Wuthering Heights changed everything.
Without it, my life would be very different.
I first read Wuthering Heights when I was fifteen. The book was assigned in English Literature and I had a deep curiosity to read it. There was something about the word ‘Wuthering’ that intrigued me. I loved how it made storm and tumult incarnate; a so much more evocative word than merely ‘stormy’ or ‘wild’. I also knew that Emily Brontë was from my part of the world which piqued my interest. And then there was the powerful mystique of the Brontë family itself. I was broadly familiar with the legend – the precocious brood living on the edge of the Yorkshire moors; the devastating personal losses and the spawning of three literary greats under the one roof.
My anticipation to read the book was great. I began to read:
‘1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s Heaven’.
I can recite the opening paragraphs from heart, so indelibly are they marked on my cortex.
Nothing could have prepared me for Wuthering Heights. It was unlike anything I had read before and remains unlike anything I have read since. It subverts almost every convention by which readers are won over to a story. The heroine is killed off in the first third of the book. The hero is utterly unredeemed and irredeemable. In most books even the most extreme recalcitrant wobbles at the end – Cathy in East of Eden shows something bordering on heart and Kevin in We Need To Talk About Kevin evinces the first vestiges of remorse. But Heathcliff shows not the smallest sign of repudiating his vicious, unrelenting revenge. With the possible exception of Hareton Earnshaw there isn’t a likeable character in the whole book.
The violence is cruel and unremitting. The scene where the ghost child’s wrist is shredded against the shattered window pane was so viscerally shocking – and so unlike what I expected from a nineteenth century novel – that I literally did not believe what I was reading. I flipped the page back to be sure I had not misinterpreted. But no, there it is: foppish Lockwood with all his pretensions to gentility has a nightmare in which the ghost child of Catherine comes to the window, plaintively asking to be let in. Lockwood promises to do so, but instead of taking her hand to assist her is so terrified that he rubs her wrist back and forth on the broken window pane in an effort to shake her off; soaking the bed clothes with blood. And that was just for starters. Puppies are hung, wives savagely beaten, graves dug up and babies dropped from balconies in drunken rages. Virtually every taboo from incest to necrophilia features in the pages of Wuthering Heights.
Stylistically the book was challenging too. The religious zealot Joseph’s speech is practically indecipherable for someone who doesn’t have an ear tuned to the peculiarities of northern dialect. (Charlotte Brontë was so concerned by it that she tried to make the language more accessible in her 1850 posthumous edition). I found myself mired in so many male characters with similar names. Heathcliff, Hareton and Hindley were hard to keep straight from one another. Then there was my confusion over last names and first names: Edgar Linton’s nephew is named Linton Heathcliff. Catherine Earnshaw becomes Catherine Linton and gives birth to a Catherine Linton who becomes Catherine Heathcliff and then Catherine Earnshaw. Heathcliff doesn’t even have two names: he uses Heathcliff for first and last name. To add insult to injury he wasn’t even given his own name, he was named by his foster parents the Earnshaws for a son who died in childhood. His son is named, without his knowledge, Linton Heathcliff.
Where Jane Austen invited me in and beguiled me so that I never wanted to leave her arch and cultured pages, Brontë seemed to throw up barriers behind her. Jane Smiley put it perfectly when she said that ‘Wuthering Heights is possibly the only English novel that ignores the reader so thoroughly, in such a European, even Kafkaesque way’.
I was confused and confounded by the book. It was hard as whinstone and didn’t care one jot for what I as the reader might be suffering. I am convinced that if Wuthering Heights was made flesh the result would be that individual on the edges of the social group that we tell ourselves we dislike but whose approval we crave nonetheless. The beautiful, haughty one who seems impervious to social niceties and gets away with the most appalling behaviour because secretly we crave something of their disdain for form and propriety.
Wuthering Heights discomfited and unnerved me but my overwhelming sense was of a preternatural power. When I first read it I was stunned by a sense of something alive in the white margin of the text. Something I thought I could see moving out of the corner of my eye. Only my reason kept me from a certainty that I could hear a presence breathing close by, as Heathcliff does when he desecrates Catherine’s grave. I felt, and still do feel when I pick it up now, that there was a ghost in the book – a palpable presence that I never quite saw but equally could not disprove. I suspect Virginia Woolf felt a similar thing when she said of Emily Brontë that:
‘she looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel – a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely “I love” or “I hate”, but “we, the whole human race” and “you, the eternal powers….” The sentence remains unfinished. It is not strange that it should be so; rather it is astonishing that she can make us feel what she had it in her to say at all’.
