Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No Coward Soul

March 8 - Today's post contributed by Catherine Reef

Portrait of Emily Brontë
by her brother 
Branwell Brontë.
No Coward Soul

In 1842, when Emily Brontë was twenty-four and studying at a Brussels pensionnat, her teacher struggled to make sense of her bold, singular mind. Upon reading her highly original essays (written in French, a language in which Brontë had recently and rapidly gained facility), Constantin Heger could only conclude, "She should have been born a man." A man with her gifts could have been "a great navigator," Heger speculated. "Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery." Yet it was useless to think of what might have been. Logic and rational argument were manly attributes. Brilliance in a woman was wasted.

Certainly, having brains put a young woman at a disadvantage in the marriage market. "The love of a wife for her husband is to be associated with reverence, submission, deference," counseled The Wife and Mother, a manual published in 1841. The master of the household wanted a spouse who would yield to his decisions "with grace and cheerfulness," not one who would second-guess him.

Of course, with her total indifference to fashion, blunt manner in company, natural reclusiveness, and lack of money, Emily Brontë was unlikely to attract a husband anyway. But then she never expressed a wish to have one. She was wedded to the bleak landscape surrounding Haworth, the noxious village in northern England that had been her home since early childhood. The wind that swept the surrounding moorland fueled her creativity as no human bond ever could. In singleness she thrived.

In this, too, Emily Brontë was unusual. Almost without exception, middle-class girls in Victorian England sought marriage. Matrimony gave a woman the security of a home and a place in society, even if it robbed her of legal status. Her property and future inheritance became her spouse's; he had custody of their children; and, before 1857, it was all but impossible for her to obtain a divorce, however heinous the treatment she might have received. The Wife and Mother advised her to view her husband's misconduct "rather as an indication of thoughtlessness than of settled unkindness"; she was to "look upon it rather as an error than a crime." And the preferred way to combat a husband's moral lapses? Setting an example: "Endeavouring, by gentle influence, to lead such a course of moral discipline as will be likely to eradicate evil."  Also, we must not forget that even in the happiest unions, a wife faced the risks and demands of constant childbearing.

Any one of us might prefer staying single to choosing such a fate, but women today have many more options. A single woman without an income needed to work in Brontë's time (as in our own); unfortunately for her, the only profession open to a respectable female in the Victorian period was teaching.  She could be hired as an instructor in a school for girls or as a governess in a private home, but to accept either position was to toil for long hours at low wages and to step down socially. After all, no true lady worked for money.

Like her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, Emily Brontë tried teaching, and, like them, she hated it. For a few months in 1838 and 1839, Emily was employed at Miss Patchett's School, Halifax. She was as ill-suited to the school's dulling routine as she was to marriage. She made one friend in Halifax, the school's dog. Torn from the home and wild country that she loved, she grew depressed. "I fear she will never stand it," said Charlotte, who was only somewhat better than Emily at conforming to society's expectations. Emily's depression manifested itself as physical illness, and she was back in Haworth before the second term ended.

The only life to which Emily was suited--the only one that challenged her mind and freed her fancy--was that of a writer, and writing was considered the province of men. About women authors the critic George Henry Lewes scoffed, "Are there no stockings to darn, no purses to make, no braces to embroider?" Of course, there were women of letters, even successful ones like Frances Trollope and Maria Edgeworth, and the author of Female Writers (1842) argued that the world of literature held a place for women: "A full-voiced choir would not be considered complete without some female voices." Still, many Victorians agreed with those who compared literary women to rickety children and "monstrosities of nature."

 George Henry Lewes mocked women writers in 1850,
 yet four
 years later he was living with Mary Ann Evans  (the novelist George Eliot).

Wanting to be judged as the equals of male writers--in other words, on the basis of their work alone, Emily and her sisters chose masculine pseudonyms when they submitted their collected poems for publication in 1846, becoming Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Emily (Ellis) was the most gifted poet of the three. In verse she praised imagination, and in so doing declared herself a child of the Romantics:

Oh, my true friend! I am not lone,
While thou canst speak with such a tone...

Through poetry she pondered the mutability of life; she addresses the stars, her nighttime companions; and she asserted her individuality. "No coward soul is mine," she proclaimed in one valiant poem.

Heedless of "the growling thunder, and the great drops that began to plash around her," Catherine Earnshaw calls out for Heathcliff. This illustration is from an edition of
Wuthering Heights published in the early twentieth century.


With the appearance of Wuthering Heights, in 1847, Emily Brontë moved beyond comparison with other writers, male or female, and into the realm of genius. Her groundbreaking novel perplexed readers when it was written, and it remains enigmatic today. Is it a story of love or a saga of revenge? Is Brontë's hero, Heathcliff, a man scarred by his past or an emotional force as strong as a moorland storm? Is the love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw--the powerful love that sets the plot in motion--a force for good or ill? "I am Heathcliff!" Catherine cries; whatever can she mean? These are questions to ponder rather than answer. Brontë's characters have so much depth and her plot possesses so many levels that Wuthering Heights resists neat conclusions. It's as impossible to sum up as a person we have come to know well.

The wonder is that it was written by a woman in her twenties who spent most of her life in her father's house in a remote English village, a woman who never knew a man's love, who so shunned the world that if she sketched herself she did so from the back, with her face turned away. A brilliant woman, an intrepid navigator of the heart and stars, no coward soul was she.

Catherine Reef

Editor's Note:
Catherine Reef's book, The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne was published by Clarion in 2012.  Its awards include: 

  • Junior Library Guild Selection
  • Booklist, *starred review*
  • Kirkus, *starred review*
  • Publishers Weekly, *starred review*
  • One of Kirkus's "Best Teen Books of 2012"




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