Review: Emily Brontë: Heretic (Stevie Davies)

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(Illustration by Rovina Cai, for The Folio Society’s edition of Wuthering Heights)

I’m no English literature student, and I don’t really know how to review this book. But I do know that I really enjoyed reading it; on nearly every page there was a turn of phrase to make me fall in love with it again and again. I might not agree with every word that Davies writes (well, wrote in the early nineties; this book was published in 1994), but she writes them all passionately, persuasively, and engagingly.

This book is part literary analysis of Wuthering Heights and Emily’s poetry, and part biography. Both elements seem successful to me; her Lacanian reading of identity in Wuthering Heights only lost me at the analysis of shared letters in the names used in the novel (but the analysis of personal names is something that’s been badly misused by scholars in my field, so I’m skeptical whenever I come across it). For the most part, Davies is appropriately cautious when offering up suggestions regarding Emily’s sexuality, or her experience of masturbation. She willingly admits to a lack of proof, but carries the reader along with talk of her own intuition; it’s not an approach you’d get away with in a strictly academic book, perhaps, but it’s a very small part of her overall argument in Heretic. On Davies’ side is not only the striking language of the poem ‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’, but the hypocrisy of generations of male scholars who have dismissed the visions of religious women as the by-products of sexual (self-)pleasure, but who view the same language as ‘religious visionary’ when it appears in poems such as ‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’.

One of the most refreshing and successful aspects of the book is the way that Davies places Emily in her historical context, scrubbing her clean of the romantic, patronising idea that she was simply a ‘natural genius’ who’d read a few Gothic novels. She refers to Charlotte’s assertion that ‘Ellis Bell’ might have been a provocative essayist and philosopher, and highlights the modernity of Emily’s attitudes towards the natural world, human nature and Christianity. This is aided by the publication, for the first time, of two essays she wrote when in Belgium: Le Chat and Le Papillon. When, towards the close of the book, Davies prints an analysis of one of Emily’s last Gondal poems, concerning a mercenary who reflects with disgust on the nature of civil war (written and reworked as revolution struck France again), it is astonishing to read that others have viewed her as apolitical, disengaged from history, and burnt-out and absent of new ideas at this point of her life.

Davies also provides a sharp antidote to the romanticised ideas surrounding Emily’s death, particularly that she wanted to die, her productivity exhausted. The Emily that Davies characterises is a doer: constantly busy around the house, impatient with inactivity. She is equally impatient with illness, and the refusal to see a doctor is ascribed to her natural stubbornness and pride, and to the roughness with which she’s seen treating everyone from Héger, the Belgian professor, to her beloved dog.

It becomes clear through the book that Davies holds Charlotte — and the family associates whose accounts emerged to feed a growing curiosity about the house of literary siblings — responsible for a good deal of the softening and romanticising of Emily Brontë’s legacy. Just as Davies is quite happy for us to see Emily at her most brutal, undignified and unpleasant (a ‘gurt bellaring bull’ as Branwell calls her, mid-tantrum), so she is content to expose Charlotte as a conservative, evangelical Tory, who hated revolution, thought the poor should know their place, and was horrified by her sister’s perfectly lucid, but radical, heretical thinking. I’ll admit to feeling a little sorry for Charlotte, given her portrayal in this book; Davies sticks faithfully to her subject, so that the nuance she brings to Emily’s less pleasant traits is not made available in her representation of Charlotte. I’d love to read Davies’ full take on the other Brontë sisters.

This nuance is carried over to the analysis of Wuthering Heights, however, where the ‘heresy’ that Davies detects in Emily’s thinking emerges in the shared religion of Heathcliff and Cathy, who worship only each other, with an unthinking necessity that leaves no room in their lives for the Church, represented in the book only by Joseph, and the abandoned ruin of a chapel on the moors. Davies contextualises the cruelty of the characters within the natural world: Emily saw the survival techniques of birds and animals and tadpoles on the moors, and she accepted its necessity. She was not so lenient on mankind, though, wrestling again and again with the standards of praise assigned to human cruelty and animal nature. Her portrayal of Heathcliff wasn’t the accidental byproduct of a fevered artistic imagination, but a precise study of humankind, as finely controlled by the author as the ‘wild’ Heathcliff controls his ambitions over his vengeance on Hindley.

