Excavating Emily

Emily’s Ghost:
A Novel of the Bronte Sisters
Denise Giardina
W. W. Norton, 2009

Denise Giardina’s mastery of meaningful writing once more comes to bear in her latest effort, Emily’s Ghost: A Novel of the Bronte Sisters. The story she weaves is so vivid and compelling that the reader must take pains to remember that she has produced it almost whole cloth from her imagination. Though the setting is convincingly placed in Victorian era Yorkshire, this is fiction, not history.

The novel begins with Emily Brontë breaking the news to her father that she is dying of consumption. She insists this fact be kept secret in order to avoid useless treatments that would take her away from her beloved home and moors. With this opening scene, Emily’s ghost does indeed dominate the book even as we are brought back in time to follow her childhood and few adult years.

The Brontë siblings are six motherless children at the start of the novel, taking comfort in each other and in the imaginary worlds they create. Emily also takes comfort from the ghosts that visit to tell her about their earthly passions. Soon, however, the two oldest sisters die within months of each other from consumption. The remaining children are raised indulgently by their clergy father. Charlotte is an ambitious and opinionated girl who longs to rid herself of her hometown backwater. Branwell is an artist who squanders his modest talent by wallowing in drink and laudanum. Emily is absorbed by her animals and her inner world, completely ill at ease in a parlor. Anne is virtuous and industrious, taking on one governess gig after another to help with the family finances.

Enter William Weightman, Mr. Brontë’s new curate. He comes to the Yorkshire town of Haworth because of a deep spiritual calling tied to his political sympathies. He supports the Chartists, who endorse a shockingly radical platform including civil rights for non-propertied men and a secret ballot.

Although Weightman is a serious man who spends his time with the poor, he is not unaware of his charm and good looks. He enjoys catching the eye of an attractive woman, in spite of his near engagement to a woman back home. Yet, he is good-hearted and a welcome addition to the Brontë home. The rest of the novel pivots on the siblings’ unique relationships with Weightman. Each of the three sisters falls in love with him in their own ways, though only one love is requited. Branwell loves the man as much as his sisters do.

The literary ambitions of all four children are alluded to throughout the story, but the sisters’ novels are not brought into the narrative until the final pages. Instead, Giardina takes us through the social situations of the day: cholera outbreaks caused by poor sanitation, strikes against textile mill owners, women’s dependency on men, and a British war in Afghanistan. Giardina has a brilliance for educating readers about social history without hitting us over the head with it. We stay focused on the exquisite plot line and character development, and learn a little something about English history in spite of ourselves.

The only thing that marred my enjoyment of the book was a vilification of Charlotte, who is portrayed primarily as a boorish and small-minded woman.  In an author’s note, Giardina explains that the Brontë history has always belonged to Charlotte because she was the only who survived. (Branwell died a few months before Emily. Anne died not long thereafter.) So she wanted to imagine a different sort of history, one where Emily is front and center even though she is reclusive. That’s an interesting impetus, but I feel Giardina takes it a bit too far by turning the novel into a backlash against Charlotte—who was an extraordinary woman herself. Every character in the novel except Charlotte is allowed his or her faults without being portrayed as dislikable.  Patrick’s indulgence of his children has left them poorly equipped for the world, but we love him for indulging them nonetheless. Emily’s reclusiveness is not always to be admired, but we still do admire her. Even drunken Branwell is shown to be a man who would rather be a better person. Might Giardina have been able to depict Charlotte with all her flaws without turning the reader against her?

Yet Emily’s Ghost is well worth reading, and would be even if the characters possessed a different surname and never aspired to write a word.

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