For this first piece of 2018, I’d like to wish a very sincere Bonne Année to all readers. The year started with a wonderful surprise…
On January 8th areadersreviewblog published their list of Top Reads of 2017. Included was ‘The Passage of Desire’. Tina Williams had already reviewed the book, and I’d said a word or two about why her comments had touched me so deeply. But the real answer is longer and more complicated.
This third book in the series is different from the first two. As a prequel, it’s meant to tell the story of Alexandra’s secret affair, revealed at the end of ‘Hot Basque’. Who was the mystery man? How did their paths cross? What were the consequences? In line with the French theme, I’d envisioned a passionate meeting between strangers in a foreign hotel, a Brief Encounter à la française. It would be in novella form, a quick write.
That was the plan. But alien forces took over. A part of my own life sneaked in and I found myself abandoning the pays basque in favour of my own purple-blue remembered hills, tipping my hat to the places, the people and experiences that helped to shape me. The Muse, ready for another holiday in the Basque country morphed into a wing-flapping Raven. ‘Be afraid,’ she croaked ‘be very afraid…’
When I started this blog in January 2015 I asked readers ‘Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?’ I didn’t actually have any readers at the time, but a few friendly bookworms wrote in enthusiastically to share memories of ‘Heidi’, ‘Bunny Blue’, ‘Phantom Tollbooth’, ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, ‘Where’s Wumpus’, ‘The Faraway Tree’, ‘Little House in the Woods’…
Writing today, I’m thinking about books that marked me as an adolescent. I’d devoured ‘Jane Eyre’, shaken by the heroine’s suffering at Lowood School, thrilled by her meeting with Mr Rochester, shocked by the secret wife in the attic. Then I read ‘Wuthering Heights’. It was like undergoing an anaesthetic. I lost consciousness and emerged completely disoriented, unable to put the experience into words. It was as though there were two books in parallel, one a passionate tale of doomed love set on the Yorkshire moors, and a second, more subterranean, full of shadowy elements which I only half-intuited. (It was much later that I read that even greater shocker, with its domestic violence and desertion, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, but some of its themes would creep into my novella.)
For many born in Yorkshire’s West Riding, the Brontë legend enters our lives as naturally as the air we breathe. It’s not the most picturesque part of England, no honey-stoned thatched cottages in bucolic villages, but it has its own unique, strong personality, its culture, its ‘folk’, with their keen sense of humour, ‘independent, ready ever to resist authority which was conceived to be unjustly exercised’, as Elizabeth Gaskell* put it .Crucially, although the former mill towns were grim-looking places, they were a mere hop and a skip away up the hills to something else: the spell-binding, other-worldly landscape of the moors. It’s hard to explain the fascination of these ‘high, wild, desolate’ places, chillingly bleak in winter when ‘the four winds of heaven seemed to meet and rage together’, but which, in late summer, are transformed into ‘long swells of amethyst-tinted hills’, ‘all glorious with the purple bloom of the heather’ contrasting with ‘the tawny golden light…of summer evenings’.
Inseparable from the fascination is the haunting story of that family, who came to live in the village of Haworth in 1820: the Reverend Patrick Brontë, his wife Maria, and their six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.
The moorland landscape ‘sloping upwards beyond the parsonage’ was to become an essential part of their lives. For one of them, Emily, it was literally vital; on the rare times she was forced to leave it, she became physically ill. ‘I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home’ wrote Charlotte when the decision was taken to remove Emily from Roe Head school.
Illness and suffering were things the Brontës knew well. The list of family deaths on the memorial plaque in Haworth church is sobering: Maria Brontë, the mother,1821. The two oldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, 1825. Branwell and Emily 1848, Anne, 1849.
Charlotte, the last surviving child and the only one to marry, died nine months after her wedding day, taking her unborn child with her. The villagers, who in the June of 1854 had flocked to congratulate the bride, looking ‘like a snowdrop’ in her white muslin gown and bonnet decorated with green leaves, would return the following March ‘thronging the churchyard and the church’ to see her ‘carried forth’ to lie ‘beside her own people’.