Although Davies asserts again at the close of the book that Emily was ‘not nice, but proud, discourteous and misanthropic’, her admiration is undimmed by this. Davies highlights Emily’s stubborn individuality, the way she carved out a domestic space in which she could be practical, but undisturbed by others’ demands, the contradictions and frustrated discussions with herself that emerge in her poetry. She made me want to go and re-read a lot of that Gondal poetry that I’d previously just skimmed over, lacking the context for the names in the titles. She certainly made me want to re-read Wuthering Heights. In that, her book does Emily Brontë justice, opening up depths and angles on her thinking that I look forward to bringing to my next reading of her works.

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Review: Rebel Rising (Beth Revis)

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Spoilers for Rogue One as well as Rebel Rising throughout this review.

I want to be fair to this YA story about Jyn Erso’s youth, but I’m finding it really hard. Rogue One ensured that I was the Star Wars EU’s bitch again, for life, because having killed off all these new characters who I already adored, the marketing teams knew I’d be slavering for any tidbits they’d throw my way. So I was obviously eager for the YA novel about Jyn, the kids’ book about Chirrut and Baze, and the forthcoming graphic novel about Cassian and K-2S0, all meant to give the starving fans of the died-too-soon a little more information about their faves. But I’ve been trying to keep realistic expectations about how far these might deviate from my own ideas about these characters and their pasts. And realistic expectations about how much a franchise with a drafted-in author will have thought about characterisation in the way that I, a PhD graduate in the field of literature, who’s been voraciously reading and writing fanfic again, will have thought about it. Unfortunately, Rebel Rising disappointed even those expectations.

Let me get two particularly petty points off my chest first:

  1. Devaronians don’t have furry arms!
  2. Why would Zohrada call Jyn ‘Jyn’ just before she dies, not ‘Liana’?

These petty points are to remind me that no one who proof-read this cares as much about the Star Wars universe as the fans themselves, so, assuming this book is intended as a gateway to the EU for new, young female fans, I need to try and be fair. And possibly just to stick to reading fanfiction.

Most of Rebel Rising focusses on Jyn’s time with Saw, with another large chunk of it given over to a year she spends on the planet Skuhl. Jyn’s real wandering years — 18–21 — are skipped over in a couple of paragraphs near the end. This means that Revis (none of whose novels I’ve read before, and none of which seem to be part of the Star Wars franchise) can focus on a young Jyn, still hopeful, and try to explain her loss of trust and hope in the galaxy. It also gives a lot of time to Saw, who sounds nothing like the Saw Gerrera of Rogue One in this novel, so perhaps he’s more like the Saw we meet in Clone Wars? I’ve not yet caught up on the animated series. But this Saw is bemused and somewhat under-prepared for the introduction of an eight-year-old girl to his (literal) man cave on Wrea. Saw Gerrera, the Saw Gerrera, who’s been nursing an ever-growing hatred and paranoia since his sister’s death, and he didn’t have a plan for the eventuality that he’d get Jyn off Lah’mu, but neither of her parents? Who didn’t bother to say to Jyn before anything else, before anyone else arrived on Wrea: ‘your name isn’t safe anymore. Here’s what we’re going to tell everyone else about who you are and why you’re here.’ Frankly, the Saw Gerrera in Revis’ novel deserved his betrayal by Reese, Dudebro Extraordinaire, whose Villainy(TM) and Loose Morals were evident from the first time we met him.

There are so many details in the plotting that made no sense to me. Why leave Jyn on Tamsye Prime?? It’s crawling with Imperials and has a munitions factory being bombarded by star destroyers. It has a population based on indentured servitude so (MOTHERFUCKER AS I TYPED THIS I REALISED SOMETHING*) so has way more people than ships to get the people off-planet. It seems like an unnecessary gamble to leave the girl you’re trying to keep hidden from the Empire right there in the thick of things; it’s not like it takes the next people Jyn meets long to figure out that’s where she’s fled from, after all.

Oh god, I’m going to have to talk about those people, aren’t I?

