Emily Bronte was born 200 years ago and from a Yorkshire parsonage produced a work of literature in Wuthering Heights that will live for centuries more.
The first time I read Wuthering Heights a whole world opened up to me: the language – the words steeped in weather landscape, the structure an intricate clockwork of intergenerational trauma, and there was Emily Bronte herself – an astute observer of the natural world around her. The book was like a storm-glass in my imagination – large, wondrous and wild. But when I looked for Emily, she was lost. Her creation had eaten her identity, she had become a monster made of moors.
When I made my way to Haworth as a 21-year-old, I had the palpable feeling of having been there before, but I'd only travelled there before in the pages of Emily's book. The Bronte Parsonage Museum felt somehow smaller on the inside than the outside with the children's study no bigger than a linen closet. This was Emily's bedroom as an adult and I imagined her, looking at her stars, thoughts tapping at her mind like the ghost of Cathy tapping at the window.
In the gift shop, I bought a porcelain bust of Emily in a naive attempt to take something of Emily's spirit home with me. But over the years as I revisited the novel and poems, beginning to write myself, I grew haunted by the fact that Emily's life as a writer was made elusive by acts of erasure. Charlotte Bronte blurred the lines between Emily and her creation – reducing her sister to a natural phenomenon, a freak, a force of nature – denying her accomplishment as a writer of astounding force and originality.
Lucasta Miller calls Charlotte Bronte, Emily's first "mythographer" and it is due to Charlotte's intervention that Emily the writer has been lost. Emily had no room of one's own. In a diary paper of Emily's dated November 24, 1834, she launches from thought to thought – from feeding the animals to peeling potatoes, to her imaginary world of Gondal.
When their housekeeper Tabby scolds her for writing: "Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate." She answers in her writing, "O Dear, O Dear, O Dear I will directly with that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling", before her paper continues with the state of her person, the messy kitchen, the music lesson undone, the wanting to go out to play, the imaging of what she and her sister Anne will be all like when they are older.
As children, Charlotte and Emily were co-conspirators over the shared imaginary world of the Glass Town Confederacy, inspired by the mythic arrival of brother Branwell's toy soldiers. Initially the children all played together, but resentment grew as Emily and Anne, being the youngest of the quartet, were relegated the minor of roles. To this end Emily and Anne established their own imaginary land of Gondal, a breakaway state.
This struggle for creative independence from her older sister continued into adulthood when in 1845 Charlotte invaded Emily's privacy by reading her poems without consent. In this small and busy house, the world of writing for all siblings was a way of enlarging space, freedom and liberty. "So hopeless is the world without; The world within I doubly prize …' she wrote in the poem entitled To Imagination.
It is no surprise that Emily responded with anger at this invasion. Her mind, after all, was the only thing to call her own. It was only when sister Anne revealed that she too had been writing poems that Emily relented to Charlotte's insistence that they be published.
At Emily's death in 1848, Charlotte wrote a preface for the second edition of Wuthering Heights but erased her achievement as a novelist in one fell strike.
Charlotte described Wuthering Heights as "a rude and strange production", "rustic all the way through", "moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath" and questioned the morality of writing a character such as Heathcliff: "Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is." She called her sister a "native and nursling of the moors", "never leaving the threshold" and "a nun".
In this preface, Charlotte turns Emily into a misanthropic gothic Disney Snow White, up on the moors, the wild animals attending her. One can't help but wonder what sort of preface Anne would have written. Would it have been more understanding of her sister the writer?
Charlotte is false in claiming that Emily never left the "threshold". Emily also went abroad in 1842 as a student and teacher Brussels with Charlotte. Their teacher Professor Heger suggested Emily: "… should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have given way but with life …" Emily had a mind of her own. Charlotte had a need to please.
They were older than the other students when they arrived in Brussels, protestants, and wearing outdated modes. They were the equivalent of two tumbleweeds rolling down a Neo-Classical street. Charlotte immediately conformed to continental fashion, purchasing a dress to copy the Brussels style and urged Emily to do the same. Emily replied: "I wish to be as God made me" and persisted with her out-dated straight petticoats and leg-of-mutton sleeves, spending her time developing her mind.
Reports of Emily paint her as antisocial, monosyllabic, awkward and aloof in social situations. But, a true introvert, Emily preferred the company of individuals rather than the group and befriended 16-year-old Louise de Bassompierre, an Anne substitute, who found in Emily a kind friend leaving her a sketch of a fir tree.
Charlotte's preface claims that Emily knew the people of her village, but never shared a word with them, though this is highly unlikely. People who knew her recalled a warm and bright individual. The stationer at Haworth, if running low on paper, would walk 10 miles to Halifax to ensure she had her supply.
Charlotte's preface belies a jealousy, born from childhood, being the two eldest surviving daughters of an eccentric Irish curate who filled their minds with the power words. Charlotte, through her mere survival, became the owner of her sister's history, expunging her sister's poems, character and possible second manuscript, the existence of which are the things that one can only dream of. It was common for family members to destroy personal papers on a death, but Charlotte did more than burn her letters – she vandalised her sister's legacy as a writer.
In Elizabeth's Gaskell's biography all the information about Emily came from Charlotte by way of letters to a friend, making her an unreliable Nelly Dean of a narrator. Did Emily really violently abuse her dog because it muddied the counterpane? The same dog, Keeper, whom she loved so much, that she taught to roar like a lion in the sitting room, who was witnessed wedging his way onto her lap, who mourned his owner's passing by staying at her burial site in the church, awaiting the return of his owner who would never come?
The bust I bought of Emily travelled with me across Ireland, wrapped in a woollen jumper in my backpack, until in Dublin, fearing for her survival I posted her home. She arrived in Australia before I did, her porcelain neck lacerated and cracked, but my mother ingeniously repaired her with denture glue.
According to the National Portrait Gallery in London, Branwell Bronte's Gun portrait is the only verified image of Emily in her lifetime. Hers is the only gaze that stares out, looking at us, looking to the beyond. But there is another portrait, one done by her own hand, a sketch of herself as a writer, with her sister, working on the kitchen table, her back to us, keeping her own counsel. She is writing.
Emily has taught me many things: to kindle the life of the mind over society, to write whatever needs to be written regardless of the space or time to do it, to observe, to look up and to be no coward soul.
My bust of Emily is a re-imaging of the Gun portrait, but blank and white as paper, but I do not keep her on my desk. Like Emily, I do not have a room of my own, but find my writing pushed up against the domestic, blooming where it will. Emily stays in the kitchen, the repair around her throat has aged like a tarnished silver necklace, but to me the crack makes her more beautiful like kintsugi or the golden joinery the Japanese use to repair broken porcelain, treating the breakage as part of the beauty of something, just like the rush of messy handwriting on a pure white page.
Sandra Leigh Price's two novels, The Bird's Child and The River Sings, are published by HarperCollins.
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