Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Emily and Charlotte Bronte

I wanted to write about the life of Emily Bronte.  But that's pretty much impossible. As far as I can recall, she had no friends outside of her family.  She left few if any letters, never kept a regular diary, and much of her unpublished writing was destroyed at her death.  Most of what we know about her, outside of Wuthering Heights and her poems, comes from her sister Charlotte.  And Charlotte was not objective; she may even have been deliberately untruthful.

Nonetheless, Katherine Frank has published a biography of Emily Bronte, and if she can create a whole book on the subject I can create a blog post.  So.  I do recommend her book; it's unavoidably weak in spots but some of her insights and deductions are quite penetrating.

Her most interesting deduction is that Emily Bronte (and probably her sisters too) had an eating disorder.  Once it was pointed out to me, I reread Wuthering Heights and realized that on almost every page, one of the characters is refusing to eat.  They're too angry, or too sad, or distracted, or have just lost interest in living.  They all do it.  Frank points out that refusing to eat is a means of asserting control over your life. Maybe you can't control anything else, but you can control what you put into your mouth.

Also, the hunger strike is a well known form of protest:  you are no longer cooperating with a world that refuses to give you what you want.  I have read quite a bit about the Brontes here and there, but not until I read Frank's book did I know that they once went on a hunger strike.  Their beloved family servant, Tabby, had broken her leg and the adult Brontes (the children's father and aunt) had decided that they didn't want to take care of her and there was no use in having her around the house.  They were going to ship her off to one of her relatives, but the young women insisted on nursing the woman who had always taken care of them.  And they stopped eating until the grown-ups agreed to their demand.  This happened in 1836, when Charlotte was 20 and her two sisters were 18 and 16.

I also noticed that people in Wuthering Heights lie all the time.  Probably the most frequent liars are Heathcliff and the narrator, Nelly Dean, but everybody does some of it.  Lying is also a very good way to control your environment, to evade punishment and make yourself look good.  When it takes the form of well-written fiction, we admire it.  But in general, people acquire the art of lying first and the art of good writing later (if at all.)

Food goes into our mouths, and words come out.

Food and lying also play a part in one of the stories about Emily that Charlotte wrote in 1830, when she was 14 and Emily was 12.  As I mentioned in my other post, Emily and Anne created one imaginary country and Charlotte and Branwell created another one.  Charlotte's alter ego, Lord Charles Wellesley, visits Parrysland (Emily's country, named after the Arctic explorer) and makes fun of everyone and everything.  The inhabitants of Parrysland talk funny (apparently Charlotte continued to make fun of Emily and Anne's baby talk, even after they grew out of it) and they spend a lot of time discussing the doll clothes that Emily and Anne make for them.

According to Charlotte/Charles, they're also gluttons.  (Eating disorders often start in adolescence; it's likely that Charlotte began to feel anxiety about food before her younger sisters did.)  They spend their whole time eating themselves sick, and Lady Emily Parry's child is actually named "Eater."  After supper, Lord Charles is left alone with Eater, and he proceeds to beat the crap out of the child.  There's really no other way to describe it:
I ordered him to sit down.  He laughed but did not obey:  this incensed me and heaving the poker I struck him to the ground.  The scream he set up was tremendous but it only increased my anger; I kicked him several times & dashed his head against the floor hoping to stun him . . .
When the boy's father comes running in and asks what happened, Charles/Charlotte replies, "Nothing at all . . . the sweet little boy fell down while I was playing with him & hurt himself."  (As I said in the previous post, it really makes one think that Charlotte should never have been put in charge of any children.)

This episode is reminiscent of several scenes in Wuthering Heights - but it was written by Charlotte, who later professed herself shocked by the violence in Emily's novel. We have some information about Charlotte's transformation from raging adolescent to melancholy, resigned adult.  We don't know exactly how Emily went from sewing doll clothes to writing works of passion.  But it seems accurate to say that Charlotte learned, to an extent, how to compromise with the world:  to tell it what she thought it wanted to hear.  Emily never did.

We will never know the details of their sisterly life.  All we do know is that they did spend most of their short lives together.  In 1845, Charlotte was 29 and Emily 27.  They had briefly attended various schools, usually together, and usually disliked it.  They had tried to start their own school, which failed.  They had played together, told stories together and apart.  In 1845, Charlotte noticed among her sister's things a book, which she opened.  It was a manuscript collection of Emily's poems.

For whatever reason, Charlotte had not been aware that Emily was writing poems, even though they lived in the same house. But she did know that looking at her book was an invasion of privacy.  Charlotte never denied the fact that Emily was angry at her; but she insisted that the poems were good enough to be published, that they must be published, that the Bronte sisters who had failed in the only profession which was open to them could succeed as writers . . . wait a minute.  These are Emily's poems we're talking about here.  How did her sisters get in on the act?

It seems that neither Emily nor Anne had any interest in publication.  This was Charlotte's idea, and she was the driving force.  But Charlotte could not conceive of acting without her sisters.  She needed them to attack the publishing world together.  It seems to be generally agreed that, although all three of them had been writing poetry, Emily's was the best.  But Emily, perhaps, was not interested in publishing.  Charlotte, at the time, had not written her best work, but she had the desire to succeed.  It's a weird symbiotic relationship - and there was Anne too, along for the ride.

Incidentally, I believe that Anne is a better writer than she's been given credit for, and Charlotte is partially to blame for this.  After her sisters died, she reissued Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey. She chose not to republish Anne's Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  "She hardly thought it worth preserving. The choice of subject had been a mistake; Anne had written it 'under a strange conscientious half-ascetic notion of accomplishing a painful penance and severe duty.'"

That quote is from Rebecca Fraser's biography of the Brontes; there doesn't seem to be a citation but I guess those are Charlotte's words. If so, I've read the book and I do not understand what Charlotte was on about.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about alcoholism.  We believe that Anne's primary experience with alcoholism was the deterioration and death of her brother Branwell - a long ordeal which affected Charlotte deeply as well, since she and Branwell were very close (arguably, closer than Charlotte and Emily, considering the fact that they were writing partners.)  It seems likely to me that Anne was more objective on the subject than Charlotte -- in fact, one of the unusual things about Tenant of Wildfell Hall is its objectivity, a trait lacking in other Bronte works.  It's not a bad book; I would not even call it a "painful" book, especially not when compared with Charlotte's Villette.

Anyway.  I wanted to write about Emily.  But that anecdote does illustrate how Charlotte controlled the work and reputations of her sisters after their death, and how she may have misinterpreted them.

One last fact:  Emily spent the last year of her life working on her second novel.  We only know that because she mentioned it in a letter to her publisher.  We know nothing else about it, not even the title. What happened to the manuscript?  Was it deliberately destroyed - and if so, by whom?

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