2018 is the year of Emily Brontë’s bicentenary. As I am a massive Emily Brontë fan, this year is important for me. I sometimes wished that I could have taken a sabbatical year off to go to all the events that have been organised to celebrate Emily’s 200th birthday. But sadly, I have to limit my taking part in the celebrations to the BS conference in York (in September) and afterwards my annual visit to Haworth.
My husband and I go to Ireland (and England) on our holidays every year and for both Charlotte’s and Branwell’s bicentenary I have found special places to visit that were related to the travels of these Brontë siblings. For Charlotte her honeymoon in Ireland was a very good topic to explore in Ireland, for Branwell the Lake district was the selected area. I reported on these travels on the BBG blog.
In Emily’s case that was more difficult, she was not really someone who travelled a lot. Apart from her work as a governess at Law Hill, she only travelled to York (with her sister Anne) and to Brussels (with her sister Charlotte). Both these destinations were not really a good option to write about or to visit: Brussels is for me not a special destiny to travel to as I work there (and this subject has been dealt with in great detail by our own Helen in books, articles and presentations), and the BS conference on Emily this year is taking place in York.
Therefore, I had to find something else to do during my holidays to remember Emiliy Brontë and to celebrate her special birthday. My only option left was reading the many books (old and recent ones) that have been written on Emily’s life and work. And reading I did! A lot! Even while in Ireland, Emily was not out of the picture. One Tuesday morning I went to the newspaper agent and what did I see: “Ireland’s Own” (an Irish magazine) featured Emily Brontë’s bicentenary (“The unforgettable Emily Brontë”): five pages on Emily’s life and work. Nothing new, of course, but still it made my day!
It is remarkable that we know so little about Emily and still, so many books have been written about her. There is little autobiographical evidence available that Emily has directly left us (compared to what we know of Charlotte from her letters and writings, and people she knew). Emily remains in many aspects a mystery, and that is the reason why so many (false?) myths about her have come into existence.
When I started reading the Brontës at a young age, Emily was the one that immediately stood out for me. Her only book “Wuthering Heights” appealed to me directly, and when I read the biographical information available to me in Dutch, Emily was the Brontë sibling I could immediately identify with at that young age. Later, when I had studied English and more books on the Brontës became available to me, I learned to appreciate her wonderful poetry, which again stood out from the poetry of the other Brontës.
I began to create a very distinct picture of Emily, as I read all of her work and her biographies: she was a shy and private person, loved animals, loved nature (and especially the moors around Haworth), she was not selfish and cared for her family, she was a strong person (both physically and mentally), she loved her independence, she was a free spirit.
I hurt me to read that over the years so many people, including her own sister Charlotte, have painted a picture that I cannot relate to Emily: that she was odd and weird, anti-social, a people –hater, mad, selfish, and much more of this nonsense. It was a real pleasure for me when I discovered a new book on Emily that was published this year and that tried to debunk many of the myths that have been created over the years: “Emily Brontë Reappraised - A view from the twenty-first century” by Claire O’Calloghan.
In this book the author deals with many aspects of Emily’s life, her personality, her relationships and her work and answers some of the questions that have been raised about Emily. Some of the themes she deals with are:
- the biographers’ tales: this includes “the biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” written by her sister Charlotte in which Charlotte tries to “correct” the image that the world had of Emily and Anne from their books. Charlotte may have had good intentions (she loved her sisters) but the portrayal of Emily was not fully correct, and this portrayal of Emily has persisted after her death. For instance, also in Gaskell’s “Life of Charlotte Brontë” Emily’s portrait was not always kind and fair. Gaskell got her information from Charlotte, she had never even met Emily! However, other biographies have challenged the notion that was presented by Charlotte and Gaskell and have come to Emily’s defence (Robert Barnard, John Hewish, Lucasta Miller). Emily’s own biographical silence leaves room for misunderstandings of her personality. Some biographers have associated Emily with various medical conditions such as anorexia, agoraphobia, autism. Claire O’Callaghan tries to explain and correct this image. Also the notion that Emily was unfriendly, brutal, bad, anti-social is corrected by using the descriptions of people who knew Emily (Louise de Bassompierre, Ellen Nussey and even Constantin Héger).