It’s not enough, apparently, for Jyn to have lost her parents and Saw: third time’s the charm! So Revis gives her an idyllic year on Skuhl, living with Akshaya and Hadder Ponta. The former is the archetypal mother figure: over-protective, huggy, and very caring. The latter is the strangest seventeen-year-old boy I’ve ever heard of: polite to his mother, an excellent cook, seemingly unemployed for a whole year after he’s finished school. He’s so sweet he even gives Jyn a cute little rodent to pet after they have sex in a field.

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Is this kind of barftastic romance a thing that needs to happen in YA novels? I mean, I’m glad Hadder’s a nice person (and explicitly described as not white — the representation in this novel is actually great, even if nothing else is), and I guess I’ll take it on faith that some seventeen-year-old boys in the galaxy are that nice, but did Jyn’s life of grief and loss really have to be redefined all over again by another male?

She goes from seeking Saw’s approval, and viewing him as a heroic figure, to seeing great things in Hadder’s future. What did she see in her future? Was it really just settling down and being homely on Skuhl?

I think Rebel Rising suffers greatly from one major problem: no one laid out what this story is meant to be for.

Rebel Rising needed to take us to meet the Jyn Erso of Rogue One, to show us how she became what she is. Code-breaking and hacking don’t feature in the story of that Jyn Erso at all; nothing in Rogue One relies on her forgery skills. What she does in Rogue One, is somehow light up a room so that people will follow her into certain death (look, if you didn’t get this from the movie you’ll have to take my word for it; plus it’s spelled out in the Freed novelisation). Her skills are in combat and leadership, even if the latter barely gets fully realised before she dies.

Although her combat skills feature in Rebel Rising, and they’re some of the most satisfying scenes, she’s largely kept from doing anything too unpleasant by being assigned the hacker girl role. Cue lots of looking to the men for affirmation. Ugh. Additionally, because she’s made into a works-alone hacker, we never really see her take on a leadership role. A prime example Revis could have used is the previously canonical story of how Jyn actually got arrested: trying to steal weapons and destroy a dictator’s ship on Corulag. It’s all there on Wookieepedia; fandom’s been drawing on it for months for their fics. But Revis chooses to throw that out, squeezing Jyn once more between the Rebels and the Empire, forcing her into a betrayal whilst also conveniently implying that she might have come round and joined the Rebellion herself, left to her own devices.

Revis’ characterisation of Jyn’s dislike of the Rebellion is heavy-handed, and all ultimately comes back to the deaths of Hadder and Akshaya, which may, or may not, have been the fault of the Rebels. I’ve seen Jyn’s professed dislike of the Rebellion in the movie (her scene with Saw, and her argument with Cassian) used as a stick with which to beat her in bits of fandom: oh she’s apolitical, she doesn’t care, she’s only doing this for her father. Although Revis tries to maintain nuance — Jyn does The Right Thing(TM) with the slavers — in trying to make Jyn too nice, too likeable a person, she doesn’t do her any favours. Jyn never really does anything wrong, she doesn’t make any mistakes, she’s not cruel or sharp in the way that she’s become by Rogue One — in the scenes with Saw and Cassian I read it as a case of her saying what she thinks will hurt them most, rather than saying what she genuinely thinks or believes.

I don’t know about you, but as a seventeen-year-old, with access only to the nightlife of Hull, let alone a whole galaxy of troubles, I was able to make quite a lot of mistakes. Also, having grown up in a remote bit of countryside, I can tell you that in the days before the internet you could get a bit weird over long summer holidays playing on your own — let alone spending three years on a remote planet with only your parents for company, then living in a cave that was occupied only by an old, paranoid partisan for 75% of the time. Basically, Revis’ Jyn is far too well-adjusted for me to believe in her.

Ok, it’s a YA novel, we don’t want to make it too dark. But, representation aside, couldn’t we have had something a bit more imaginative? I’d have told Jyn’s story completely differently to this. I know a lot of other fic writers who would have. In fact I could name at least half a dozen whose versions of Jyn’s backstory I’d rather have seen. I’ve written in blogs here before about how, as a medievalist, you get used to multiple versions of a tale existing. You learn to embrace the variants, the different interpretations. But you’ll still have versions you prefer.

For now, I’m keeping my headcanons, and discarding Rebel Rising.

