we are sure that we could bring several poems that wouldn't fit.

The same goes for Wuthering Heights. The Brontës' novels have been scanned for real people and real places ever since the Brontës were alive. The approach should be done from fact to fiction, not from fiction to fact. And in that way we have found Emily's powerful writing to be belittled by too many artificial facts, to the point that nearly no scene in Wuthering Heights is truly original. We don't think a writer has had to live through something in order to write about it, and we are certain this was Emily Brontë's approach. But, again, Sarah Fermi has weaved fact and fiction so deftly together that - in the context of Emily's Journal - there is no debating that.

We enjoyed the comments of all three sisters on Wuthering Heights, which were like a gilmpse into the nightly workshops. Fermi knows Wuthering Heights tremendously well and brings up very interesting points.

But our favourite part of the book was the afterword. Both for its honesty and for its message. In it, Fermi has done something unusual for this kind of fictional vision of a real person's life: she actually mentions what is fact and what is fiction and to what extent this fiction can and cannot be proved.

Emily's Journal as a fictional retelling of the Brontës' lives is not similar to The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë by James Tully or Le Secret d'Emily Brontë by Jacques Debu-Bridel. It is utterly respectul towards, and consistent with, what we know of the Brontë family except in a few - subjective - occasions.

Overall, Fermi has been very brave to write this book. The Brontë world is very conservative and from time to time it's agreeable to read new, fresh theories. She reminds us that there are many pieces of the Brontë jigsaw that don't fit and makes us reconsider what we know. Fermi has taken important decisions when it comes to Brontë mysteries - some of these decisions work extremely well, others not so much (for us anyway). But she always, always keeps facts in mind so that the leap of faith expected of us has a very solid springboard.

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Comments :

3 comments to “ Emily's Journal by Sarah Fermi - a review ”
mysticgypsy said...
on  

Lovely review!

I haven't read the book yet, but I will maintain, time and again if necessary, that it is not imperative for a female writer to get tangled in a romantic relationship in order to create romance in her work.

Writing is an Art-and should be allowed to flourish with or without real-life experience.

Cristina said...
on  

I heartily agree. That was the worst for me, especially when most of the scenes in WH were taken 'from life'. But, within the book, it's believable. And it doesn't contradict actual facts so that's good too.

This is fortunately no theory à la Louis Parensell :D

mary rose fitzgerald said...
on  

i would love to hear the radio broadcast of "Cold in the earth and fifteen wild decembers." i realize this was broadcast in 2006, but is there any way i could get a copy of it. i live in America, but would love to hear this or find a transcript of it.

Thank-you,

Mary-Rose Fitzgerald

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