Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015 1:43 am by M. in , ,    No comments

Nelly Dean
by Alison Case
ISBN: 9780008123383
Imprint: The Borough Press

Wuthering Heights is an extraordinary book. Of course, we know that. But what we mean is that it is a book out of the ordinary. It's not a particularly well-structured novel. The characters are also not always traced with perfectly fine detail. Their psychological urges are sometimes vague and mysterious. Even the narrative seems to be erratic sometimes and numerous gaps are left for the reader to fill. But what makes Emily Brontë's novel so immanent and fascinating are precisely those apparent flaws that reveal themselves after close examination to be no flaws at all. The structure is free, so free that it can be interpreted as naturalist, Marxist or even preternatural-mythological.  The psychology is complex and can be reconciled with several background stories for the characters.

The fuzziness of the narrative, which is not weakness but flexibility, is the reason why it can accommodate so many possible variations, retellings and complementary works. Many of these prequels and sequels are related to Heathcliff's missing years or origins. Alison Case's Nelly Dean focuses on the Wuthering Heights universe in the fascinating character of Ellen Dean, housekeeper of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. 

Nelly Dean is a controversial character in the critical history of Emily Brontë's novel. She is considered as the embodiment of the unreliable narrator (and her embedded narrative inside Lockwood's one is full of contradictory statements) but not necessarily for the wrong reasons. Charlotte Brontë herself defended her on the whole in her 1850 preface to the new edition of Wuthering Heights:
For a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity, look at the character of Nelly Dean(1).
Mid twentieth century critics begged to differ qualifiying Nelly Dean as literally 'one of the consummate villains in English literature'(2) or 'an agent of patriarchal law'(3).

Alison Case herself comes from the academical world(4) but her approach to the figure of Nelly Dean is closer to Charlotte Brontë's than to most of the modern critics'. She vindicates her and gently shifts the original narrative converting the housekeeper of Wuthering Heights in the moral centre of the story and a protofeminist heroine. So much so that the Heathcliff-Catherine story goes right to the background and side figures like Hindley, Joseph, Hareton or Dr Kenneth (actually his son Bodkin, not present in the original Wuthering Heights) come to the foreground.

Nelly Dean, the novel, sets the action in the first half of the original novel timeline. A few chapters follow the developments of the second half of Wuthering Heights and beyond, but basically the main events and motivations for Nelly's life are described in those first years. Alison Case suggests that Nelly and Hindley are not only milk siblings (Nelly's mother was also a wet nurse for Hindley) but lovers in their teenage years(5) and the bonding between Nelly and Hareton was all but in name a mother-son relationship(6).

Nelly Dean is more a melodrama of sorts that a bildungsroman. But a melodrama with a flair for authenticity in the description of the relations between servants and masters in rural nineteenth-century England, and in the honest description of issues not normally discussed in historical novels, like breastfeeding and pre-Christian rituals still pervading among the common people.

And sometimes this obsession with detail works against the deployment of the narrative, slowing some of the situations until boredom threatens to take over. Fortunately it happens sparsely throughout the novel which otherwise flows softly to a nice, although altogether foreseeable, ending.

It's not an honest thing to demand of Alison Case's novel the depth and fluidity that defines its source material, Wuthering Heights. Nelly Dean doesn't intend that. Alison Case is not trying for a retelling or a reinterpretation of the original novel. Her goal is to develop a character in a particular way, in a way choosing one of the possible Nellys from the Emily Brontë novel, give her an almost feminist voice fighting for what she believes is right as a real contemporary heroine. We are pretty sure that Charlotte Brontë would have approved of this Nelly, in a way as brave as her Jane (or Anne's Helen Huntington). And what would have Emily thought? That, we don't know. Although, our guess is that she probably wouldn't have cared too much.

Notes

(1) Charlotte Brontë, Preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights.
(2) James Hafley, "The Villain in Wuthering Heights," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3. (Dec., 1958), pp. 199-200; see also Q.D. Leavis 'A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights', Lectures in America, 1969:
One has only to read the admiring critics of Wuthering Heights, even more the others, to see that there is no agreed reading of this novel at all. Desperate attempts to report a flawless work of art lead to a dishonest ignoring of recalcitrant elements or an interpretation of them which is sophistical; other and more sustained sophistry has resulted from such academic bright ideas as the one confidently asserted to me in an American university by a professor of English Literature who had discovered that ' The clue to Wuthering Heights is that Nelly Dean is Evil.' 
(3) James H Kavanagh, Emily Brontë (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985); see also Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979)
As Milton's cook, in fact, Nelly Dean is patriarchy's paradigmatic housekeeper, the man's woman who has traditionally been hired to keep men's houses in order by straightening out their parlors, their daughters, and their stories.
(4) She currently  is a professor at Williams College. She received her PhD in English Literature from Cornell University and has published a couple of books: Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Novel (1999) and Reading the Nineteenth-century Novel: Austen to Eliot (coauthored with Harry E. Shaw) (2008), Wiley-Blackwell.

(5) Not the first to suggest such a relationship. Stephanie Turner in her 2009 thesis Serving the Storyline of the Novel: The Powerful Role of the Feudal Servant-Narrator suggested the same thing:
Nowhere else in the narrative is there any allusion to Nelly being married or having any love interest other than with Hindley. As a result, the story line is ambiguous enough
to allow for a romantic relationship between Hindley and Nelly to exist.
Spoiler alert: Also the revelation that  Nelly is an illegitimate daughter of Mr Earnshaw has been discussed before in, for instance, Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights by U.C. Knoepflmacher (1989).

(6) Although Wuthering Heights is not really consistent with such an intense bonding. Consider when Nelly sees Hareton after their separation and Hareton doesn't recognise her.
That was my first idea on observing an elf-locked, brown-eyed boy setting his ruddy countenance against the bars. Further reflection suggested this must be Hareton, my Hareton, not altered greatly since I left him, ten months since.
'God bless thee, darling!' I cried, forgetting instantaneously my foolish fears. 'Hareton, it's Nelly! Nelly, thy nurse.'
He retreated out of arm's length, and picked up a large flint.
'I am come to see thy father, Hareton,' I added, guessing from the action that Nelly, if she lived in his memory at all, was not recognised as one with me. (Chapter XI)

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