Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 16
While 'Wuthering Heights' was still in the reviewer's hands, Emily Brontë's more fortunate sister was busy on another novel. This book has never attained the steady success of her masterpiece, ’Villette,' neither did it meet with the furor which greeted the first appearance of 'Jane Eyre.' It is, indeed, inferior to either work; a very quiet study of Yorkshire life, almost pettifogging in its interest in ecclesiastical squabbles, almost absurd in the feminine inadequacy of its heroes. And yet 'Shirley' has a grace and beauty of its own. This it derives from the charm of its heroines—Caroline Helstone, a lovely portrait in character of Charlotte's dearest friend, and Shirley herself, a fancy likeness of Emily Brontë.
Emily Brontë, but under very different conditions. No longer poor, no longer thwarted, no longer acquainted with misery and menaced by untimely death; not thus, but as a loving sister would fain have seen her, beautiful, triumphant, the spoiled child of happy fortune. Yet in these altered circumstances Shirley keeps her likeness to Charlotte's hardworking sister; the disguise, haply baffling those who, like Mrs. Gaskell, "have not a pleasant impression of Emily Brontë," is very easily penetrated by those who love her. Under the pathetic finery so lovingly bestowed, under the borrowed spendours of a thousand a year, a lovely face, an ancestral manor-house, we recognise our hardy and headstrong heroine, and smile a little sadly at the inefficiency of this masquerade of grandeur, so indifferent and unnecessary to her. We recognise Charlotte's sister; but not the author of 'Wuthering Heights.' Through these years we discern the brilliant heiress to be a person of infinitely inferior importance to the ill-dressed and overworked Vicar's daughter. Imperial Shirley, no need to wave your majestic wand, we have bowed to it long ago unblinded; and all its illusive splendours are not so potent as that worn-down goose-quill which you used to wield in the busy kitchen of your father's parsonage.
Yet without that admirable portrait we should have scant warrant for our conception of Emily Brontë's character. Her work is singularly impersonal. You gather from it that she loved the moors, that from her youth up the burden of a tragic fancy had lain hard upon her; that she had seen the face of sorrow close, meeting that Medusa-glance with rigid and defiant fortitude. So much we learn; but this is very little- a one-sided truth and therefore scarcely a truth at all.
Charlotte's portrait gives us another view, and fortunately there are still a few alive of the not numerous friends of Emily Brontë. Every trait, every reminiscence paints in darker, clearer lines, the impression of character which 'Shirley' leaves upon us. Shirley is indeed the exterior Emily, the Emily that was to be met and known thirty-five years ago, only a little polished, with the angles a little smoothed, by a sister's anxious care. The nobler Emily, deeply-suffering, brooding, pitying, creating, is only to be found in a stray word here and there, a chance memory, a happy answer, gathered from the pages of her work, and the loving remembrance of her friends; but these remnants are so direct, unusual, personal, and characteristic, this outline is of so decided a type, that it affects us more distinctly than many stippled and varnished portraits do.
But to know how Emily Brontë looked, moved, sat and spoke, we still return to 'Shirley,' A host of corroborating memories start up in turning the pages. Who but Emily was always accompanied by a "rather large, strong, and fierce-looking dog, very ugly, being of a breed between a mastiff and a bulldog?" it is familiar to us as Una's lion; we do not need to be told, Currer Bell, that she always sat on the hearthrug of nights, with her hand on his head, reading a book; we remember well how necessary it was to secure him as an ally in winning her affection. Has not a dear friend informed us that she first obtained Emily's heart by meeting, without apparent fear or shrinking, Keeper's huge springs of demonstrative welcome?
