By Denise Giardina
The legend of the literary Bronte family is fixed in the public imagination; the lonely spinsterish sisters; the eccentric father and wastrel brother; the barren moors; the isolated village of Haworth.
But this picture of the Brontes has depended upon the biography by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Mrs. Gaskell’s telling was influenced by her friendship with Charlotte, the surviving Bronte daughter. The story of the Brontes that has come to us is essentially Charlotte’s version. And we know that Charlotte, after the deaths of her siblings, took close control of their literary legacy. She wrote a preface to Wuthering Heights that attempted to “explain” her sister Emily, quashed the reprinting of Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall , and even rewrote a number of her sisters’ poems.
In Emily’s Ghost, I attempt to free the Bronte family from Charlotte’s control, well meaning though it may have been. Thanks to modern biographers, particularly Juliet Barker, and the sources they have uncovered, all the Brontes take on additional dimensions, as does Haworth, which was far from a rural backwater.
But the heart of the novel is Emily, whose Wuthering Heights, once marginalized, is now recognized as a work of genius. Compared to Charlotte, we know few details of Emily’s life, and any portrait of her must take brief glimpses of the woman and then attempt to enlarge them. For example, when Charlotte makes clear that many of Emily’s views seemed opposite from her own and, to Charlotte’s mind, impractical, one must consider that Charlotte was politically conservative. Then one can imagine Emily as the opposite. And the brief mentions of Emily in the letters of Charlotte’s friends also help to envisage this extraordinary woman. As a novelist, I was thus able to try and inhabit, for a time, Emily Bronte’s life.
IMAGE: The Brontë sisters, painted by Patrick Branwell Brontë, c. 1834. From left to right, they are Anne, Emily, and Charlotte