- - Emily’s writings under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell”: the only real “autobiographic” information we have from Emily are her writings (her only novel, her poems and her sparse diary papers). Writing was a way of life for Emily, not just leisurely business. She took her writing very seriously and was very protective of it. When Charlotte discovered Emily’s poetry “by accident”, Emily was furious at the intrusion on her privacy, and it took a while before she could be convinced to publish any of it together with her sisters’ poetry. We may in a way be grateful to Charlotte that we know the works of Emily (and of course the other Brontës) because I’m sure Emily herself would never have pushed to publication. Her writings were her own! Claire O’Calloghan also points out that by reading Emily’s work (her poems and her novel) we will not find out about the day-to-day life of Emily. Her writings are about events that are far away from real life in Haworth. Only her diary papers give an image of that moment into her day-to-day life. One theme however comes back regularly in Emily’s work: love. As far as we know Emily never experienced romantic love, but she witnessed love and its “destructive” consequences in her direct environment (Charlotte and Héger, Branwell and Mrs Robinson, Anne and William Weightman). These images of romantic love, break-up, loss of love and love after death find expression in her poetry and in her novel. But also love of nature is a theme in her work. Claire O’Callaghan points out in her book that also here Charlotte has intervened with Emily’s work by “editing” some of her poems (probably done with the best of intentions), thus changing the image of her sister (as being a mystic). Emily’s novel also was misunderstood by many and the first reactions to it were mostly negative reactions of horror, shock and disgust. But not all reactions were negative and Claire O’Calloghan refers to some reviews that underline the merit, the originality and the power of Emily’s novel, now ranking under the “Great English classics”!
- Emily in nature: it is common knowledge that Emily loved nature and was a big animal lover. She loved to walk on the moors, she loved animals and kept some as pets, she is known to have rescued some pets and nursed them back to health. Emily was often seen walking alone on the moors with her dog Keeper; this often created the image that she was odd, weird and unconventional. But Emily just liked to walk in nature, it was her muse and it gave her the inspiration for her poetry and her novel. She loved solitude, she loved to observe nature in all its aspects (also the sun, the moon , the stars, the wind and the seasons feature in Emily’s poems), but that does not make her weird or mystic. Her gift of observation were also the basis for her portraits of animals (such as the hawk Nero and her dog Keeper). In “The life of Charlotte Brontë” Gaskell tells a story about how Emily brutally beats up Keeper with her fists because he slept on the bed, and then gently nursed his wounds. This is an image that shocked me when I first read it and seems to me unbelievable, not in line with the image I have of Emily; Claire O’ Calloghan is also of the opinion that this is just a story. She proves the point by indicating that Emily loved animals and would not do anything to hurt them. Indeed, Emily felt that animals were more honest than humans. Emily’s concern for the brutality of humanity, as pointed out by O’Callaghan, is expressed in one of her Brussels’ devoirs: “Le Chat” (The Cat). Emily valued animals and nature in general, and nature was not to be used or abused. In our day and age she would have been an active defender of animal rights and an active environmentalist.
- Emily and feminism: some of Emily’s biographers have tried to establish Emily as “unwomanly” and as “abnormal”. In the mid-19th century it was conventional for a woman to stay at home and manage the home. The only professional option open to the Brontës was to be a governess. Emily tried this, it did not work. She loved her home, and after the death of her aunt she also decided to stay at home and be the housekeeper for her father and siblings. That was her decision. Charlotte and Anne had very strong positions about feminist social issues (cfr. “Jane Eyre”, “Shirley” , “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”), Emily never had such strong outspoken positions. However, she was sometimes portrayed as “masculine”: Constantin Héger said that Emily “should have been an man - a great navigator". Her sister Charlotte fictionalised Emily after her death in “Shirley” as the very independent, land-owning heiress known as “Captain Keeldar” (giving her real masculine traits). Claire O’Calloghan points out in her book that Emily was clearly an “atypical woman”. She rejected the traits usually associated with femininity - such as passivity, emotion, irrationality. She was an independent spirit (yes!), she was not vexed by opinions of others and did “her own thing” (YES!), she was a strong woman (physically and mentally) (yes!). Today, this is however no longer seen as “abnormal”. Different types of women and femininity are accepted nowadays, also the more masculine women. Strong women -like Emily- are valued in society. The women in Emily’s work are also portrayed as “strong, independent, emancipated” women (e.g. Augusta in the Gondal stories). But also Catherine in “Wuthering Heights” in her younger years was an independent spirit roaming the moors barefoot with Heathcliff (these were her happiest moments) until she married Edgar Linton and became “a lady”. The feminist aspect in Emily’s novel may not be outspoken, but Claire O’ Calloghan is of the opinion that Emily clearly is a feminist: according to her Heathcliff’s violent and abusive behaviour towards Isabella was intended by Emily to be a warning for young women not to fall for the “romantic love” (more or less the same message that Anne Brontë tried to convey in her novel “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”).
