A few days ago I began writing this piece about Emily Brontë’s status as the so-called “other Brontë”, intending to post it in time for her 200th birthday on 30th July. However, the day after I began drafting the piece, an article entitled “The strange cult of Emily Brontë and the ‘hot mess’ of Wuthering Heights” written by Kathryn Hughes for The Guardian appeared and addressed the same issue, but rather than asking questions, the article made massive and derogatory assumptions about everything from Emily herself to Wuthering Heights, Brontë fans, and female academics in addition to a very strange comparison between Brontë and American poet Sylvia Plath. Even several days later, I’m not really sure what the point of Hughes’ article was other than to attack a beloved author in the run up to the celebration of her bicentenary.
The reaction to Hughes’ article was phenomenal; the internet exploded, Emily devotees leapt to her defence, people were angry and insulted, some amused, and Wuthering Heights was trending. I know that a lot of academics and scholars are planning a response/counter attack to the article and theirs will probably be much more eloquent than mine. This post is a combination of my original piece which set out to examine Emily’s reputation as “the other Brontë” and my own response to Hughes’ article.
It isn’t my intention to personally attack Hughes for her stance; indeed it seems that not everyone is a Brontë fan (who knew?), Hughes has her supporters, and I firmly believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Just because a book is old and considered a “classic” doesn’t mean people have to like it. The opinions I express on Brontë Babe Blog are my own and I would hate to be attacked for them on a personal level, and I know too well that people have disagreed with some of my posts celebrating Branwell Brontë in particular. However, the tone of The Guardian article was strange and the piece read like a rant against an author and a family responsible for literature that Hughes didn’t enjoy and she’s very very angry about that. I actually found the piece extremely funny, perhaps because of the absence of a real argument on Hughes’ part other than that she doesn’t like the Brontës and Wuthering Heights and she thinks the world needs to know how much of a misfit Emily was.
But does this even matter? What does it matter to lovers of literature, great writing, and art whether Emily Brontë was a misfit in society? It shouldn’t and it doesn’t. In a previous post I argued that the beauty and power of Branwell’s work lies buried underneath his reputation as “the other Brontë” and that his vices have eclipsed his talent over the years. I would hate to see Emily’s reputation go the same way; even if she was different and difficult, why does this matter to readers? I won’t quote directly from The Guardian article but Hughes suggests that Emily is the patron saint of so-called difficult women and that her admirers are a cult of women who have pushed men to the sidelines regarding the cultural and critical exploration of Wuthering Heights. In doing so, Hughes characterises all female admirers of Emily’s work as fellow difficult women and freaks of nature with some kind of grudge against men. In doing so, she herself creates the idea of a cult, and her sexist undertones also suggest to my mind a coven. And being labelled as a witch is historically not seen as a positive thing unless you happen to be Sabrina Spellman.
Why can’t artists be remembered for their art rather than their personal lives? Can we ever separate the author from their words? Yes, there are difficult women in the world (I can be one of them – just ask my boyfriend), but there are also difficult men (like my ex-boyfriend), heck, there are even difficult animals (you try to get my dog to grasp the meaning of the word “no”). Regardless of whether Emily was difficult, demanding, different, or all three, it has absolutely nothing to do with Wuthering Heights which is a masterpiece in the eyes of many. Hughes claims that she is not in the minority as a hater of Emily’s novel, however, the only critical sources she cites are the first batch of reviews from 1847. Yes, 1847. It’s as if nobody has written about Wuthering Heights between 1847 and 2018. However, times change, opinions change, and I must point out that the initial reviews were actually mixed rather than negative. Time has been kind to Emily’s novel, but there are countless examples of art and literature that were neglected, unappreciated, and misunderstood in the artist’s lifetime such as the works of Vincent Van Gogh, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Edgar Allen Poe. Emily Brontë is in good company and actually fared better in her lifetime with regards to publication and recognition (even if disguised as Ellis Bell).
Hughes’ assertion that Wuthering Heights is a hot mess is both amusing and perplexing. It’s amusing to hear this very informal 21st century term applied to Emily’s work, and it is perplexing because I feel that Hughes has rather missed the point of the Gothic novel. Her view of another Gothic novel, Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece Jane Eyre, is evident (she doesn’t like it), but I’d love to know what she makes of the likes of The Mysteries of Udolpho or Frankenstein (perhaps they are too far-fetched and noisy). I also wonder if she’d ever describe a male writer’s work, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the poetry of Keats, Coleridge, and Percy Shelley, as a hot mess.
