Emily's GhostTo a stranger - to a non-Brontëite, that is - the amount of Brontë-related biofiction we are seeing of late and which we will continue to see in the coming months might seem repetitive, impossible and altogether redundant. To a Brontëite, particularly if he or she already knows from reading different biographies, it seems diverse, varied and a new opportunity to immerse himself or herself in the always intriguing and addictive world of the Brontës. Thus, a treat.
By Denise Giardina
First published 27 July, 2009.
Hardback by W.W.Norton, 384pp
Denise Giardina's contribution to this ever-growing category focuses on Emily. Thus from the very beginning it is a daunting task: Emily Brontë, not for nothing known as the sphinx of English literature(1) (a name this half of BrontëBlog is particularly fond of, as no doubt old regular readers will have noticed), keeps herself to herself, even in the most research-focused of biographies. To try and depict her 'fictitiously' is then quite an undertaking but also perhaps for that very reason an interesting way to try and draw her out, to understand her and, much to her chagrin we suppose, to examine her. We have quoted Karen Joy Fowler before saying in her Jane Austen Book Club that, 'each of us has a private Jane'. This, in the case of Emily Brontë, goes tremendously deep. The scant facts about Emily Brontë ensure that each of us can easily mold our very own Emily and often refuse to budge from the image we have - let's admit it - created ourselves. Witness to that are of course the many, often far-fetched, often preposterous, theories that have grown around her: she was anorexic, she was a lesbian, she was asexual, she had a male lover (among which you can take your pick(3)), she didn't write Wuthering Heights, she willed her own death, she was a mystic of the moors, she had visions, she was in love with Shelley the poet, etc., etc.
Emily's Ghost does not try to fully cover and retell every known step Emily took, as the book actually often skips the best-known bits of Emily Brontë's history. Only skip wouldn't be the right word, though. Both Denise Giardina and the Brontë connoisseur know they have happened and are subtly - very subtly - enmeshed in the story. But the newcomer won't feel a thing, the story will go on normally and nothing will be noticeably missing. Emily's Ghost begins towards the end of Emily's life, swiftly going back to the very beginning, with Emily placed in Cowan Bridge, already on her way to becoming the Emily we know. But that is soon left behind as well, to move on to the very core of the novel: the arrival of the charming - is there any Brontëite who doesn't have a soft spot for him? - William Weightman to Haworth in general and to the parsonage in particular.
Anne's infatuation with the curate has long been accepted nearly as fact; Charlotte's has been guessed at. But what about Emily? As usual, we know little, though what little we know is quite telling, such as for instance that William Weightman nicknamed her 'The Major', pointing to a surprising degree of familiarity. What she made of him we don't actually know, and that's where Denise Giardina steps in. She creates plausible common interests and places them in also plausible situations in order to build her story: her unusual love story between the pair(3), unusual, of course, because this is Emily Brontë we are talking about. All is done so progressively and tactfully - though the reader will see it coming - that although we are not great enthusiasts of 'the quest after Emily's secret lover' we can't find much to complain here. Also, it seems to us, this is done in the open, meaning that we hardly think that Denise Giardina is trying to impose a new theory, but rather to explore through this fiction Emily's character and a very particular point in history: the Chartist movement in the north of England, as one of the aforementioned shared interests is the amelioration of the conditions the poor live and work in.
This Emily is pleasantly near to the image of Emily we have formed after reading a good many biographies on her, which helped us like the fiction for fiction's sake while wholly appreciating the plausibility of Denise Giardina's recreation or reimagining of Emily Brontë. She is compassionate, but also shy and fierce; she cares enormously for the few peoples she loves, but she also disdains those she doesn't; she loves animals, she loves the moors, she loves her imaginary world, she bakes bread, she is rebellious, she scorns social conventions - and is often heedless of them - and she is intriguing. In keeping with 'The Major' nickname and with what Monsieur Heger said about her(4), she is also not exactly manly or a tomboy but a very strong woman of very firm convictions, which at the time was not what was expected of a woman. Still, Denise Giardina's Emily has surprised us by, for instance, having a fit of uncontrollable laughter, not exactly what we expected, but so nicely done that it is fully believable within its context.