It was what Brontë could make me feel that astonished me. How could a book – a set of inanimate strokes on the page – make me feel this way? How could it give me an inkling of those cosmic powers which no amount of earnest prayer and intellectual inquiry could approach? Encountering Wuthering Heights marked a watershed in my relationship with words. Always, from the very first, I was fascinated by narrative. When my Mum read to me as a child I felt myself physically transported into other, fictive worlds. As a toddler I was obsessed with a picture book about Mrs Tibbits the cat. I loved it so much that its fictions took root in my reality. Already possessed of an imaginary friend named Fellow (who needed a place set for him at the table and a seat of his own on the bus), my parents put their feet down when Mrs Tibbits came to stay too.
Perhaps as consolation for refusing entry to Mrs Tibbits my parents bought me a typewriter when I was seven. It was an object possessed of an almost totemic power for me. How well I remember curling the fresh white page around the barrel and pecking carefully at the stubborn keys. This was no sleek, electric pc but a hulking machine whose weighty keys made my little fingers ache. I can still hear the incredibly satisfying ‘ping’ sound it made when I reached the end of a line and it tabbed back to the starting position. Watching sentences emerge where there had been nothing stirred something in me that I can only describe as transcendent. It seemed magical to me that words – meaning – could emerge from the great white blank.
I was fortunate to have a captive audience for my stories. My sister Bex was a decade younger than me and enthusiastic about my literary invention: a hideously ugly underwater dragon (the AcquaGumpoo) and his attempts to be accepted at the aquatic court. I felt a soaring joy as these little stories took shape on the page. I fell on each new word, hoarding it for just the right occasion. I wanted the ability to express what I felt precisely. Wuthering Heights was the zenith of the power I had long suspected lived in words. It was the antithesis of the great white blank. It was substance. It was power.
Wuthering Heights was my first literary obsession. I devoured everything I could find about the novel and its mysterious author whose solitary work of genius seemed to have arrived without reference to any literary tradition and stands alone there in the pantheon. When I was nineteen I made the pilgrimage to the Brontë parsonage in Haworth in Yorkshire. I walked the halls where the Brontë’s walked and sat in the church pew where the Reverend Brontë used to preach and where he, Emily, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë are now buried in the family vault. (Anne is buried in Scarborough, where she died). I walked, hushed and reverent, through the parsonage halls where Emily had lived thinking ‘She walked here. That was her writing desk. This is where she baked bread’. I walked out across the moors, thinking how apt Sylvia Plath’s description was: ‘stepping off into clouds’. I felt so intimate a connection with the novel that it ceased to be Wuthering Heights and became, familiarly, Wuthers.
But never did it occur to me that I could be a writer. A real writer I mean. I would always be a tinkerer, an amateur. My lot was to be a writer of silly stories for my little sister and a half-ashamed private scribbler of gauche poetry and many starts-of-novels. Although Wuthering Heights was the germ of my blood-borne literature virus, it also proved that great books were less written than channelled. The Emily Brontë passed down to me through the generations was a mystical, ethereal being. Refracted through Charlotte’s memories Emily was less a craftsman hewing away at her work than a ferocious demi-God divining sentences through the heather-scented ether.
There are few biographical details about Emily – virtually no extant letters or diaries, only a couple of flimsy ‘diary papers’ that obscure more than they reveal. Instead we have the recollections of a proprietorial older sister ‘explaining’ Emily to a hostile readership. Charlotte said that an ‘interpreter ought always to have stood between Emily and the world’ and then took it upon herself to be that interpreter. Charlotte was bruised by the critical reception of Wuthering Heights and, by extension, her sister. An early 1848 review said
‘”Wuthering Heights is a strange, inartistic story. There are evidences in every chapter of a sort of rugged power – an unconscious strength – which the possessor seems never to think of turning to best advantage. The general effect is inexpressibly painful. We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity”.
Charlotte was eager to exonerate her sister from accusations of wildness and degeneracy by pleading for the intervention of a higher power in the creation of the book. The Emily reflected through the ages is a mystical being – gaunt and powerful – striding over the moors as if in a trance. Through this lens Emily less wrote Wuthering Heights than channelled it. Charlotte referred to Emily as a ‘native and nursling of the moors’ who drew her sustenance from the moors in the same way the rest of us need oxygen to live.
