Thursday, 2 March 2017

"Her strong imperious will"

Invisible No More

All members of the Brontë family have their supporters and detractors. Around anniversaries or around new TV or film productions, commentators in The Media try to whip readers and viewers into declaring for Team Charlotte or Team Anne in pursuit of some fresh angle. The men at the Haworth Parsonage (father Patrick, brother Branwell and short-time husband of Charlotte, Arthur Bell Nicholls) often receive dismissive attention or downright hostility. One of the things I found impressive about Sally Wainwrights fictional biographical film about the Brontës, To Walk Invisible, was its atmosphere of a busy town with family, servants, neighbours, acquaintances and employers swirling around the talented sisters and influencing them just as much as they influenced each other. Haworth was by no means a backwater in the mid-Victorian period. Prompting this blog is the news that Sally Wainwright is coming to the Ilkley Literature Festival to talk about To Walk Invisible and Sally-partner-wife-friend was quick off the mark to get tickets so I’m looking forward to that.
Sally Wainwright receiving her BAFTA and directing Happy Valley; Branwell's portrait of the Brontë sisters and the actresses from To Walk Invisible

“Team Emily”

It’s no surprise that, if a Hogwarts Sorting Hat were to hover over me, I’d be in Team Emily. I’ve already declared that Charlotte’s Villette is my personal favourite of the Brontë novels and I have family reasons to have a deeply-felt admiration for Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The mythic archetypes and tropes of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre are lodged deep within the DNA of all readers (and writers, for that matter.) But the writer of Wuthering Heights, and indeed Wuthering Heights itself, exercises my imagination and passion above all other facets of Brontëana. (Shirley, The Professor and Agnes Grey are still in my to re-read pile; in fact I think I’ve never read The Professor or Agnes Grey….must put that right!)

The tallest Brontë

Some aspects of Emily Brontë’s biography are agreed upon because of the consistency of the evidence:
  • she always seemed tall – and taller than the other siblings
  • she was the fifth of six children, her two eldest sisters dying in childhood
  • she liked walking
  • she was stubborn and willful
  • she loved her bulldog Keeper who, when Emily died, “followed her funeral to the vault” and, according to Charlotte was “lying in a pew couched at our feet while the burial service was being read"
  • my writer friend, Kerry Madden, reminds me of the story we heard when visiting the Parsonage in May 2014, that, when returning from Anne’s funeral in Scarborough, the Parsonage dogs bounded out to greet the arrivals but Keeper howled when only Charlotte appeared and proceeded to whimper outside Emily’s door for days to come
  • she had only nine months of formal education in two stints aged 6 and 17
  • at Cowan Bridge School (age 6) her report card reads Emily Brontë… reads very prettily and works a little 
  • her father gave her, her brother and surviving sisters a box of toy soldiers in 1826 and this fired their imaginations
  • in childhood she wrote chronicles of Gondal with Anne, whilst Charlotte and Branwell wrote the imaginary history of Angria
Juvenilia

Strong imperious will

  • she spent some time (unhappily) in Brussels learning to be a teacher before returning for her Aunt Branwell’s funeral (which she missed)
  • the headmaster of the school in Brussels, Monsieur Heger, wrote of Emily: “She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life.” 
  • she learned some German
  • she liked reading Sir Walter Scott, Shelley and Byron
  • she enjoyed reading the lurid (and often violent) tales in Blackwood’s Magazine
  • her poetry was admired by Charlotte and Anne
  • she put out a fire at the Parsonage after Branwell upset a lighted candle
  • she self-cauterised a wound from a dog bite
  • she attended the funeral of her brother in September 1848
  • she died of TB six days before Christmas Day in 1848.
Charlotte lived just long enough to understand the Brontë novels were gaining some critical acclaim and popularity, but not to appreciate just how phenomenal their popularity would still be in 2017. What would Emily have made of tourists running about the moors shouting “Heathcliff….Cathy….”?