Only the father and the husband remained.
Trying to put everything I’d like to say about the Brontës into one short(ish) blog is like Jill trying to squeeze into her Speedo in ‘Hot Basque’. There are bulges and bits hanging out. I’ve put some of them into footnotes for readers interested in knowing more. The basic facts of their story are well-known. Thousands of visitors travel to Haworth each year, visiting the moors and the museum, reading about the Dickensian childhood of the six little Brontës, their ailing mother confined to bed, their remote father working and eating alone in his study or out visiting his flock. The children were left to their own resources, with seven-year-old Maria making sure her younger siblings made no noise to disturb the invalid upstairs, taking them out for walks ‘hand in hand, towards the glorious wild moors, which in after days they loved so passionately.’ They inhabited a self-contained world, mixing rarely with others, drawing, sketching, inventing plays and fantasy worlds. Voracious readers of whatever they could lay their hands on from contemporary magazines to the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron and the novels of Sir Walter Scott, they created stories and poems of their own, their fertile imaginations fed by the written word and the ‘purple-black’ moors. Patrick Brontë observed ‘I frequently thought that I discovered signs of rising talent, which I had seldom or never before seen in any of their age.’
Three years after Mrs Brontë’s death, Maria, then Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis contracted at the school they attended. Maria’s sufferings there made a lasting impression on younger sister Charlotte, feeding her imagination for the Lowood scenes in ‘Jane Eyre’. The children were looked after by Aunt Branwell, the late Mrs Brontë’s sister, an unwilling expatriate from the tropical climes of Cornwall. There was also 53-year-old Tabby, servant, cook, confidante, story-teller, and honorary grandmother. Nine-year old Charlotte took over as eldest of the little community of four who drew together even more closely.
All would become famous, the sisters as novelists, the brother for his tragically wasted life of debauchery, alcoholism and opium addiction. But literary fame came late, after bitter struggles, keen disappointments, the exhaustion of constant ill health and persistent worry over the uncontrollable Branwell.
The sisters’ first literary venture was a collection of poems put together under the pen names of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. Failing to find a publisher, Charlotte took matters into her own hands, establishing what might be considered as the first Indie Writers’ Co-op. She managed to ‘pitch’ her idea to the firm of Aylott and Jones in 1846, proposing to meet the costs of publication herself, but giving specific details about the format. Having bought ‘a small volume from which to learn all she could on the subject of preparation for the press’, she sent her instructions: ‘one octavo volume of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth’, ‘a duodecimo form… with CLEAR type.’ If Amazon self-publishing had been around in 1846, Charlotte would have been the first client.
The little volume of poetry, though it had no commercial success, was the first step on the road to fame. It was, however, a road full of obstacles, which are sometimes forgotten today. For Charlotte, Emily and Anne, writing was as essential as breathing. But for some time, ‘an indistinct dread…was creeping over their minds’. They were living with a ‘Shadow in the house’. Branwell, that ‘boy of remarkable promise’, the former hope of the family, was entering his final decline. The sisters needed to write, needed to earn a living, in order to stay together and keep the family going.
For the next three years, until Branwell’s death, they would continue to work while witnessing the details of his descent into hell. His attacks of delirium tremens were so frightening that ‘he slept in his father’s room, and he would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before the morning.’ Patrick Brontë’s health was poor, he’d only been saved from blindness by a cataract operation, but he undertook his responsibility as a father with stoicism. The sisters, ‘sick with fright’, ‘listen(ed) for the report of a pistol in the dead of night.’