William Weightman is also a shadowy figure in Brontë biographies, but Denise Giardina has confidently fleshed him out giving him a few known traits and adding up to them with her own personal interests. William Weightman is still a flirt, but he also - as can be guessed at through what we know of him - is compassionate and immersed in his work. He brings the questions of religion, conventions and the poor to the forefront of Emily's life and thus Denise Giardina manages to write what in the 19th century would no doubt have been deemed a 'social novel'. Through the Chartist movement and through William Weightman's parish work, we visit the slums of Haworth and relive the plight of their inhabitants. Religion - it can't be forgotten that Denise Giardina is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church - is also often being discussed though not heavily so.
Whether on purpose or accidentally and with the possible exception of Patrick Brontë, who is very aptly re-created, the rest of the 'cast' are however somewhat blurry and flat. Charlotte - though we have recently read Denise Giardina praising her(5)- is quite tiring and highly disagreeable as a character. She is often drooling over men, thinking of eligible gentlemen or falling in love with any gentleman that comes within a given radius. She is awfully prejudiced, tiring, whiny, mean, full of herself and altogether unsufferable(6). She is, in short, our biggest disappointment in this book.
Anne is shown in a much more favourable - thought quite dim - light. It is said of her that, 'in a different time and place she would have been the humble Christian maid who stepped calmly into a Roman arena filled with wild animals', which, to us, sounds like a wonderful, succinct description of Anne Brontë.
Ellen Nussey, one of the key outsider figures, is completely left out of the book, her name not once mentioned, always included in the anonymous group of 'school friends', unlike Mary Taylor who is strangely placed at Cowan Bridge for a brief moment and then briefly commented on as belonging to a radical family.
Indeed, Emily's Ghost has a few instances where hard facts are softened and certain details slightly modified. Whether this is to suit Denise Giardina's schedule, because they hardly make a difference one way or another, or because they have been overlooked, we do not know. They will be a tiny stone in the Brontë aficionado's shoe from time to time, though not affecting the actual story in any way, and the will work perfectly well for the casual reader. Still, however, we recently heard(7) Denise Giardina saying that she had loved the Brontës even since before she could read and that she had read a good many biographies on them, not to mention the fact that two of her novels, particularly The Unquiet Earth, have been influenced by Wuthering Heights. This lifelong interest in the Brontës is felt throughout the novel, both in the evident enthusiasm behind it and in the way she both has things interiorised and assumed, which gives the novel aplomb, truthfulness, sympathy and, above all, coherence.
In short, we have found Emily's Ghost to be not only readable, but fully enjoyable and written in a clear style that will work for casual readers as well as for old 'acquaintances' of the Brontës. More importantly, and focusing on what we know best, it seems to us that she kindly asks Brontëites to question things, to mull over things and to look at the mysterious Emily Brontë from a whole new point of view. And who can resist that?
(1) Angus McCay, The Brontës: Fact and Fiction, 1897
The author of Wuthering Heights still remains, what she has ever been, the sphynx of literature.(2) Although Emily, in her afterlife, has had a string of lovers already: the hilarious Louis Parensell (Virginia Moore's misreading of Love's Farewell in The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontë), Robert Clayton (Sarah Fermi's weaver's son in Emily's Journal), an invented farmhand (minutely described by Jacques Débû-Bridel in Le Secret d'Emily Brontë) one of the wealthy Heaton boys (Lyndall Gordon's candidate in her biography of Charlotte Brontë), Arthur Bell Nicholls (James Tully's very own crime), a non-practising lesbian (according to Stevie Davies 'intuition' in Emily Brontë: Heretic), her own brother Branwell (in Cheryldee Huddleston's 2006 theatre piece Children of an Idol Moon), her own father, who caused her to give birth to his child (Isobel English's suggestion in her play Meeting Point), one Harry Deville (in Emily Heaton's White Windows), etc.
(3) This is not exactly a new suggestion, as Isabel C. Clarke in her Haworth Parsonage (1927), despite crediting Emily with being a virgin mystic of the moors, also decided that she must have had firsthand experience or erotic love, thus pointing the only man 'she was ever known to tolerate', William Weightman. Then the novelist Elizabeth Goudge seems to have warmed to this idea and decided to include it in her 1939 play The Brontës of Haworth as well.
(4) As quoted in Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë:
"She should have been a man - a great navigator," said M. Héger in speaking of her. "Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given, way but with life.(5) The Charleston Gazette, July 25, 2009.
(6) That is not to say that Charlotte absolutely wasn't any of those things. She probably was all of them but like all of us she also had her good points which in the book are either made to look bad as well or simply left out.
(7) West Virginia Public radio, August 5, 2009.
Categories: Fiction, Review