* What occurred to me as I typed that: Revis is implying Cassian is the boy from Tamsye Prime. No, this makes no sense in canon, nor does much else about this novel. But he supposedly reminds Jyn of someone she can’t place when she’s in the command centre on Yavin 4, and there’s no one else in Rebel Rising this could be referring to.

Review: Wonder Woman (cinema)

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First of the new DC-verse movies I’ve seen! Largely, I went because of the argument that is now defunct, given Wonder Woman‘s box office performance: I’m sick of conversations about how successful female-directed, female-led superhero movies need to be to be considered a ‘success’. Plenty of people went to see all the other new DC movies because they liked Batman, or Superman. I went to see Wonder Woman because it’s a female-led, female-directed superhero movie. So, obviously I don’t want to write anything incorrect from a point of clear ignorance, but nor do I feel I should need to look things up in order to make sense of what should work fine as a stand-alone movie.

The lack of enthusiasm in the above paragraph may have warned you that what follows might not be a popular opinion, given the internet’s adoration of the movie (well, the section of the internet I frequent, anyway). That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I loved probably two-thirds of it. But it all kind of went to shit somewhere between Diana and Steve’s slow-dance and The Obligatory Bit Where Everything Explodes.

I’ll admit to shivers and glossy eyes in the opening scenes set in Themiscyra: no doubt, had I seen this film at age ten or so, I’d have been shadow-boxing along with young Diana, and on my weekend horse-rides, I’d have been imagining that no BSA-approved inches-thick riding helmet came between my flowing hair and the winds of freedom. Genuinely, even as a thirty-year-old, I’d be very tempted to chuck everything else in for a life on Themiscyra anyway. With Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen in charge, who wouldn’t? I liked Hippolyta’s unyielding flexibility: say no repeatedly, then agree when it’s obvious it’s going to happen anyway. Why force Diana to leave home with a sour taste in her mouth? It was a refreshing moment, at least.

Though I could have done without the Amazons’ insistence on trying to copy Gal Gadot’s accent. If they all speak all the languages, couldn’t the actresses have just spoken with their usual voices? Ah well, it’s Hollywood multiculturalism; despite Ze German Accents making frequent appearances (I hope Steve Trevor’s German is better than Chris Pine’s German accent), we did get to enjoy Diana and Sameer’s whip-smart ripostes in any number of global languages. Though after that scene, Sameer’s linguistic abilities did seem to collapse into repeated exclamations of ‘voilá!’ that’s still pretty French I guess.

I’ll admit that I had to look up Sameer’s name, though he was the most fleshed-out of the side-characters (arguably including Steve Trevor). Throughout the movie, I found myself wondering: what’s up with the characterisation? Why can’t I get into these peoples’ story the way I could — and so many others seemingly couldn’t — in the case of Rogue One? Again we have a rag-tag ensemble of people from different backgrounds who haven’t been able to live the lives they wanted to live because of oppression and war. Many of the meetings occur for the first time; you can perfectly well tell, rather than show their backgrounds in this instance. But it was only Sameer’s comments on how he’d hoped to be an actor that really offered a peg for me to hook my imagination on to; Chief’s peoples’ oppression in the States gives him a backdrop, but not an individual story. Spud from Trainspotting (…Charlie?) had a story that was more trope than character, and his miraculous recovery from shell shock felt a little trite in hindsight, though I enjoyed it on the initial viewing.

Steve Trevor. Steve, Steve, Steve. Maybe I’m missing something, Steve. But with the promise that he ‘tried doing nothing, and that didn’t work’, I thought we’d learn more about his background, yet we never did. He was a solid sort of guy, the usual spy with a conscience, and I was finally won round at the moment he grabbed the lasso and wrapped it round his own wrist to admit that the mission was happening anyway and it was a terrible idea and they were probably going to die. But I wasn’t really feeling the romance between him and Diana. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough to be invested, and the movie didn’t explain — for me, at least — what Diana saw there in particular. Maybe it was just because Chris Pine is ‘above average.’ SPOILERS Of course, plenty of male action heroes and superheroes have their angsty yell of motivation when the benign love-interest dies, but I find those moments just as implausible as Diana’s own cry of pain. /SPOILERS

