- 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.
Emily, then, was much less wholeheartedly in her novel than Charlotte was to be in Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights concealed itself in its own structure, even in its own properties – passion, Gothicism and so forth – much as Lermontov was doing at the other end of Europe in A Hero of Our Time. Drug addicts are adepts at hiding what they are up to, and Emily’s drug was privacy and concealment itself. She wanted nothing more than to stay at home in the kitchen; to get out her lap-desk and scribble and revise bits of poems that merged into Gondal chronicles of languishing captives. It was because she once inadvertently left the desk open that Charlotte saw what was inside, and was galvanised into starting up joint literary ventures for publication. Not that Emily was so unwilling, probably, after she got over her first chagrin at the interference. After Wuthering Heights came out she carefully kept and studied her reviews, and she may have started another novel which has vanished, perhaps destroyed by her near her death; the evidence for its existence – a surviving letter from her publisher – is in any case ambiguous. But she may well have taken a secret pleasure in evading and outwitting the world in fiction as she did in life: doing it as competently and methodically as she cooked, arranged a surgeon for her father’s cataracts, studied on behalf of her sisters the small print of railway shares.
For she was the businessman of the family. The enterprising, managing Charlotte was a bit helpless in practical matters, unconsciously needing a man’s hand, that of the phantom Mr Rochester or the real curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, who was still to come. And Emily seems in her own unwilling way to have also been the imaginative catalyst in their world. Katherine Frank makes the interesting point that both Charlotte and Anne, in their second published novels, drew heavily for inspiration on Wuthering Heights. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a doomed gathering whose names all begin with H. Jane Eyre has the unquiet invisible ghost of the red room, and – more significantly – the preoccupation with food, starvation, sustenance. Considering how bad The Professor is – it was the only one of the first three proffered novels that the publisher turned down – Emily’s example may well have released the emotional forces in Charlotte that came tumbling out in Jane Eyre.
An irony, if so. For there was no real imaginative contact between Emily and her siblings, least of all with Charlotte. What must Emily have thought of the fact that gently devout Anne, whose comfort was religion in the sense that Emily’s was the kitchen, turned the Wuthering Heights world of tippling and tyranny and savage abstinence into a fiction about the evils of drink? She probably didn’t bother to think about it at all: she may not even have bothered to resent, as Brontë fans suppose, the shrinking contempt her sisters felt for the drunken Branwell, whom she dragged upstairs night after night and put to bed. Brontë fans used to think that some secret understanding existed between her and her brother; even that he might have inspired Wuthering Heights and drafted early parts of it. This seems unlikely to the point of absurdity. Not only was Branwell bemused with gin and laudanum, but he had himself made attempts to write a novel, full of maudlin masculine self-pity, entitled And the weary are at rest. In a lucid moment he wearily admitted that ‘composition’ required rather more than ‘the smoking of a cigar and the humming of a tune’.
No, Emily was a solitary, although swaddled not unwillingly in the claustrophobic closeness of family and parsonage; and the evidence of that solitariness seems to have fascinated and inspired her sisters. Charlotte’s attempts to understand it and to be ‘mystical’, as she tries to be in Shirley, the novel after Jane Eyre in which she even attempted a kind of portrait of Emily, are unbelievably vulgar. The real fascination is that somebody so close and so beloved could have been so totally misunderstood, but in an important sense Emily was a sphinx without a secret – there was nothing ‘there’ when you looked. Charlotte’s attempts to put something there resulted in a kind of sloppy nature-worship – ‘my sister Emily loved the moors’ – and the bogus Currer Bell poetry that was once, and by some still is, thought to be by Emily herself.
I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading,
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding,
Where the wild wind blows on the mountainside.
The difference between that and ‘Cold in the earth, and fifteen wild Decembers ...’ is absolute: the difference between poetry that comes out of the air, and the sort that an earnest nature-worshipper, inspired by the real thing, tries to write. Charlotte understood the needs of love, the ‘stormy sisterhood’ of sexual passion and emotion, but she would have been more at home in our ‘designated areas of outstanding natural beauty’ than in the real places near Haworth where Emily used to go. And Emily herself was quite capable of ‘turning it on’ if needed, a subtle self-parody quite evident in Wuthering Heights, where it is associated with Catherine and Edgar Linton.
The physical difference between the sisters is interesting here: Charlotte tiny but naturally round when in health, so diminutive she had to wear a child’s chemise and underwear – Emily ‘lean’, tall and rangy, physically very strong, the only one of them capable of handling Branwell, lugging up gallons of water when he set his bed-curtains on fire. Indeed she was Heathcliff: not a man exactly, but a concept of self outside man or woman, ‘a chainless soul’ trapped in an unspecifiable body, a challenge that still hypnotises our concepts of gender, role and personality. This lack of conditioned and conventional gender must also explain the fascination she has exercised over so many people, after her Late Victorian apotheosis, when they could respond to ‘passion’s splendour’ without identifying it in any specific sexual context. But the real context is actually a very down-to-earth one: a hatred of the body, its weakness, greed and depravity, as if it were a horrid child inside which was trapped a free consciousness. Emily towards the end sought unexalted remedies, not only starving but purging herself, clearly hooked on the state of bodilessness described and longed for in the poems. Nothing could have suited better the parsonage’s resident population of tubercle bacilli. Her father had almost died of it once, after the death from TB of his wife and two elder daughters, and had kept his throat and chin ever since swathed in cravats and what he hoped were prophylactic bandages. Big and tough as she was, Emily could probably have continued to resist the latent infection, as tiny Charlotte did, if she had fed herself properly. As it was, weakened by fasting and aperients, she was the first of the remaining sisters to go.