‘The endless, eerily beautiful landscape of heath and heather-covered moors surrounding Haworth answered a profound inner yearning for release in Emily. Though the largest of her family, she desired the freedom and exhilarating sensation of personal smallness and insignificance which she discovered in the beauty and immensity of nature of the moors. Walking to Pondon Kirk, the huge outcropping or rock which she called Penistone Crag in Wuthering Heights, Emily encountered only the most hardy and tenacious animal and plant life: merlins, ousels, lapwings and grouse in the air, and furze, bracken, ling and bilberry covering the slopes of the moors underfoot like the closely shorn wool of browsing sheep. The stunning silence of these high spaces was rarely broken by the harsh cries of hawks or the whistling of a sudden gale sweeping over the hills from the west. Heather effaced peat bogs, and the rarity of trees, rocks and other land-marks made it perilously easy to lose one’s way’.
Though I loved words, was obsessed with them, I was under no illusion that I communed with higher celestial powers. My imagination was exuberant but it didn’t open into euphoric trances from which I awoke to discover my stories written. The act of sitting down and wrestling my ideas and images onto the page was (and remains) painful. Anyone who has ever suffered the acute agony of having a wonderful idea that somehow will not materialise onto the canvass or the lens or the score knows this pain. I could never corral the ideas the way I wanted to. I didn’t know what to leave out and what to put in. My body zinged with adrenalin in the midst of all the possibilities. I might dwell overly much on the pattern of a coat but sweep over a character’s motivation. The mauling that happened between my head and the page frustrated and infuriated me. I would rip the page from the barrel and start again thinking this time I will get it right. But I never did.
No matter, I thought. That’s because I’m not chosen like Emily Brontë. I must be satisfied with being a reverent reader, a devotee, a passionate devourer of literature. But I don’t have that ineffable spark of God-given genius that makes a writer. A real writer. Whatever the Gods had given Brontë they had denied me.
It was on some levels a comforting thought because it let me off the hook. I didn’t have to return, Sisyphus-like, to the bottom of the hill. I didn’t have to whittle the words into every conceivable configuration until they clicked with the vision in my head. It was a get-out-of-jail-free pass. And so at university I circled around my literary obsession. I minored in English Literature but took no classes in creative writing. I chose to major in History and Politics, writing about the past and about power, but eschewing narrative fiction.
The bombshell moment came when I was an Honours student at the University of Western Australia. I had decided to write about the role of identity, food and fasting in Wuthering Heights for my gender studies unit. I picked the book up, already savouring the refracted power from the novel. As I began to read I noticed something that I had completely missed on my first readings: that the book is highly structured. There is a pattern and symmetry as insistent as four-four time that rivets the book together. There are two generations, two houses and two families. There is storm and there is calm. There is an endlessly refracted duality: An Earnshaw marries a Linton and begets a Linton; that Linton marries a Heathcliff – the destabilising interloper – before becoming an Earnshaw. And so the novel swings full circle, back to the Catherine Earnshaw that the first Catherine Linton longs to recapture. Looking into the novel is like looking into a hall of mirrors – the same themes and actions are refracted generationally.
Every character (with the possible exception of Heathcliff) has a compulsive fascination for the ‘other’. Grange attracts Heights and vice versa, storm attracts calm, fire wants water. Yet the halves can never gel. The connection always ruptures. Once characters get ‘in’ they want to be ‘out’ again, creating a perpetual restlessness, a ceaseless duality that swings through the novel like a pendulum. The pattern is set when Lockwood forces his way into Wuthering Heights as a most unwelcome guest. Once in (and quite literally so – he is fully enclosed in a coffin-like structure in the guest room), he meets Catherine’s ghost at the window. The ghost declares ‘I will get in’ when Lockwood tries to prevent her entry. The irony of course, is that it is Catherine who let herself ‘out’. This cleft in her identity is underscored by the fact that although it is the child Catherine who tries to get in, she identifies herself with her adult name Catherine Linton. Just as Catherine is locked ‘out’, Lockwood is unable to get ‘in’ to the congregation of his first dream because he lacks the mysterious ‘pilgrim’s staff’. Heathcliff prohibits anyone’s lodging in Catherine’s chamber at the Heights, but then begs her to come ‘in’ when Lockwood has tried to keep her ‘out’.
Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights are as different aesthetically as they are in values. One is mannered, genteel and protected; the other wild, morally unsettled and completely open to the elements (‘Wuthering being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather’).Yet both places attract even as they repel the other. Despite Thrushcross Grange being gated, Heathcliff and Catherine are able to breach the boundary during one of their childhood scampers on the moors. Catherine is allowed ‘in’, Heathcliff is forced to stay ‘out’. Hindley forbids Catherine and Heathcliff to be given admittance to Wuthering Heights after they’ve absconded. Nonetheless, Nelly is ‘determined’ to let them ‘in’.
Edgar sets specific physical boundaries on the younger Cathy’s riding on the moors – a decree that she defies and so meets Linton again. Heathcliff accosts Cathy at Thrushcross Grange when Cathy has scrambled over the gate to retrieve her hat. Once ‘out’, she cannot get back ‘in’. Once at the Heights, Cathy is locked ‘in’ and then desires only to be back ‘out’ at Thrushcross Grange: suffering much the same fate as her Aunt Isabella who wanted ‘out’ of the Grange and then felt exiled once ‘in’ at the Heights.
In her death throes, Catherine repeatedly expresses a wish to be ‘out’. ‘I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again…I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills’. Heathcliff feels certain that Catherine’s ghost is leading him back to Wuthering Heights after he digs up her grave to see her once more. He is convinced that she will be there when he gets into her chamber. This is the night that Hindley and Isabella lock him ‘out’ of Wuthering Heights, in revenge for which Heathcliff beats Hindley almost to death. In her description of Heathcliff in death, Nelly tells us that the window is open and Heathcliff has an almost orgasmic look of exultation. Has Catherine finally come in? Or has Heathcliff gone out to meet her?
The constant, restless movement of physical and spiritual bodies ends with Heathcliff’s death. The younger Cathy and Hareton become engaged and are about to start their new lives together at the Grange. The surface implication is that unity between storm and calm; self and other has been achieved. There is restoration and peace. Yet, Brontë is ambivalent about whether unity is achieved in death. Lockwood, who lingers about Catherine and Heathcliff’s graves, does not believe that the dead walk. ‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.
Ellen Dean is not so sure. She comes across a little shepherd boy who claims to have seen Heathcliff and a woman walking ‘under t’Nab’. Nelly thinks that the boy probably raised the spectres out of fear. But even so, she credits the story so much that she doesn’t go out after dark for fear of meeting the ghostly pair.
In/out, storm/calm, Grange/Heights, Earnshaw/Linton, life/death, first generation/second generation, self/other – the duality, the symmetry, the very patterns evident in the architecture of the novel all led inexorably to one conclusion. This was no anarchic work of random genius. It was a painstakingly crafted work built on well thought through ideas, imagery and structure. Discipline, not divine intervention, created Wuthering Heights. The technical scaffolding is so subtle, so elegant that it seems barely there at all.
This is one of the most important revelations I have ever had. It woke me up to a glorious, seductive idea: if this book with its sublime power is the result of discipline, study, revision, trial and error then writing – even writing of genius – is a process. And that means that I can learn it, however imperfectly. A voice I had stifled spoke with utter clarity: you could be a writer. You cannot hide behind your lack of genius. You cannot cleave to the idea of not being chosen. Emily Brontë hewed Wuthering Heights out of nothing. The painstakingly-wrought structure is there before your very eyes. You can write. And you must write.
Three years later I started writing my first novel Red Dress Walking. As I wrote, Wuthering Heights was always there in the background exerting its compulsive influence. I hasten to point out that I am not suggesting Red Dress Walking stands comparison with Wuthering Heights, for it certainly does not. But like Brontë I was transfixed by issues of duality though my thematic obsession played itself out in a story about mind and body, subject and object, sanity and insanity.
As the story of Red Dress Walking came together in my mind, I knew that my heroine needed to convincingly inhabit two contradictory worlds: a rich, complex fantasy world peopled with characters from books and her imagination and a highly functional, practical world with realistic work and personal demands. Emily Brontë herself became a model for my character – not coincidentally – called Emily. From a young age Brontë assumed the role of housekeeper at Haworth parsonage. She was responsible for making sure that meals appeared on the table at regular hours, for supervising the faithful family servant Tabitha and overseeing the endless domestic imperatives of laundry, shopping, sweeping and polishing. Locals, pressed for their reminiscences many years later, recalled the excellence of Emily’s baking and left us with a singular, striking image: Emily kneading dough with a volume of German grammar propped up in front of her. She leaves an impression of a no-nonsense physicality – taking strenuous walks on the moors in all weather and collecting injured and abandoned animals for her growing menagerie (including a hawk, dogs, geese and cats). Brontë was tough; once astounding the locals by breaking up a fight in a village lane between her dog Keeper and another local mutt. She was once on the receiving end of a nasty dog bite and, fearing rabies, branded the wound with a hot iron to cauterise the wound.