Hughes’ sole intention seems to be to tear down Emily Brontë and attack her reputation and work on the basis that she was not passive, meek, or mild, qualities that have arguably contributed to the status of Emily’s sister Anne as “the other Brontë”. If one sister is wild, difficult, and demanding, and the other is the complete opposite, how can they both be considered to be “the other Brontë?” As I stated above, times and opinions change, and consequently so do the posthumous reputations of authors and artists. It seems that at one time or another, all four surviving Brontë siblings have been portrayed as “the other” and the misfit in both society and their own family. But is this fair? And more importantly, is this damaging?
A few months ago I wrote a post entitled The Other Brontë: Anne, Agnes, and Me where I explored Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey, it’s status as the overlooked and forgotten Brontë novel, and Anne’s own status as “the other Brontë”. In the post I explored the reasons for overlooking both Anne and Agnes, concluding that for me personally, although Agnes Grey has a lot of potential, it is not on the same level as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is historically seen as too radical, but it is in good company with Charlotte’s The Professor, a novel which also is not quite the thing. This led to Anne herself being overlooked, particularly when surrounded by the wild and enigmatic figure of Emily, the driven and determined Charlotte, and the lively, larger than life force that was Branwell. Perhaps Anne was labelled as “the other Brontë” simply because she was too normal to fit into the Brontë mythology woven by Charlotte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and countless critics and biographers over the years. Anne’s reputation as the quiet, sensible Brontë has traditionally meant that she hasn’t commanded the same kind of attention as her siblings; in short, she wasn’t seen as remarkable enough, and like Branwell, her work has been neglected, but unlike Branwell, her personal life hasn’t traditionally taken away the focus on her writing, and so Anne truly did become the outsider in the family mythology. To say that Anne is unremarkable though would be a lie. Her life (and death) is a tale of courage, determination, and a willingness to face up to the reality of her situation.
Fortunately, there has been a huge shift in Anne’s popularity in recent decades, although her reputation is still unfortunately a little in the shadows of her sisters, there are so many people out there who adore her works, publicly champion her writing, run websites dedicated to her, and also take the time and effort to maintain her beautiful grave in Scarborough. In short, there is a lot of love for Anne. She is somehow seen as the underdog, the youngest, frailest, but the most level-headed, quietly determined, and courageous of the siblings. If Anne ever was “the other Brontë” then this is no longer the case but I can’t believe that in 2018 we’re still waiting to see Agnes Grey on screen.
However, if there is one Brontë who can be considered as “the other Brontë”, then surely it is Branwell. His failure to achieve the kind of literary success his sisters enjoyed, his failure to find a profession, his failure to keep hold of a steady job, and of course, his failure to resist temptation and vice marks him out as the other within the family. Branwell is a Brontë tarnished by failure, and yet, he actually wasn’t the failure and disgrace history has portrayed him as. In a recent post in honour of Branwell’s birthday, Is Weary Branwell At Rest? Shedding Light on the Brontë Boy I attempted to right a few wrongs by exploring Branwell’s literary success, his status as the first published Brontë, and his desire to function in wider society even if it did ultimately contribute to his addictions and downfall. Despite his vices, Branwell was not “the other” in society; he had a group of friends and associates outside of the family, and he held down several jobs. Branwell’s main problem was his habit of losing himself in his writing in both good times and bad. He did have focus and he did have determination, but he could also be distracted by life’s pleasures.
People attack Branwell for his addictions, and the misery he brought to his family, and I don’t doubt the truth of this. I won’t go into the reasons for his addictions, my own theories about the weight of expectation placed upon him, and the lack of help available in 19th century Britain (sorry, I just kind of did), but that should have no effect on his literary legacy, and yet it does. Even today, people are reluctant to read Branwell’s works due to his troubled personal legacy. Whatever Branwell was or was not and whatever he did or did not do in his lifetime shouldn’t matter one iota. Sadly it does and although you can buy editions of Branwell’s works, they can be quite expensive. Victor Neufeldt’s anthologies of Branwell’s works are fantastic but pricey. Your best bet is to look for his work in other Brontë anthologies such as Christine Alexander’s Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, or seek out some of the excellent Juvenilia Press editions such as their recently launched version of The Pirate.
