Review: Emily Brontë Reappraised, Dr Claire O’Callaghan

Emily is a perennial conundrum to Brontë fans and biographers alike and for the most part this does seem to be because she willed it so.  I have been trying to track down a reliable Emily biography for this year’s Brooding about the Brontës but had resigned myself to disappointment before I heard of the release of Emily Brontë Reappraised which from its very title offered a fresh take.  Too often dismissed as the weirdest of a trio of weird sisters, Emily Brontë wrote few letters, only one novel and rarely left home.  She is an enigma.  Predictably, people have been unwilling to let the mystery alone – Emily was mad, Emily was autistic, Emily was kind to her brother Branwell, Emily stole her brother Branwell’s novel and passed it off as her own, Emily had a lover named Louis Parensall (she most definitely did not), Emily was a mystic.  With so many versions of this long-dead woman clouding the truth, the stated mission of O’Callaghan’s book seems even more bold.  What is the truth about Emily Brontë?

As O’Callaghan points out, Emily Brontë would almost certainly be horrified to discover the cult that has sprung up around her.  Unlike her sister Charlotte, Emily seems to have had no desire to be ‘forever known’.  It was she who insisted on writing under a pseudonym and unlike Anne and Charlotte, she refused to travel to London to make herself known to their publishers.  To discover herself immortalised in the form of knitted dolls and Kate Bush songs would be unlikely to prompt a positive reaction.  Yet it is Emily’s own desire for privacy which has led to the ‘void in detail about Emily’ which has in turn made her ‘riper for myth-making than any other Brontë’.  Modern diagnoses of personality disorders appear to define her better than Charlotte’s attempts to explain her sister, yet it all reminds me of Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites which charts how Jane Austen fans are able to find whatever they want to in Jane Austen’s letters and works.  The blank creates a mirror.

O’Callaghan traces the roots of Emily’s mythography, from how Charlotte Brontë attempted to make her sister’s book more palatable by whitewashing her reputation to how Mrs Gaskell’s distaste for Emily (despite the fact that the two never met) coloured how she presented her in The Life of Charlotte Brontë.  With so little material left behind, even subsequent biographers who try to be open-minded have had to rely on the shaky material left behind by Charlotte.  So much is made of Emily’s early departure from Roe Head, with popular Brontë legend taking it as evidence that Emily could not survive away from Haworth but O’Callaghan notes the numerous alternative explanations offered by biographers over the years.  Older and taller than most of the other pupils, was Emily perhaps under-stimulated?  Was she bored?  After three months, did she perhaps decide it was just not for her?

Reading through, it struck me again how unfair that passing episodes in the life of an individual should come to be how they are defined.  Does the fact that, when in Brussels, Emily insisted on giving piano lessons at a time that suited herself really give much indication as to her character?  She did not want to miss out on study, yet her young pupils thought her cruel for taking up their leisure time.  Interactions between the two sides were tricky and appear to have led to the episode where Emily refused to listen to what was currently fashionable, telling them that she was ‘as God made me’.  Two hundred years on, the Wheelwrights sound to me like unpleasant children trying to get a rise out of their piano teacher by insulting her clothes.  I applaud Emily for refusing to take the bait but again gives little account of her personality as a whole.

Weirdest of all though is the popular biographical tendency to ‘diagnose’ Emily.  From agoraphobia to autism to anorexia, scholars have been trying to pin a medical label on Emily for decades.  O’Callaghan notes that the evidence for these supposed conditions generally comes back to Charlotte’s testimony and that Charlotte is a ‘slippery witness’, trying to establish herself as the saintly elder sister who wanted to mother the recalcitrant Emily.  Stranger still though is the way in which even modern biographers such as Claire Harman have created imaginary inner monologues for Emily to support their own hypotheses. O’Callaghan’s indignation simmers off the page at the poor scholarship, observing that there is no evidence available to draw any such firm conclusions.

O’Callaghan analyses Emily as a writer, analysing her poetry and the themes within Wuthering Heights.  Unlike the other two sisters, Emily’s prose work contains little in the way of biographical material, so it gives little away about her character.  Personally, it took me years to get round to reading Emily’s poetry and yet I felt it brought me far closer to her voice than Heights ever did.  That’s not to say that I believe it relates to personal experiences as I am well aware that most of Emily’s verses focus on Gondal but all the same, its power is undeniable.  However, poetry cannot be adapted innumerable times for the stage and screen and so it is easier for Emily to fly below the radar.  Reappraised is rare in its sincere attempt to engage with Emily’s poetry, meaning there can be little wonder why Emily remains so opaque to the reader.

The chapters on Emily’s relationship with nature and feminism were particularly fascinating.  Emily’s lack of femininity was one of the main things that Victorian society appeared to struggle with.  Even Charlotte, usually so eager to whitewash her siblings, drew attention to this in fictionalising her as the mannish Shirley Keeldar in Shirley.  O’Callaghan compares this vision of Emily to Rosie the Riveter and indeed the parallel is convincing – but it is a very twentieth century image, so it would be hardly surprising that Emily failed to fit in with Victorian mores.  Monsieur Heger said that Emily ‘should have been a man – a great navigator’ and even the creepy Haworth stationer John Greenwood commented on her manliness.  O’Callaghan charts the ambition behind Emily’s Gondal heroines, specifically Augusta (A.G.A.) and Emily’s long-term interest in Queen Victoria, with the two young women born in the same year.  For O’Callaghan, the older Cathy is all a self-assertive character, longing for the freedom of masculinity which would allow her to tramp the moors as Heathcliff can but trapped by her female status.  O’Callaghan further states the case that Cathy’s infamous statement ‘I am Heathcliff’ is less a declaration of love than one of selfhood, similar to Charlotte’s ‘Reader, I married him’.  Reappraised is always clear that it is impossible to make any statements on Emily with certainty, but it does raise some very intriguing questions.

Reappraised is a highly accessible biography offering a refreshingly open-minded interpretation of Emily while managing to avoid the stock anecdotes and imaginings which have made so many of the other biographies so repetitive.  That being said, reading this in the midst of my Brooding did make me notice how heavily O’Callaghan had borrowed from Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth – all cited correctly and acknowledged, but all the same it does make one realise how difficult it can be to strike new ground in such an overcrowded field.  What sets Reappraised apart from said field however is the fact that it is written by someone entirely free of the snobbery and melodrama so common among Brontë scholars.  O’Callaghan does not pretend that her book is definitive nor does she presume any previous knowledge so her book achieves its goal.  She accepts that we will never really know the real Emily Brontë but she manages instead to reappraise and through that, I felt that I got closer to the weirdest of the three weird sisters than I ever had before.


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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Emily Bronte Reappraised by Claire O'Callaghan
Published by Saraband (Scotland) Limited on 2018-06
Pages: 208
ISBN: 9781912235056

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2 thoughts on “Review: Emily Brontë Reappraised, Dr Claire O’Callaghan

  1. An excellent book, authoritative and thought-provoking; as the title says ‘A View from the 21st Century.’ Claire O’Callaghan is one of the important new generation of Bronte scholars.

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