Tuesday 21 November 2017

Housekeeper's return to Bronte's Heights

Nelly Dean, Alison Case, The Borough Press, €11.99

Justine Carbery

It's a risky business, attempting to reinvent one of the most famous and beloved books in the canon of English literature. But Alison Case's debut novel Nelly Dean has done just that. In this audacious retelling of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Case propels us headlong into the gripping tale of familial turmoil and thwarted passion, by re-imagining Nelly Dean's life, filling in the gaps in the original story with plausible and heart-rending detail.

Through her eyes, and in her distinctive voice, we learn first-hand of how she grew up, first as a playmate for Hindley and Catherine, and latterly Heathcliff, and then as a much put-upon housekeeper and servant at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.

The book begins with Nelly Dean writing a letter to Mr Lockwood, gradually revealing the story she couldn't tell him at the time, unlocking the secrets of the past and fleshing out incidents brushed over during her tumultuous years, working for both families.

Nelly's mother, the previous housekeeper at the Heights and trusted confidante of the Earnshaws, succeeds in gaining Nelly a place in the household when she is four, as a means of escape from a violent and distant father. There she spends her days receiving lessons, helping the struggling Hindley, and roaming the moors with the children. Friendships flourish and deepen. There is even a hint of love in the air, perhaps a promise of marriage.

But things change when Mr Earnshaw brings the strange foundling Heathcliff back to the house, setting in motion events that will wreak havoc on the lives of all the characters. Through Nelly's eyes we see why Hindley becomes so depraved, why Heathcliff and Cathy so close-knit. Hindley's departure from the household and subsequent return with a young, fragile wife leave Nelly stunned and heartbroken.

We learn of her hopes, her disappointments, her loves and losses, and the tangled web of loyalties that are tested throughout her days as friend and servant to the generations of Earnshaws and Lintons.

We feel her grief at having to leave little Hareton behind, when forced to attend to Cathy at Thrushcross Grange.

We applaud her attempts to mollify Hindley and later, Heathcliff, her unselfishness in raising the next generation. And we hope for her sake that a meaningful resolution to the familial enmity can be found.

Despite the fact that we are all so familiar with the turn of events in the original, Nelly Dean is still a page-turner. And although her dramatic story is integrally linked with the Wuthering Heights narrative, it works as a stand-alone.

The characters you might expect to see in the foreground are somewhat peripheral, allowing Nelly's story to come to the fore.

You feel for her as she sees her childhood companion Hindley sabotaging his life. You grieve for her personal losses.

You wonder at her resilience and courage. You devour the pages to understand how her life spins out. And while the main players of Wuthering Heights are able to give free reign to their passions, wallowing in their Gothic grief, Nelly is constrained by the secrets she is a party to, forced to suppress her own tumultuous feelings, as befits her station.

Alison Case, a professor of Victorian literature, has created a world so real, so grounded in visceral detail, that no prior knowledge of the Bronte classic is required. However I suspect her debut Nelly Dean will entice many (including this reviewer) to reread the original, with fresh and knowing eyes.

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