Depicting Emily Bronte as consumptive, anorexic

January 27, 1991|By Laurie Kaplan

A CHAINLESS SOUL: A LIFE

OF EMILY BRONTE.

Katherine Frank.

Houghton Mifflin.

303 pages. $21.95. Abiography of Emily Bronte, the most elusive and reclusive of all British female writers, must necessarily rely on conjecture, for when she died in 1848 rather notorious at the age of 30 she was, paradoxically, virtually unknown even to the people in her village. Uncommunicative and solitary, she avoided her sister's friends as assiduously as she shied away from her father's curates. A slim volume of poetry, some very matter-of-fact letters, a couple of diary papers and one disturbing novel complete her literary output. Few of her opinions about life and literature were documented, so Emily's story traditionally is shaped by the myths perpetuated by her sister Charlotte's editorial commentary and by Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte's first biographer.

Haworth Parsonage, hemmed in by flanks of gravestones and bad drains, buried the Bronte children, metaphorically and actually. The cold, damp house seems symbolic patriarchal Victorianism, and the oppressive atmosphere fostered a perverse diversity. Branwell took to opium and drink. Charlotte and Anne fled periodically to degrading positions as governesses, but Emily retreated into profound solitude. The moors, more than any human relationship, unleashed her imagination. In the parsonage where her mother, two sisters and brother died, and where her father ate every meal alone in his inviolable room, Emily found the freedom to write and wander at will -- and alone.

"A Chainless Soul" begins in the middle of the story, at the point where Charlotte violates Emily's privacy by rifling her writing box. What Charlotte found astounded her: manuscript notebooks of mystical, magical poems about Emily's imaginary world of Gondal. In a scene no biographer can fully document, Charlotte confronted her timid sister with her discovery, eventually persuading Emily and Anne to collaborate on a volume of poetry for publication. Emily agonized about having her "world within" exposed to public scrutiny, but Charlotte persuasively suggested the use of androgynous pseudonyms. So secretive were the sisters about their writing that neither their father nor their brother knew they were published authors whose works had been reviewed in the popular press.

Katherine Frank probes an interesting theme in the life and work of the Brontes: the centrality of food and eating. As she reconstructs the monotonous cycle of isolated, chaotic days in the parsonage, Ms. Frank chronicles the great hunger and need of the children, who perhaps connected their father's solitary meals with physical shame. Their exile to the kitchen as their mother and sisters lay dying upstairs inextricably linked depression and loss of appetite. Emily's hunger strikes, especially after Branwell's and just before her own death, gave her a kind of power over her family and over her own body as well. In fact, Ms. Frank contends, Emily suffered not only from tuberculosis but from an early case of a largely 20th century disease, anorexia nervosa, and writing and fasting became her weapons against helplessness and powerlessness.

If Emily's youthful Gondal poems reveal characters whose obsessive, unappeasable appetites led them to destruction, "Wuthering Heights" concentrates thwarted desire into a particularly un-Victorian, "unwomanly" theme. The passion and emotional force of "Wuthering Heights" baffled contemporary critics, many of whom recognized the "great" but "purposeless" power of the story. Epithets were heaped on the novel: "cruel," "brutal," "depraved," "vulgar." Apparently, Emily hoarded and reread a number of the reviews of her book without commenting on the charges of coarseness and immorality. Ms. Frank suggests, "It must have given her great satisfaction to have startled and perplexed what passed for the most discerning critical intelligence in London." One wonders, however: Did those reviews give her pain as well?

Emily's introversion poses formidable problems for the biographer, but Charlotte, who became the self-appointed interpreter of her sister's life and work, helped to shape the myth of the mystical Emily Bronte. Recognizing quite clearly that Emily's way of coping with life went far beyond the bounds of eccentricity, Charlotte protected her sister's reclusiveness by making the business decisions for Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. While Charlotte journeyed to London and met with publishers, Emily remained at home thoroughly engrossed in the passionate fantasy world of Gondal. She could retreat from reality into trancelike states -- which were perhaps, as Ms. Frank suggests, the result of hunger or fasting -- especially when she was out walking on the moors. In the end, Emily rejected not only food and medical attention but Charlotte as well.

Dr. Kaplan is assistant professor of English at Goucher College.

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