Wuthering Heights RevisitedIt is thirteen years since James M. Tully's 1999 The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë. In that book Charlotte helped Arthur Bell Nichols poison Branwell, Emily and Anne (among other things like Arthur impregnating Emily) and she herself finally succumbed to poison at the hands of poison-obsessed Arthur. It is well-known that James Tully wanted to publish the novel as a biography and not finding any publisher who would agree to that, he had to reformulate it as fiction, disguising it as an imaginary journal written by the Brontës' servant Martha Brown(1).
G. M. Best
Robert Hale Ltd.
Hardback, 224 pages
Publication date: 30 Dec 2011
The intentions of Gary Martin Best, as far as we know, are not so extreme. He is not trying to develop a new dark and sordid narrative of the Brontë myth. His novel is just a harmless game of intrigue and a sometimes curious, most of the times far-fetched and/or implausible, attempt to interlink Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights story and the canonical biography of the Brontës(2).
We have said harmless and we positively know that many of the hardcore Brontë aficionados will find some of the descriptions and situations highly offensive. We understand that position. But we also understand that literature should be free to play with characters (real or fictious) as much as the talent of the writer allows. Anything different would be plain and simple censorship. Our problems with Wuthering Heights Revisited are not derived from the fact that it uses the Brontë sisters as characters(3) but in the poor characterisation (in the confines of the inner narrative), the story following a (approppriate or not) path and ending in a rather different and unsatisfactory way and the difficult (if not impossible) reconciliation with what we know of the Brontë story and its main actors.
The problems hide some of the virtues of G M Best's novel. The alternative Wuthering Heights story is ingenious and perturbing (although not developed satisfactorily) and the Cornwall link is certainly efficient. But even at its best points, the author tends to tighten the narrative too much and construct characters that behave in patterns, too excessively (like Heathcliff) or too erratically (like Ellen Dean)(4).
The author has done his homework and uses the known characters of the Brontë story in the contexts where they belong but it's difficult to reconcile the Ellen Nussey we know with the Ellen Nussey-private investigator who tells the story in Wuthering Heights Revisited. We wonder if the author needed a brave and bold narrator for his story why he wouldn't choose Mary Taylor. It certainly would have been more plausible. Of course this is a problem that only good connaisseurs of the Brontës' biography will have. The common reader will accept this Ellen.
The main problem then is not that the characters are coherent with their actual counterparts (even if Charlotte is described like a selfish woman, only worried about her own literary ambitions(5) and Patrick like a tyrannical, absent father). The real drawback is that the story seems to work by the accumulation of truculent stories and by an insistent faith in mere speculation which is worked on as if it were a solid fact (usually preceded by the adverb "Surely"). There is a moment in the story where (SPOILER Alert) Charlotte is presumably guilty of murdering Maria, Elizabeth, Emily, Anne, Branwell and even Martha Taylor. The author seems to have a change of heart in the last chapters and changes the raised expectations to a radically different way. This return to rationality is nevertheless equally arbitrary and doesn't work well.
And even with all his failures, G M Best does with this novel an honest and creative job. He doesn't go the easy path of adding paragraphs here and there and retelling the same story once again adding a few murders higgledly-piggledy. He re-invents his Brontës and completely re-configurates Emily Brontë's novel creating a morose (yes) but sincere proposal. In these times of mash up hysteria that is something to take into account.
(1) It seems that we are now starting a revival of this Charlotte the killer plot if we believe Lynda LaPlante's who in a recent interview mentioned that her new crime novel could be centered on Charlotte Brontë, that "evil, twisted little woman".
(2) We can consider that the Brontë biographical canon was fixed with the publication of Juliet Barker's The Brontës in 1994.
Curiously enough, Robert Hale Ltd also published some years ago, in 2006, another novel who mixed Emily Brontë's novel and the Brontës: Maureen Peters's The Haunting of Houses.
(3) Like Laura Joh Rowland's saga using Charlotte Brontë as a Victorian spy.
(4) Mr Best's Heathcliff is not a Byronic character but evil itself with atrocities beyond belief (including the slaughtering of babies). Creating a character à la Iago and coming out with flying colours is something that is only available to Shakespeare, we are afraid.
(5) A pattern that was also fixed, not with this intensity but hinted at, in Juliet Barker's biography.