Another obstacle they faced was their sex. Like others, such as George Eliot, they felt they would be taken more seriously if they adopted ‘the sheltering shadow of an incognito’. ‘Authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice,’ wrote Charlotte. She had previously entered into correspondence with Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, sending him some of her poems. He replied in a courteous and kindly manner, praising her ‘faculty of verse’, but also, suspecting she was a woman, urging her to seriously consider ‘whether literature was, or was not, the best course for a woman to pursue’…‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’
The three were also up against literary conventions regarding subject and style. When their first novels were finally published in 1847, one reviewer commented:
‘It is not only the subject of this novel, however, that is objectionable, but the manner of treating it. There is a coarseness of tone throughout the writing of all these Bells [Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë], that puts an offensive subject in its worst point of view….’
Things only got worse when their identity was discovered, and the ‘great unknown genius’ behind ‘Jane Eyre’ turned out (shock, horror) to be a woman. Victorian political correctness stipulated that women, if they did take up the pen, should write about ‘proper’ subjects. ‘In certain instances, authoresses (have) much outstepped the line which men (feel) to be proper’ was one comment, while a fellow author confided to Charlotte: ‘You know, you and I Miss Brontë have both written naughty books’
A worthy model was to be found in ‘Miss Austen’. But the Brontës were not Miss Austen*** They came from a different world. The accusations of coarseness continued. When in 1858 ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was published, the esteemed Charles Kingsley praised it as ‘powerful and interesting’, but noted ‘the fault of the book is its coarseness’.
Charlotte suffered keenly from such criticisms of her work, or that of her sisters. She felt they were unjust and in this she was warmly defended by her biographer and friend, Mrs Gaskell. ‘(The Sisters) could not write otherwise than they did of life’ she says, noting Charlotte’s strongly-held principle concerning. ‘the duty of representing life as it really is, not as it ought to be.’ Anne was even more explicit, saying:
‘When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.’
In particular Mrs Gaskell launched into a rant against the ‘stabbing cruelty’ of an article about ‘Jane Eyre’ in The Quarterly Review of December 1848. ‘Everyone has the right to form his own conclusion respecting the merits and demerits of a book’ she says, but when an anonymous reviewer ‘desirous of writing ‘“smart articles” which shall be talked about in London’ (ouch!) starts to make conjectures about the author, she lets rip with the following:
‘Who is he that should say of an unknown woman: “She must be one who, for some sufficient reason, has long forfeited the society of her sex?” Is he one who has led a wild and struggling and isolated life–seeing few but plain and outspoken Northerners, unskilled in the euphemisms which assist the polite world to skim over the mention of vice?’
Go, Mrs G, go!
And she does, alluding to the terrible trials of the preceding years, which ended with Emily’s death in that very month, and which left Charlotte bereft***. ‘Cowardly insolence’ is her verdict on the unknown reviewer, who was by then probably skulking round the capital in a false beard and dark glasses.
Of course, it wasn’t just women writers who came under attack. Across the Channel, the great Flaubert was put on trial for offence to public morality after the publication of ‘Madame Bovary’. His scorn for society’s self-appointed ‘correct thinkers’, ‘les bien-pensants,’ is set out in deliciously satirical form in his ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’ where ‘Imbécile’ is defined as ‘ceux qui ne pensent pas comme vous’ (those who don’t think the same way you do).
‘Wuthering Heights’ received even greater censure than ‘Jane Eyre’. It ‘revolted many readers’, it was hardly respectable. Charlotte knew only too well ‘the dark side of respectable human nature’, she’d seen enough of it as a governess, as had Anne, and their own ‘dark side’ was living in the parsonage. ‘Who is without their drawback, their scourge, their skeleton behind the curtain?’ she asks. She leaped to her sister’s defence, but Emily, that ‘free, wild, untameable spirit’ was in any case ‘impervious to influence’, a creature of passions, true to herself. (Monsieur Hegel’s remark**** ‘She should have been a man’ is telling in more ways than one.) ‘A spirit more sombre than sunny’, Emily drew her inspiration from what she saw around her–‘natures so relentless and implacable…spirits so lost and fallen’, blending the rhythms of her dramas with the rhythms of the landscape she herself was so attuned to. Charlotte, in the preface to the second edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’ after the death of the sister she called ‘the nearest thing to my heart in the world’, said the book’s ‘power fills me with renewed admiration’.
