Monday, April 23, 2012

Muriel Spark Reading Week - Emily Brontё : her life & work

It's Muriel Spark Reading Week & I've chosen something a little different. As well as the novels she's best known for, Muriel Spark also wrote several biographies, including this book on Emily Brontё. Actually, she co-wrote it with Derek Stanford. Spark wrote on Emily's life & Stanford on the work. Interestingly, as most of Spark's novels are around 100pp long, her biography of Emily is also just under 100pp. It seems to have been the natural length of her work, the length she was comfortable with.

I was interested to see what the novelist Spark would make of another novelist. Her intentions are set out at the beginning of the book,

The method employed in the following pages is of analysis rather than synthesis, through which it is hoped to promote some fresh thoughts on the subject. The following essay is planned to reconstruct Emily Brontё's life story exclusively from documents concurrent with the events. The posthumous records will be found to add little in the way of information, although, of course, they enrich any Brontё narrative.

So, Spark will only use the letters, diary papers & recollections that were available during Emily's lifetime. I found this a fascinating way to proceed. So much that is known of Emily was recollected or written down after her death, often once her genius as a poet & novelist was known. Using only the material produced during her lifetime, Spark gives us a pared down version of the Brontё story that allows us to hear as much of Emily's own voice as possible.

Charlotte Brontё has been the main source for information about her sister. From the morning when Branwell appeared in his sisters's room with a box of wooden soldiers & they each chose one, "Emily's was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him 'Gravey'." to weave stories around; to her nervous inquiries to friends as to how Emily behaved in company. Charlotte took the lead in everything from the decision for herself & Emily to go to Brussels to study to the publication of their poetry & novels. Charlotte's poignant letters to W S Williams (reader for her publisher, George Smith) chart the inexorable course of Emily's last illness, "She is a real stoic in illness: she neither seeks nor will accept sympathy. To put any questions, to offer any aid, is to annoy...You must look on and see her do what she is obviously unfit to do, and not dare say a word..." Charlotte wrote the Prefaces & Biographical Notices that set the tone for both Emily & Anne's reputations.

By going back to the original documents, especially the few letters & diary papers written by Emily, a different picture emerges. Emily certainly didn't enjoy being away from home. Her brief periods at school & as a teacher, ended with a return to Haworth. Spark sees this not as defeat but as Emily creating the conditions she needed to work as she wished. She approved of the scheme to start up a school with her sisters only until she received a legacy from her aunt that meant she didn't need to work. The diary papers Emily wrote on her birthday (to be put away & opened several years later with Anne) are the most important documents we have in discovering what was in Emily's mind. They are full of snippets of information about her daily activities, her pets, what the family are doing as well as plans for the future. They're written in almost a stream of consciousness with little concern for spelling or punctuation,

Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said Where are your feet Ann Anne answered On the floor Aunt. Papa opened the parlour door and gave Branwell a letter saying Here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte. The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine. Sally Mosley is washing in the back kitchin. November 1834

It's a snippet of life in the Brontё kitchen with a bit of news about the Gondals (the imaginary people that Emily & Anne wrote a long-running saga about) dropped into the middle. A later diary paper, written in 1845, is full of family news & the tone is of contentment with her lot,

I am quite contented for myself: not as idle as formerly, altogether as hearty, and having learnt to make the most of the present and long for the future with the fidgetiness that I cannot do all I wish; seldom or ever troubled with nothing to do, and merely desiring that everybody could be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding, and then we should have a very tolerable world of it... I have plenty of work on hands, and writing, and am altogether full of business.

Muriel Spark sees Emily as the happiest of the sisters until the last period of her life. She had a real vision of herself as a writer & was able to create a life for herself at Haworth that allowed her time to write. Spark believes Emily was a natural celibate. She needed no relationships outside her own family & these completely contented her. She was single-minded about her work & allowed herself no distractions. Her idea of love was a universalised one which may have been unrealistic but which led to the universal declarations of love in Wuthering Heights. Catherine's cry, "I am Heathcliff" is an example of this.

Spark sees Emily Brontё as a writer who fulfilled her promise as far as she could. Maybe her mind became unbalanced in her last months &, when she realised that she could not control the tuberculosis that was killing her, she gave in to it. I found this a refreshing way to look at Emily Brontё's life. Muriel Spark brings a novelist's imagination to trying to understand a woman whose posthumous reputation has overtaken the real life she lived.


  1. What a fascinating review, Lyn, and it sounds like a really fascinating book too. It's strange to think of Spark analysing the novelist's life before becoming a published novelist herself - and to think how analyses like this might have influenced her own ways of working.

    Thanks so much for choosing something a little esoteric for MSRW!

    1. Thanks Simon. What I found interesting was that MS obviously feels comfortable with that novella length whether she's writing fiction or non-fiction. I sometimes wish other novelists would follow suit!

  2. I read this many years ago and I remember it sent shivers down my spine. It bought Emily Bronte to life, I thought. Having read your review I really want to re-read it.

    1. It's a very good biography, I think. I especially like the fact that she just used the material written during & just after Emily's lifetime ie before she had a reputation as a "genius" & everyone who had ever met her came up with an anecdote or story. A good way of stripping back the legend to get closer to the truth.

  3. I was unaware of this side of Spark but this sounds fascinating and readable - I have too many long biographies on my shelves that I wonder shall I ever read.

    1. I think it's an excellent short biography that doesn't get into any speculation based on later stories about Emily. Of course, I've read all the longer biographies too but I'm a Bronte obssessive!