Emily Brontë She burned too bright for this world

In Lauren Livesey’s presentation showing the work of the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth, the museum dedicated to preserving the Brontë name, I learned more about Emily and her sisters, in a few short hours than ever before. Entertaining, detailed, wholly accessible, with a lightness of touch, she had mine and the rest of the audience’s undivided attention.

Lauren Livesey Brontë Society and Bonnie Greer inside Hull Library Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Before we begin uncovering who Emily was and grounding her in her native Yorkshire – as festival co-curator Bonnie Greer said she ought be – a little about today’s guest.

Lauren Livesey was given a copy of Wuthering Heights aged 6 by her father – a little young perhaps to understand the intense and destructive passions of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff – she returned to the book some years later and by aged 14 had read all the Brontës’ novels. With her love of literature firmly rooted, Lauren joined the museum as an intern, later working as Collections Manager. Now as Audience Development Officer for the Brontë Society, Lauren is responsible for delivering events and exhibitions, working with artists and writers exploring and promoting the legacy of the Brontës.

Recently Lauren has worked with poet Patience Agbabi (Brontë Society writer in residence) and poet Simon Armitage (bi-centenary of Branwell Brontë in 2017) also The Unthanks, the North East folk band putting Emily’s poetry to music, and Lily Cole whose short film Balls looking at Heathcliff’s foundling origins, premiered at the festival in Hull.

There is a deep fascination, particularly from the Far East, surrounding these three clergyman’s daughters who were just at home reading Byron and Shelley, as they were the bible. Apparently the Chinese relate strongly to the self-improvement narrative found in Jane Eyre and the Japanese just adore Wuthering Heights. Not for the first time this week Bonnie Greer makes connections between Wuthering Heights and the innovative work of film director Akira Kurosawa.

Addressing the audience Bonnie asks, ‘Who here is an Emily Person?’ Not really knowing how to respond and finding Emily being confused with Cathy while a picture of Kate Bush swirled around in my head – she was my window into the Wuthering Heights book – I do not raise my hand. Others in the room speak about connecting with Emily’s inner strength, her anger, her defiance, her affiliation with nature, her wildness: her three dimensional female characters.

Talking about the continuing appeal of Wuthering Heights, Lauren explained that every time she rereads the novel – which she does about every 18 months – she finds something new in it. It can have a Marxist reading, an exploration of the social and economic conditions of 18th Century Yorkshire; it can be seen as a feminist parable; even as the revenge of an African slave and a meditation on empire. “All these readings can be held by this single remarkable book,” she assures the audience.

Lauren recalls a particularly resonant moment in the book, a moment familiar to anybody who has ever been in love, the moment when Cathy says ‘I am Heathcliff’ the moment that conveys her almost symbiotic view of herself and Heathcliff as existing as one person. And how she then uses that same idea, of Heathcliff being part of her, to justify marrying Edgar.    

But what about Emily? ‘Emily is seen as an enigma,’ Lauren says, ‘She doesn’t want to be pinned down.’ Readers often feel an affiliation with her, seeing something of themselves in her.

‘Emily Brontë wrote one amazing novel, some poems and stories and a few brusque letters,’ says Lauren introducing her slideshow presentation featuring treasures from the museum’s collection including: diary fragments; one of the few surviving images of Emily; hair jewellery  – bracelets and adornments woven from strands of Emily’s hair and a number of accomplished sketches and paintings by Emily.

There’s one of her dog Keeper a Bull Mastiff, there follows a tale about Emily beating the dog soundly after finding him on her bed. Emily, someone who is supposedly an animal lover, so attuned with nature, wounding him so and then carefully, lovingly bathing the creatures wounds. There’s a similar contradiction in the idea of Emily as a free spirit, yet keeping a young hawk Nero -found with a broken wing – prisoner in a cage.

These two fragments of her story sit in conflict with accepted versions or visions of Emily. Something else I found surprising was learning that rather than being the wispy unworldly figure as she is oft thought, Emily was actually in control of the family finances, in charge of business investments and the like. She spent a year on the continent in Brussels as a pupil/teacher in the Pensionnat Heger with sister Charlotte. However Lauren describes Emily as ‘wilting visibly’ whenever she is away from her beloved Haworth. There it is again, that perhaps unnatural connection and relationship to the wild landscape of the moors.

Homesickness might well be quite common when one is sent away for the first time, but consider the fact Emily’s mother Maria Branwell died in 1821, just three years after Emily was born. Emily also lost two other sisters who died in childhood. There could well have been an abject mortal fear lodged inside Emily, which resulted in some physical manifestation. Whilst parted from the family home, someone else could so easily die.

Also in the museum’s collection is a little stool which Emily, would take on to the moors with her to sit upon and write. The sisters Emily, Charlotte and Anne published at their own expense – nothing if not enterprising – an anthology of their verse Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Lauren suggests that they chose to publish under pseudonyms, because they believed that the poems would be judged differently if they were known to be authored by women.

A justified move by the Brontë women when you look at the argument put forward by some commentators, the claim that Branwell the sisters’ brother, must have written Wuthering Heights.  Likewise when Jane Eyre was published by Charlotte under the name Currer Bell people were left asking the question, who is Currer Bell – they can’t be a woman it’s just too good. Emily’s poetry in the book was described as having a ‘peculiar music’ but despite being critically well received, the Brontë anthology of poems, was not a commercial success selling just two copies.

Each sister – there is another school of thought that has Charlotte as the only writer in the family – would go on to publish novels many of which including Jayne Eyre, Villette, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emma et al would in time come to be revered as classics. Sadly Wuthering Heights, Emily’s one and only novel, published anonymously in 1847 was not a commercial success. Emily died like her mother of suspected tuberculosis just one year later. With heartbreaking finality Lauren explains how Emily goes to her grave, herself an unknown, and not knowing that her book would come to be so loved.

Emily Brontë diary fragment Picture Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

So very little remains of Emily’s actual writings, scholars have to piece Emily together from fragments: old letters written by others; from the Elizabeth Gaskell biography of Charlotte – thought to have skewed the understanding of the Brontë family life and the surviving poems in the first collection. Some works attributed to Emily were later revised with stanzas altered and added by her sister Charlotte, trying to counter the ‘coarseness’ label, levelled at her departed sister’s work.

Writing about Emily’s steadfast refusal for medical intervention during the year leading up to her death Charlotte Brontë curiously describes Emily as, ‘Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.’

A very insightful presentation by Lauren Livesey with much to intrigue an audience, not just Brontë devotees but anyone with an interest in literature and storytelling. This and the other Brontë events have prompted plans for my own visit to the Parsonage, later this month and for many others to dig out and reread Emily’s stark dangerous psychological drama.

I am left yet more intrigued by the diary fragment owned by the museum where Emily has written some banal thing about a servant doing chores in the kitchen that day then, in the same breath, she is writing about Queen Almeda in Gondal, the mythical fantasy world created by her and Anne. How these two exist side by side on the same page thrills me.

And then a sharp intake of breath upon seeing the ten year old Emily’s drawing of a Georgian window, in which I glimpse the faded ghostly image of a hand reaching through the broken pane…

Brontë Society Brontë Parsonage Museum