Gal Gadot’s Diana was certainly one of the best things in the movie. Despite her lack of knowledge of the world of men, and her still growing powers, she’s not quite any of the tropes you can apply to The Fifth Element‘s Leeloo — though maybe comes close to Phlebotinum Girl? — because, as applauded by plenty before me, she’s the hero of her own movie, and isn’t ever framed by the male gaze.Her naïveté is toyed with, but never undermines herastuteness. In the first two-thirds I hope she’ll be the hero on which plenty of young girls pin their ambitions; she’s blunt and passionate and incredibly powerful. When she crosses No Man’s Land it’s an effective bit of fantasy: this space could not be crossed without someone strong enough to draw all the fire. She’s there to do that, and it’s all the opportunity the other Allies need.

But the setting does not work so well in the rest of the movie. The ensuing scene in the village is more Saving Private Ryan than Wilfred Owen, right down to the snipers and sticky bombs (I’m trying to think of towns in WW1 settings; the French girls in All Quiet on the Western Front are an escape, like Paris for characters in Birdsong and Journey’s End [if I recall my A level synoptics correctly], and The Wipers Times has the necessary capture and defence of the press, but I don’t remember the town having a fully fledged cutsey Belgian society just waiting to pop out and dance once the fighting stops). The Germans are nasty proto-Nazis who don’t even pause to blink in astonishment at the sight of leather-clad women abseiling from shining white cliffs, wielding fiery arrows, where before there had been only grey fog and dark seas. That horrific gas developed by Dr Poison, crueller than any of the chemical weapons actually used indiscriminately in WW1, doesn’t even tickle our heroine’s lungs, and even Steve suffers no more than a delicate cough so long as he doesn’t enter the cloud for long. He Judges, who had a relative killed by gas in WW1, felt that a lot of this was actively disrespectful; I wouldn’t go so far, but WW1 is such a large part of the UK education system still that it meant I nitpicked at elements of the setting that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

SPOILERS And of course, when we come to the big finale, the ‘alternate’ part of this ‘alternate history’ setting really came to the fore. The battle with Ludendorff was satisfying, and justified the super-steroid he’d been snorting, in that it allowed Diana to believe she was really fighting Ares. Then Ares turned out to be David Thewlis. Sorry, I mean Ares turned out to be an actual plot point. Disappointing. But I went ‘ok, I guess, if we’re doing this we know she can’t kill him, because WW2 is right around the corner, right?’ Uh, wrong?

But how does Diana explain the Holocaust? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? All the other genocides and atrocities of the twentieth century? Her closing monologue speaks of the good and the bad in all humanity, but it’s already been completely undercut by the fact that she’d placed all hope of ending war in the destruction of the God of War, who she duly turned into a giant, smoking crater. German boys look up in astonishment and hug the Chief; everyone is happy, either because David Thewlis is dead, or because Ludendorff is dead, or because Steve blew up all the nasty gas (won’t it still be in the atmosphere? What if it bonds with water molecules?), or maybe because Diana didn’t kill Maru, she just casually dropped a tank on her… (an accident of editing, I’m sure)

The potential for something more interesting lay abandoned beneath the CGI: as Diana and Ares fought their pointless, divine battle, the humans scurried around getting stuff done. Not, perhaps, the best way to boost your superheroine’s connection with mankind at the climax of the action… /SPOILERS

Look – I’ll make the same kind of complaints when I watch Captain America: The First Avenger. The vast majority of that movie is three montages stitched together (Steve training, Steve on tour, Steve fighting Nazis), and HISHE mocked the ending far better than I could. That doesn’t mean that Wonder Woman shouldn’t be held to account for its own problems. Though personally, I blame the men: story by Zac Snyder, script by Allan Heinberg. You can shoot it however you want, you can act it as well as you like, but the plot holes will still be there.

Ah, but it did look gorgeous. Best use of bullet time since The Matrix itself. And Diana is the doe-eyed warrior of my heart. Dr Poison was underused, and I didn’t even get round to talking about it here, and I’d have loved more of Sameer and Etta and the others. There was a lot that the movie wanted to cram in, and depth was always going to be lost to breadth. It’s not the balance I’d have plumped for, and not the ending I’d have chosen, but I’m glad so many people are getting so much joy from it, and I’m looking forward to the other superheroine movies it will hopefully inspire.