But co-existing with this practical, fearless, active personality was a profound imaginative life. Like all of her siblings Emily participated in the juvenile invention of Angria and later Gondal (shared only with Anne). But unlike her siblings Emily never seems to have abandoned her fictive universe for what we might call ‘the real world’. Until the very end she continued to write poems set in Gondal and to draw on long established Gondal characters. When Emily went on a trip to York with her sister Anne in 1845 (two years before she died) she left a diary note recording the excursion:
‘Anne and I went [on] our first long journey by ourselves together, leaving home on the 30th June, Monday,…returning to Keighley Tuesday evening, sleeping there and walking home on Wednesday morning. Though the weather was broken we enjoyed ourselves very much…And during our excursion we were Ronald Macalgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Augusteena, Rosabella Esmaldon, Ella and Julian Egrement, Catherine Navarre, and Cordelia Fitzaphnold escaping from the palaces of instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans’.
This is an extraordinary reminiscence. My postcards from Prague where my second novel is set were full of what I had eaten and drunk, overheard and toured. But it is as if these things barely existed for Emily. The interior canvass scrolling endlessly behind her eyes was far more compelling than the physical world. These co-existing elements – the visionary and the practical – that appeared to be at the centre of Brontë’s personality served me very well as a model for my own fictional character. My Emily too is eminently practical, so much so that her friends jokingly call her ‘Hospital Corners Emily’. She is a magnificent cook, effortlessly organised and scrupulously clean. But behind this highly functional facade is a lush, secured fantasy life so powerful that it spills over into her lived reality. Like Brontë, the barrier between Emily’s two worlds is permeable.
Writing a novel magnified the schizophrenic mash of frustration and serenity, mess and clarity that I had first experienced with that clunky black typewriter my parents bought when I was a child. I went through seven drafts of that book, each time agonising over what to keep and what to junk. I understood at the most intimate level that old editorial phrase: ‘kill your darlings’. Every word wrung from the blank is so hard won that magnifying the whiteness on the page causes physical pain. But the pleasure – the delicious pleasure – of an unfurling sentence that gets close to what you want to say is keen and heady. At the risk of confirming the truism that first-time authors choose autobiographical themes I gave my Emily my own feelings about writing:
‘I pored over drafts, whittling them down to their essence. I was joyful when I felt I had rendered a scene exactly. There was a space that I moved into when the harmonics were just right. Approaching it through the drafts was like listening to an orchestra tune up: the various elements were there, it was a matter of connecting them. That moment of synthesis was the keenest pleasure I knew’.
As I wrote I had a growing feeling that yes, this is me, I am fundamentally and irrevocably a writer. Wuthering Heights brought me to this certainty. And it was Wuthering Heights that made me cleave to it even though it detonated my world. As Red Dress Walking grew close to publication my personal relationship with my husband broke down, in some part because of his refusal to engage with me as a writer. He – an artist himself – preferred my incarnation as the reliable breadwinner. The pinstriped soldier who ventured forth day after day to produce business plans and evaluate policy. Unglamorous certainly, but reliable and moderately profitable. Far more than writing could ever hope to be. There was a deep fear beneath all his rationalisations: that writing might open a door for me to new ideas, new friends and new possibilities and that there might be no place for him on the other side of that door. Peace in the relationship seemed to demand that writing be an amateur pursuit, a hobby, something tinkered with on the sidelines while the real stuff of life occupied my time. ‘You can write later’, he said, ‘When the mortgage is paid off’. This sounds mercenary, and it was. But it was deeper and murkier than that.
