The myth of the Brontë sisters, which mainly surrounds Charlotte and Emily’s childhood stories and poems, physical isolation from the rest of society, inexplicable talent for writing, and early deaths (Anne is mentioned always only briefly, having written novels that were not as popular as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), has forever inspired and mystified fans of their writing. It is especially difficult to separate Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights, from the girls’ background, with its windy moors and warm fireplaces; its vast, open landscapes and locked rooms.
As Charlotte states in her preface to the 1850 edition of her sister’s novel, “I have just read over Wuthering Heights, and … have gained a definite notion of how it appears to other people — to strangers who knew nothing of the author; who are unacquainted with the locality where the scenes of the story are laid; to whom the inhabitants, the customs, the natural characteristics of the outlying hills and hamlets in the West-Riding of Yorkshire are things alien and unfamiliar. To all such Wuthering Heights must appear a rude and strange production” (37).
Whether we presently live in “the West-Riding of Yorkshire” or not, we must all now admit that we are strangers to the Brontë sisters. Too much time has passed since they wrote. Their books will always remain, if not rude, definitely strange.
Though the myths surrounding the sisters are enticing, and the concept that we will never fully understand the novels exciting in that it allows the stories of Jane Eyre and Heathcliff to continue on forever — forever read once more, forever analyzed — the mystery which shrouds the sisters is not healthy for aspiring writers who idolize their work, like myself. (I will always prefer the fiery figure of Jane and her madwoman in the attic of Thornfield to Heathcliff’s foreign and brutal nature, though I admire them both.)
To imagine the sisters not as human beings, but as, at times, literary figures all of their own, erases any possibility for someone writing today to reach the Brontës’ level of proficiency and literary success. How can we relate to women who are more defined by myth and mystery than the real, human lives they lived? Honestly, the Brontë sisters wrote some lengthy stories and poems when they were young about the imaginary worlds of Gondal and Angria, and then, when they were older, sat down without hesitation to write some of the best novels in the history of the English language! How are we meant, as modern day readers and writers, to respond to that kind of ease of excellence? Where’s the struggle we’ve heard so much about, that we feel in ourselves each day that we write? Where’s the battle, the mental sweat as our brains throw words at a hand which then through a pen places them on a page? Where are the mistakes and the fumbles? Where is the process?
“Everybody poops,” as my old friend used to say, and the Brontë sisters were no exception. Perhaps if we imagine them doing something as opposing to their Victorian lifestyle as squatting over a stained porta-potty we can begin to view them as humans instead of gods. “I poop too!” we can reassure ourselves, and plunge back into our writing with renewed confidence, thanks to the normalcy of our bowels.
But, besides sideways jokes about the process of digestion, we can glimpse, here and there, the Brontës’ “brushstrokes” — as they’re often called — exactly where we would expect to find them: in the stories and poems they wrote when they were young. The introduction to my version of Wuthering Heights, written by David Daiches, involuntarily points out that Emily’s juvenile tales of Gondal may have been practice for her eventual novel:
“A comparison of incidents and characters in Wuthering Heights with certain incidents and characters in the Gondal epic as revealed by the Gondal poems reinforces the impression that the author is frequently concerned with the forces of physical sexual passion considered as transcending all human conventions and tending to disrupt all normal morality. Passion, crime, loss, grief; Byronism and satanism; curious confusions and transposition of roles between a dark boy and a fair girl — these run through the Gondal poems, and show an imagination feeding quite wantonly on images of extremes of passion” (27).
Though Daiches, in this portion of the introduction, is arguing a different point altogether, he touches on a very intriguing concept: that Wuthering Heights was not a one-off which Emily magically produced after deciding suddenly she would like to publish a novel, but rather that its themes and tones, even some of its characters, had been carefully practiced, no matter how unconsciously or involuntarily, in her childhood works. Emily Brontë had written the story of Wuthering Heights before, in a hundred different ways, but hadn’t, until she had grown, written in perfectly, bang on, and sent it off for publication.
Another massive clue into how the sisters managed their writing lives is found in Charlotte’s “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” (Ellis and Acton being the male pseudonyms for Emily and Anne). Charlotte says plainly, after explaining that the sisters’ collection of poetry had been published unnoticed, that “ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued” (32).
This simple and matter-of-fact statement presents not only the sisters’ steady attitude toward their writing, but also the opinion which we should all have toward our own objects of creation. The mere effort to write, or pursue any other creative endeavour, is noble even without success. What more do we want than that “wonderful zest to existence” of which Charlotte speaks? After all, Charlotte was the only one out of the sisters who lived long enough to enjoy success, and still they each wrote. Still Emily wondered about characters like Heathcliff and Catherine, and still she imagined what the moors would look like in sunlight with flowers, or in winter, or in storms.
We will all be as godly as the Brontë sisters if we can honestly and easily say, “Ill-success failed to crush us. Still we write, still we write.”
Still we write.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Penguins Books Ltd, 1965. Print.