Charlotte has arguably suffered less from being perceived as “the other Brontë.” Indeed, she is arguably the most well-known, most widely read (I’m basing this on the fact she wrote more novels than Emily and Anne), and the longest lived sibling. On a simple level, her status as the last surviving sibling marks her out as “the other Brontë”, however, her desire to succeed in a male-dominated literary world marks her out as “the other” in society more generally. Charlotte knew she had certain duties to perform and that there were certain expectations placed upon not just females, but females of her class and status. Robert Southey’s famous pronouncement that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life” in a letter dated 12th March 1837 is often taken wildly out of context (Southey was not a dinosaur, but merely a product of his time), demonstrates just how at odds with her own society Charlotte was.
Although Emily has historically been labelled as rude and unpleasant due to her failure (for whatever reason) to interact with wider society or hold down a job teaching at Law Hill in Halifax, Charlotte was no angel; she hated her pupils with a passion, she could be rude, and quite demanding herself (just read her descriptions of her pupils in her Roe Head Diary and see The Professor for a thinly veiled fictional representation of her teaching frustrations). And yet this doesn’t seem to affect her literary legacy. Like Branwell, Charlotte also had some serious demons; there were no drink or drugs but she suffered from bouts of what we would now term depression and feelings of worthlessness throughout her life, writing to her friend Ellen Nussey in 1836 that, “I abhor myself – I despise myself – if the Doctrine of Calvin be true I am already an outcast.” Again, this doesn’t seem to affect her literary reputation and I can’t imagine Jane Eyre being described as a hot mess. Charlotte was in many respects “the other” in her society due to her dreams, ambition, and eventual success, however, she seems to have had similar sentiments to Emily in many respects, and yet is not historically labelled as a difficult or demanding woman. So what is it about Emily that causes people to pen articles such as Hughes’? Answers on a postcard please.
When in the company of a respected Brontë scholar recently (who shall remain nameless as they have not chosen to publicise their thoughts; I have), they expressed their view that Emily was the odd one of the family, and that she had to be managed by the family in a way that even Branwell didn’t due to her nature and temper. She was manipulative and self-centred, desiring not to mingle with society, not to have to function in it or make her own way in life. She knew exactly what she was doing when she insulted her pupils, she refused to blend in and make life easier for Charlotte in Brussels, and she had no friends outside of the family. The critic recognised that this is an unpopular view because Emily is revered, however, they also noted that Emily’s nature took nothing away from her work. In short, the critic believed Emily was a difficult woman, but didn’t criticise her personally for this, nor did they let this opinion affect their reading of her work. Hughes is perfectly entitled to her opinion that Wuthering Heights is terrible, and that Emily is difficult, but there should be no link between the two. Even if you don’t like Emily, this shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying her writing.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a misfit in society; I’m sure everyone has felt like this at some point in their lives, we’ve all been bothered by it, we’ve all been unaffected by it too. Why in 2018 are we judging an author’s work through their personal life, and why are we judging Emily Brontë full stop? We don’t know her and can’t really assess her personality from the 21st century, but I’ll say it again, I don’t care if she was rude, unpleasant, difficult, or demanding; there are worse things to be. All of the Brontës did things that puzzled, angered, frustrated, and upset one another. They were all misfits to a certain extent and I think that is the reason that we are so drawn to them on a personal level.
The fantastic thing about Hughes’ article is that is has brought people together through their love of Emily Brontë right in time for her birthday. Perhaps Hughes is a secret, undercover Brontë fan as her article seems to have had the exact opposite to what she intended which (I think) was to justify her personal hatred of Emily and spread her negative views of Wuthering Heights. One final thing which made me laugh was Hughes’ implication that Emily was convinced that she had a right to pen Wuthering Heights and write. Well so what if she did? By writing the piece about Emily, isn’t Hughes also convincing herself that she also has the right to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)? She absolutely does, so what is her problem with Emily doing the same?
If Brontë detractors can light such a spark, they’d better be prepared for the blaze set by Brontë fans in response. Our words and our passion do more than smoulder; they burn brightly forever, just like the creations and imagination of the magnificent Emily Jane Brontë.
All quotes are taken from Juliet Barker’s A Life in Letters.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights, or on my Brontë Babe Blog Facebook page. Look me up on Goodreads too. I also have a side project where I blog about my love of Classic Crime Fiction over at The Classic Crime Chonicle. I’d love it if you joined me there.
I’d also love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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