I chafed under the constraint. Every day that writing wasn’t at the epicentre of my world I felt I was dying a little bit. It was like having a glimpse of heaven, knowing its exact location, but being bullied into not visiting. As I always do in times of crisis, I collected my favourite books around me and disappeared into them. I read Wuthering Heights for what must have been the seventh or eighth time and I saw something that I had never seen before. Carl Jung once said that when he had come to terms with something in his own life it was as if a signal flashed before his patients that it was now safe for them to raise the topic with him. So it was with me and that fateful reading of Wuthers – I saw something that I was not equipped to see until that moment.
When Catherine locks herself in her room after the final fight with Edgar, she ‘blacks out’. Her unconscious mind journeys back towards childhood and the lost union with Heathcliff. When she comes to she is conscious of tremendous sorrow, and searching for the cause, thinks it is because she is laid alone for the first time away from Heathcliff after Hindley orders their separation.
‘I was enclosed in the oak-panelled bed at home; and my heart ached with some great grief which, just waking, I could not recollect – I pondered, and worried to myself to discover what it could be; and most strangely, the whole last seven years of my life grew a blank! I did not recall that they had been at all. I was a child; my father was just buried, and my misery arose from the separation that Hindley had ordered between me and Heathcliff – I was laid alone for the first time, and rousing from a dismal doze after a night of weeping – I lifted my hand to push the panels aside, it struck the table-top! I swept it along the carpet, and then, memory burst in – my late anguish was swallowed in a paroxysm of despair’.
Catherine imagines that she is back at Wuthering Heights. She insists to Nelly that the she can see ‘two candles on the table making the black press shine like jet’. She also imagines that she can see candles shining in the window at the Heights, although the houses are not visible to each other. She asks Nelly to open the windows to ‘give me a chance at life’, i.e. to get away from the Grange. She also imagines that she is daring Heathcliff to stand amongst the headstones – to follow her into death in other words. ‘I’ll not lie there by myself’, she vows, ‘they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me; but I won’t rest till you are with me…I never will’.
It was only at that juncture in my life that I realised that during the entirety of the exchange where Catherine’s mind is disoriented, she is in the early stages of child birth. Her daughter is born at midnight that night. Catherine is cleaving in two different directions – her psyche is pulling her back towards childhood and her union with Heathcliff. This was the time of security when Mr Earnshaw was alive and Heathcliff’s place secure, before they were separated from one another. Before the harsh regime under Hindley and the unbridgeable gap created by Catherine’s wedding to Edgar Linton. Yet even as her consciousness moves ceaselessly into the idyllic past her body is literally pushing her ever further into the role of Mrs Linton through motherhood. She is riven in two incompatible parts. The more she becomes Mrs Linton the more the self – the real self – is lost.
And no one but Catherine has been the instrument of betrayal of that self. As Heathcliff unsparingly tells her ‘…misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it’. I read this passage and my bones chilled. You of your own free will did it. If I didn’t stand fast, if I didn’t cleave to what I knew was my essential self – the writer self – then I may as well be Catherine Linton on that deathbed.
I have a deeply held suspicion that Emily Brontë knew something about this betrayal of the self and its costs. She seems to have been a reserved, even taciturn character. Charlotte said that she was ‘not a person of demonstrative character, nor one, on the recesses of whose feeling, even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed’.
Yet Charlotte did intrude ‘unlicensed’ into Emily’s private world on at least two occasions that resulted in great friction between the sisters. The first was when Charlotte opened, without permission, the journal in which Emily kept her poems and read through them. Emily was furious. ‘It took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication’.
The second, which occurred after the publication of Wuthering Heights, was when Charlotte admitted to her publisher William Smith Williams the true identity of ‘Ellis Bell’ (Emily’s pseudonym). This revelation infuriated Emily and led Charlotte to caution her editor under no circumstances to refer to ‘Ellis’ as ‘Emily’ or to betray his knowledge of her gender in his correspondence.
I’ve often wondered if Emily irrevocably compromised herself by allowing her writer self to become public and that having done so her imagination, formerly so nourishing, withered. Without this mainstay Emily – that same Emily who was so physically tough she could brand herself with an iron – succumbed to a common cold and then death. That is the dread fate of those who betray themselves.
I left my marriage and saved myself.
Red Dress Walking was published in October 2008.
In September of last year I revisited the Brontë parsonage. By my side were two of the great blessings of my life: my second husband and my delicious three year old daughter. I gave a silent prayer of thanks for these blessings in Emily’s tiny bedroom at the parsonage.
SA Jones is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking and a widely published essayist and commentator. She holds a PhD in History and was recently named one of Australia's 100 Women of Influence.