Tuesday 26 March 2019

Emily Brontë Reappraised: Can the real Emily Brontë please stand up?

Biography: Emily Brontë Reappraised, Claire O'Callaghan, Saraband, paperback, 208 pages, €12.40

Out on the wiley, windy moors: The Brontë sisters as depicted on the television series To Walk Invisible
Out on the wiley, windy moors: The Brontë sisters as depicted on the television series To Walk Invisible

'Could Emily's legacy be any more surreal?" asks Claire O'Callaghan at the start of this intriguing book. She is an academic and joyfully and unashamedly a Brontë fan - but even she finds it strange that the most secretive of the Brontë sisters has inspired so much infatuation.

It's not just knitted Emily dolls. There are mass dance-offs in her honour, erotic novels with titles such as Fifty Shades of Heathcliff and Wuthering Nights, and even a dog-soothing video called Woofering Heights.

In this "biography of sorts with a twist", O'Callaghan tries to hack through the thickets of lies and what she (off-puttingly) calls "fake news" to "conjure a new image" of Emily. She believes Emily, born 200 years ago this week, was ahead of her time, and that we might finally be ready to understand her.

"So," she writes, "200 years on, then, amidst all the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, let's see if the 'real' Emily Brontë can now stand up." It's impossible to write about the Brontës without arguing with their previous biographers - and owing a huge debt to Lucasta Miller's meta-biography, The Brontë Myth.

Like Miller, O'Callaghan blames Charlotte for muddying the waters from the start, passing on an image of Emily to her own biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, who portrayed Emily as an unpleasant oddball.

O'Callaghan writes feelingly about how Emily is remembered "unfairly [as a] staid, old-fashioned, people-hating spinster who roamed about the Yorkshire moors alone with her dog, or, alternately, a painfully shy and socially awkward girl-woman who was sick whenever she left home... a stubborn and defiant woman who willingly withheld assorted physical and mental ailments, or an ethereal soul too fragile to endure the real world... a genius unable or unwilling to participate in 'normal' society."

O'Callaghan is particularly good on the endless (and often amateur) medical speculation - Emily has been posthumously diagnosed as neurotic, agoraphobic, anorexic and, most recently, by Claire Harman, at an event promoting her biography of Charlotte, as "Aspergers-ey", which O'Callaghan finds spurious.

"How rude!" she chides the Victorian Brontë scholar Clement Shorter for writing that "Emily's taste for drawing is a pathetic element in her always pathetic life".

O'Callaghan is, refreshingly, as interested in Emily's drawing and poetry as in Wuthering Heights. And she takes a very dim view (as do I) of the often-repeated story that Emily "punished" her beloved dog Keeper by punching him in the face. Poor old Keeper has been mythologised almost as much as Emily - O'Callaghan notes that in the woeful and unintentionally hilarious 1946 Brontë biopic Devotion, Keeper was "transformed and romanticised: no longer is he a huge bull mastiff, but a neatly blow-dried English sheepdog". Thankfully, Sally Wainwright's recent BBC drama To Walk Invisible restored both Keeper and Emily to what seem closer versions of themselves, contextualising Emily's fury to make sense of her, where others have presented her as a freak.

O'Callaghan's Emily is also furious, and definitely a feminist. To argue this, she points to Heathcliff's sadism towards Isabella in Wuthering Heights, and believes that Emily intended to warn women not to fall for men who might treat them badly, just as Anne Brontë did in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. But while I'm pretty sure this was Anne's intention (she explains it clearly in a preface to the novel's second edition), it feels a bit of a stretch to extend this to Emily. The Victorians thought both authors immoral, but although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall now seems an emphatically moral novel about a right-thinking feminist leaving her abusive marriage not just to pursue her own happiness, but to be a better mother to her son, Wuthering Heights has come to feel amoral, with its vision of love as a wild, chaotic force that takes you over and means you can crush anyone in your path.

Emily was often described in masculine terms - her Belgian teacher thought she "should have been a man - a great navigator", while Charlotte reimagined her sister as the eponymous heroine of her novel Shirley, an unconventional, plain-spoken gun-toting heiress nicknamed "Captain Keeldar".

O'Callaghan is interested in Emily's forcefulness, and quotes the Haworth stationer John Greenwood's entertaining account of Emily going out shooting with her father.

However, I'd have been interested to know what she made of Greenwood's insistence on Emily's femininity - her "musical voice", the way she goes "tripping like a fairy" to the garden for shooting practice, and runs back to the kitchen to roll teacakes between rounds.

Does Emily make more sense now than in her own day? I'm not sure. I love O'Callaghan's description of the Gondal saga of fantasy stories by Emily and Anne as "Game of Thrones, but run by women", and I am hugely taken by her idea of collecting Emily's (surprisingly numerous) break-up poems into a book to be read as an antidote to Valentine's Day, but in the end, this reappraisal leaves Emily as Sphinx-like and secretive as ever.

And perhaps that's just how Emily would have liked it.

Samantha Ellis is the author of Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life (Vintage, €12.40)

200 years since the Wuthering Heights author's birth, she remains surprisingly elusive, writes Samantha Ellis

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