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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