Not easy to say how much, and in what way, Branwell’s death affected her. She had helped him when her sisters shrank back in disgust, but that does not mean she did not feel disgusted in her own way, contemptuous, like the ascetic Heathcliff at the spectacle of his victim’s physical degradation. Perhaps she identified with her own longings for extinction and freedom, the freedom to be a man and to curse and rave like Branwell, or like Heathcliff. Katherine Frank writes that ‘it would have been impossible for Emily to render Hindley’s alcoholic degradation and Heathcliff’s ranting misery, without the protracted spectacle of Branwell’s breakdown before her eyes day in and day out.’ Well, wouldn’t it? The general question exercised Henry James, who was inclined to think it perfectly possible, on the evidence of a young friend who had once caught a glimpse of a French family at dinner, and was sure in consequence she could invent a fiction with a French setting. The notion of the clou which was all the imaginative artist needed appealed to James; and on that evidence Emily would have needed no more than the sight of a drunken man in the street, where drunks were as common as blackberries, and the chance to let out her own Heathcliff, the violence from inside her. Certainly no one believes, as a previous generation of critics did, that she must have been in love with some unknown man or woman. Emily’s passion was all inside.
Katherine Frank has produced a highly readable study, more about the Brontës than about Emily specifically, which also makes some original suggestions. Did Emily suffer from what would now be called anorexia nervosa, virtually a clinical condition? It seems quite likely. Frank herself draws attention to the role of food in Wuthering Heights, where it is associated with the farm kitchen over which Heathcliff presides, and to which Catherine longs to return after she is thrown out of heaven. From moor and kitchen to the closet bedplace, and then to the graveyard, is a short step. Jane Eyre’s preoccupation with food is quite different: she is starved of it physically, as she is starved of emotional and intellectual nourishment. Emily’s view of food – in all these senses – is ambivalent: Charlotte’s simple and wholehearted.
The point has been made before, though less comprehensively than it is made here; and still more interesting is the hypothesis that Branwell’s trouble with the Robinson family, where he went as tutor to the son, and where Anne was already governess, was not quite what he claimed. Did Branwell invent his fatal passion for Mrs Lydia Robinson, a solid matron nearly twenty years older than himself, in order to conceal the fact that he had really been ignominiously expelled for amorous behaviour towards the son? It seems possible, for the Reverend Robinson, who was the same age as his wife and not the old invalid represented by Branwell, curtly ordered the young man to stop seeing every member of his family. Frank argues that Robinson’s threat of ‘exposure’ could hardly have referred to his own wife, who might then have been exposed as an adulteress. Moreover Branwell’s pathetic tale of once mutual passion, expounded to everyone who would listen, won considerable sympathy in an age when young men falling for older women – tender or designing – was not only romance’s stock-in-trade but not uncommon in daily circumstances, with music and drawing teachers about, and patriarchal spouses away. Mrs Gaskell certainly believed and sympathised; and so did Branwell’s father, which may help to explain his forbearingness about his son’s behaviour. After the Gaskell book came out, with the story in it, Mrs Robinson threatened to sue. Anne cryptically referred to some ‘very unpleasant and undreamed of experience of human nature’ which she had been forced to witness at the Robinsons.
No proof either way – but Branwell was certainly a romancer like his sister, even though the poor fellow never managed to finish the account of his passion for Lydia Robinson in And the weary are at rest. The title is not auspicious, and compared to his sisters’ sturdy and sophisticated fictions his own would probably have been a flimsy and meagre affair. The Pruntys had come a long way since Patrick left the bogside cottage in county Down, and – astonishingly – reached Cambridge as a sizar to take his degree for the Church. ‘No one from Ballynaskeagh had ever gone to Oxford or Cambridge,’ observes Frank, ‘and to the present day no one has ever gone again.’ Upward mobility could be an admirable feature of Victorian education, and the ancient traditions of Irish tale found an unexpected flowering in the determined curate’s Anglicised family. The dead end of a heroic tradition, too, for its Ossianic gloom was what struck the most perceptive early reviewers of Wuthering Heights, who were undeceived by its ‘happy’ ending. ‘There seems to be a great power in the book, but it is a purposeless power.’ That is its point perhaps, beyond which it has nothing further to add, or, as the reviewer said, ‘turn to a better account’. There is no ‘better account’ in the best tragedies.