‘Wuthering Heights’ is still revolting readers today. The biggest internet site in the world for readers, writers and reviewers is Goodreads. Launched in 2007, its stated mission is ‘to help people find and share books they love’. It has a staggering 65 million members, 2 million books listed, and 68 million reviews rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.
Wuthering Heights has 27,202 reviews and 1,042,590 ratings (i e number of stars awarded without giving a review). Its overall rating, combining the two, is 3.8 stars. Below is a link to an interesting review which awards the book 5 stars, describing it as ‘epic’:
but which begins with the words: ‘I understand why so many people hate this book. Catherine and Heathcliff are monstrous. Monstrous.’
When I’d finished ‘The Passage of Desire’, the Muse’s dire warnings were still ringing in my ears. The book was too personal. It was an unabashed, chauvinistic Hymn to Yorkshire. It was a blatant publicity campaign to ‘Like’ those sisters, ‘coarse and revolting’ to some, but an inspiration to many; feminists before the hour, independent, principled, who overcame suffering and prejudice to follow their vocation. My characters, frail, innocent, vulnerable creatures, had somehow got involved with them, read their books, fallen victim to moor-fever, been buffeted by the winds of fate. Wanting to protect them, had I laid them open to ‘stabbing cruelty’?
Moreover, the innumerable re-writes had given me a constant headache, indigestion, and mouse elbow. Spiders had taken up residence in the dust-covered house, the garden was full of weeds, the lavender needed cutting back. All that was left was to emigrate to Outer Mongolia.
How wonderful then to read in the first review: ‘…imbued with the dark passions of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Indeed the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism’.
Others followed, of a mixed nature. I intoned Charlotte’s words ‘Censure, though not pleasant, is often wholesome.’ But some, like the first, spoke of reactions that made me cancel the ticket to Outer Mongolia:
‘Spellbound and lost in the beauty of Long’s words, the picturesque moors and passion of the characters, transported me to another time. Her writing made melancholy feel dreamlike, passion feel like a burning fire, and friendships feel like a shady oak.’
‘If the human heart has a voice, it is certainly portrayed through the lovely words author Long has set to the page.’
‘This reminded me of reading the classics in high school and not really understanding the emotional drama of the story, then re-reading them as an adult and thinking, wow, because Long has captured that ‘WOW.’.
Those reviews were my highlights of 2017.Thank you to those who took the time and trouble to write them. Thank you again to Tina Williams, working indefatigably with her fellow-elf, Caroline Barker, to ‘help people to find and share books they love’
*Mrs Gaskell’s biography ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, 1857. Many of the quotes in the blog come from this fascinating book; which includes numerous letters written by Charlotte.
**Charlotte wasn’t a fan of Jane Austen. She wrote in a letter to G. H. Lewes ‘I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.’ However, she agreed to think about Lewes’ advice about writing in a more ‘subdued’ manner, but without making any promises since she believed that authors did their best work while under ‘an influence… which becomes their master, which will have its own way…dictating certain words…whether vehement or measured in their nature…new-moulding characters…rejecting …old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones.’ ‘Can there be a great artist without poetry?’ she asked.
*** After the death of her sisters, Charlotte suffered from acute loneliness. Writing of her solitary walks across the moors she said ‘everything reminds me of the times when others were with me… My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.’
*** ‘I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with Monsieur Heger cost me,’ wrote Charlotte. At the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger. She was there with Emily (one of the rare times that Emily managed to overcome her ‘moor-sickness’ and ‘rallied through the mere force of resolution’). Heger considered both of them to be extraordinarily gifted though ‘he seems to have rated Emily’s genius even higher than Charlotte’s’. ‘Her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty’ he said, obviously regarding such qualities as being of a ‘masculine’ nature.
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