- Emily’s afterlives: Emily’s only novel was not from the beginning a success (as was Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre”) . It was misunderstood, it was not well received, it was seen as an immoral book, vulgar, full of violent and abusing scenes and not acceptable to society (at that time). It is a pity that Emily never lived to see her novel (and her poetry) being accepted and praised as one of the great English classics of all times. Her work has certainly influenced and inspired many artists in various mediums (film, theatre, television, opera, ballet, music, poetry, literature,…). After 200 years Emily Brontë still lives on. The book has been adapted many times, over and over again, for film, television, stage etc… and continues to be so until this very day. There have also been bad adaptations that do not give credit to the original story as Emily told it. We like to forget these and move on. Also Emily herself has been "reimagined" and brought to life in fiction and on screen. Examples here are: Charlotte’s Shirley Keeldar is based on the image of her sister Emily, but also recently Sally Wainwright’s biographical television drama “To walk invisible”. In this production, Emily was portrayed exactly as I would have portrayed her, and also Claire O’Calloghan held that view: (to use her words) it presents Emily "as a strong, independent and gutsy Northern woman and really brings out the extraordinary challenge that the sisters encountered in the face of their bleak domestic situation and literary desire to be heard". O’ Calloghan goes on by referring to a remark made by Lucy Mangan saying that "Emily, whose uncompromising nature and capacity for absolute fury is captured perfectly by the script and by Chloe Pirrie’s performance, neither make her into the freak of legend". This is important because Emily has been portrayed too often as “a mysterious mystical force or a genius freak whose shy and reclusive nature is matched by stubbornness, anger and determination”. In Wainwrights’s drama these character traits are put in a much fairer context and this makes “Emily more accessible, understandable and relatable for a modern audience”.
- Emily – Real and fake news: this chapter in the book takes on some of the myths that have been formed over the years about Emily and (in my view) puts them in the right context or corrects them: Emily’s unusual intimate relationship with Branwell; Branwell was the real author of Wuthering Heights; Emily loved to shoot; Emily was musical; Emily was a domestic goddess; Emily was writing a second book; Emily was a lesbian; Emily had visitations; Emily willed herself to death; Emily came back as a ghost; Emily was plain Jane. Is it FAKE or REAL? (read the book and you’ll find out!).
The book concludes by saying that there are many different versions of Emily Brontë. There are many misrepresentations and distortions of Emily’s character. You will always have people that hate “Wuthering Heights” and Emily Bronté (a recent article in The Guardian is proof of this) but there are also many real Emily Brontë fans who will defend her novel, her work and her personality at all cost. Claire O’ Callaghan is such a person and she clearly demonstrates that in her book “Emily Brontë reappraised”. I recommend this book to all those who are willing to see the other side of Emily Brontë!
I also belong to the group of Emily Brontë fans! If Emily had lived in current times, I think she would have been a strong defender of animal rights, she would have been an active member of WWF and of a Green party, perhaps even an advocate of alternative energy (wind and sun), she would have welcomed the new GDPR privacy rules (as she valued privacy very much), she would have come to the aid of defenseless souls, she would have held her own ground, she would have followed her own path and done her one thing, she would have stuck to her beliefs of what was right and what was wrong, she would have been “as God made her”. And above all: she would have been my friend!