Sunday 22 October 2023

Reappraising Emily Brontë

Claire O’Callaghan is on a mission to rehabilitate Emily Brontë. 

The author of Wuthering Heights has been an elusive and enigmatic figure ever since the publication of her one novel in 1847. Due in no small part to her sister Charlotte’s efforts to explain the conception of such a sui generis work, Emily has been seen as introverted and unsociable, almost misanthropic. Certainly somewhat mystical.

Dr O’Callaghan, author of Emily Bronte Reappraised, wants us to consider a different Emily, one more well-rounded and not so antisocial. One not filtered by her elder sibling’s efforts to rescue the Brontë sisters’ literary reputation from charges of coarseness and indelicacy. 

Emily’s persona was mediated by her elder sister from early on, and Charlotte also filtered the image of “Ellis Bell” that appeared in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 The Life of Charlotte Brontë, O’Callaghan, a lecturer in English at Loughborough University, explained in a presentation to the Brussels Brontë Group on Saturday 14 October 2023. 

Emily's painting of her dog Keeper.
“My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion,” Charlotte wrote in her preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, in which she also questioned “whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff.” 

In The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Emily is described as “extremely reserved in manner,” a representation that O’Callaghan called “a negative for Gaskell.” Gaskell wrote: “I distinguish reserve from shyness, because I imagine shyness would please, if it knew how; whereas, reserve is indifferent whether it pleases or not. Anne, like her eldest sister, was shy; Emily was reserved.” 

In presenting her version of Emily’s persona, Charlotte had the advantage of the fact that Emily left behind hardly any letters or other written records when she died in December 1848. Besides a couple of letters and a few diary papers, there are just the devoirs she wrote in Brussels and her poetry in addition to Wuthering Heights

Emily's sketch of a fir tree, 
done in Brussels in 1842.
And there are other aspects to Emily's character that get overlooked, O'Callaghan said. "Emily was a legendary baker, a fabulous musician, a talented artist," as well as a great writer, she said. Emily gave piano lessons while she was here in Brussels in 1842. And her paintings and sketches show significant skill, she said, pointing to in particular Emily's painting of her dog Keeper.

O’Callaghan said Emily's poetry hasn’t been mined nearly enough for clues about the author and her novel, warming to another mission she has – to motivate people to read the poetry. 

“The genesis of Wuthering Heights came from her poetry,” she said. “There are prototypes of Wuthering Heights characters in the poetry.” 

In this vein, O’Callaghan ended her presentation with an Emily poem, one about her love of nature and the beauty of the land. 

How still, how happy! by Emily Brontë

How still, how happy! Those are words 
That once would scarce agree together; 
I loved the plashing of the surge - 
The changing heaven the breezy weather, 

More than smooth seas and cloudless skies 
And solemn, soothing, softened airs 
That in the forest woke no sighs 
And from the green spray shook no tears. 

How still, how happy! now I feel 
Where silence dwells is sweeter far 
Than laughing mirth's most joyous swell 
However pure its raptures are. 

Come, sit down on this sunny stone: 
'Tis wintry light o'er flowerless moors - 
But sit - for we are all alone 
And clear expand heaven's breathless shores. 

I could think in the withered grass 
Spring's budding wreaths we might discern; 
The violet's eye might shyly flash 
And young leaves shoot among the fern. 

It is but thought -- full many a night 
The snow shall clothe those hills afar 
And storms shall add a drearier blight 
And winds shall wage a wilder war, 

Before the lark may herald in 
Fresh foliage twined with blossoms fair 
And summer days again begin 
Their glory -- haloed crown to wear. 

Yet my heart loves December's smile 
As much as July's golden beam; 
Then let us sit and watch the while 
The blue ice curdling on the stream –

Our speakers at the blue Brontë plaque at Bozar.
Justine Pizzo, Claire O'Callaghan and Michael Stewart.

No comments: