Kitchen Devil

John Bayley

  • Emily Brontë: A Chainless Soul by Katherine Frank
    Hamish Hamilton, 303 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 241 12199 X

Emily’s fans were once legion, and as reverential as mystics or poets. Indeed many were poets, like Robert Bridges, who sang that she had ‘all passion’s splendour’. Writers of all sorts revered her, from the anonymous Late Victorian critic who enthused over the structure of Wuthering Heights to the novelist L.P. Hartley, who doted on her whole oeuvre and personality. The magisterial Dr Leavis observed, before directing our attention to George Eliot, that there is ‘only one Brontë’ – meaning Emily – and even Mrs Leavis was awed by Wuthering Heights. The only dissentient voice I can think of is Ivy Compton-Burnett’s, whose crisp verdict was that the book had received all, indeed more than all, the praise that was its due, and that it was high time to stop worshipping its author.

All passion’s splendour? But what sort of passion was it? Certainly not erotic or mystical. A passionate will, including a passionate desire to be someone else – a man if you are a woman – or nothing at all? ‘Love I laugh to scorn,’ says one of Emily’s poems, and the ‘strange power’ longed for in another is the power of, and for, annihilation. Neither God nor love is in question, but food, or the absence of it, is: a substance both obsessive and despised. Heathcliff is the tyrant of the kitchen, as Emily was in her later years at the parsonage. Most of the action at the Heights takes place there, and Heathcliff as a kind of diabolical man-woman-cook who touches no food is more closely identified with it than with the moors, or with his machinations against the Earnshaw family, or even with Catherine.

The real secret of Wuthering Heights may be its fierce and compelling fantasy and metamorphosis of the passions and rages of five and six-year-olds – violence, food, pets, an obsession with being or merging with someone else, kitchen love and hate, a wish to disappear. The novel may be the most accurate and yet the most misleading children’s book ever written: ‘misleading’ because we grown-ups are drawn to and revel unconsciously in these basic matters, while being encouraged to transpose them into adult passions and obsessions, even to the point of being able to identify with the gloriously ‘tragic and fated’ love of a Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, enacted in the film of the book. But the real book is a kind of bible of arrested development, as must have been perceived by L.P. Hartley, no grown-up himself. Love, sex and adult tenderness are despised as rubbish in it, even while they are offered at the level of conventional moral and plot. Even its ‘poetry’ leads us astray: for the real stuff is not so much among the moors and winds and harebells as in the kitchen and scullery with Nellie and Joseph. As a novel it contains no hint of interest in human individuality or psychology, which was no doubt why Ivy Compton-Burnett pronounced it powerful but hollow, a masterpiece both striking and meaningless.

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