Certainly "Captain Keeldar," with her cavalier airs, her ready disdain, her love of independence, does bring back with vivid brilliance the memory of our old acquaintance, "the Major." We recognise that pallid slimness, masking an elastic strength which seems impenetrable to fatigue—and we sigh, recalling a passage in Anne's letters, recording how, when rheumatism, coughs, and influenza made an hospital of Haworth Vicarage during the visitations of the dread east wind, Emily alone looked on and wondered why anyone should be ill—"she considers it a very uninteresting wind; it does not affect her nervous system." We know her, too, by her kindness to her inferiors. A hundred little stories throng our minds. Unforgotten delicacies made with her own hands for her servant's friend, yet remembered visits of Martha's little cousin to the kitchen, where Miss Emily would bring in her own chair for the ailing girl; anecdotes of her early rising through many years to do the hardest work, because the first servant was too old, and the second too young to get up so soon; and she, Emily, was so strong. A hundred little sacrifices, dearer to remembrance than Shirley's open purse, awaken in our hearts and remind us that, after all, Emily was the nobler and more lovable heroine of the twain.
How characteristic, too, the touch that makes her scornful of all that is dominant, dogmatic, avowedly masculine in the men of her acquaintance; and gentleness itself to the poetic Philip Nunnely, the gay, boyish Mr. Sweeting, the sentimental Louis, the lame, devoted boy-cousin who loves her in pathetic canine fashion. That courage, too, was hers. Not only Shirley's flesh, but Emily's, felt the tearing fangs of the mad dog to whom she had charitably offered food and water; not only Shirley's flesh, but hers, shrank from the light scarlet, glowing tip of the Italian iron with which she straightway cauterised the wound, going quickly into the laundry and operating on herself without a word to any one.
Emily, also, singlehanded and unarmed, punished her great bulldog for his household misdemeanours, in defiance of an express warning not to strike the brute, lest his uncertain temper should rouse him to fly at the striker's throat. And it was she who fomented his bruises. This prowess and tenderness of Shirley's is an old story to us.
And Shirley's love of picturesque and splendid raiment is not without an echo in our memories. It was Emily who, shopping in Bradford with Charlotte and her friend, chose a white stuff patterned with lilac thunder and lightning, to the scarcely concealed horror of her more sober companions. And she looked well in it; a tall, lithe creature, with a grace half-queenly, half-untamed in her sudden, supple movements, wearing with picturesque negligence her ample purple-splashed skirts; her face clear and pale; her very dark and plenteous brown hair fastened up behind with a Spanish comb; her large grey-hazel eyes, now full of indolent, indulgent humour, now glimmering with hidden meanings, now quickened into flame by a flash of indignation, "a red ray piercing the dew."
She, too, had Shirley's taste for the management of business. We remember Charlotte's disquiet when Emily insisted on investing Miss Branwell's legacies in York and Midland Railway shares. "She managed, in a most handsome and able manner for me when I was in Brussels, and prevented by distance from looking after our interests, therefore I will let her manage still and take the consequences. Disinterested and energetic she certainly is; and, if she be not quite so tractable or open to conviction as I could wish, I must remember perfection is not the lot of humanity, and, as long as we can regard those whom we love, and to whom we are closely allied, with profound and never-shaken esteem, it is a small thing that they should vex us occasionally by what appear to us headstrong and unreasonable notions."
So speaks the kind elder sister, the author of 'Shirley.' But there are some who will never love either type or portrait. Sydney Dobell spoke a bitter half-truth when, ignorant of Shirley's real identity, he declared: "We have only to imagine Shirley Keeldar poor to imagine her repulsive." The silenced pride, the thwarted generosity, the unspoken power, the contained passion of such a nature are not qualities which touch the world when it finds them in an obscure and homely woman. Even now, very many will not love a heroine so independent of their esteem. They will resent the frank imperiousness, caring not to please, the unyielding strength, the absence of trivial submissive tendernesses, for which she makes amends by such large humane and generous compassion. "In Emily's nature," says her sister, "the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial taste and an unpretending outside, lay a power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom—her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life—she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to consult her legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very flexible and it generally opposed her interest. Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending."
So speaks Emily's inspired interpreter, whose genius has not made her sister popular. 'Shirley' is not a favourite with a modern public. Emily Brontë was born out of date. Athene, leading the nymphs in their head-long chase down the rocky spurs of Olympus, and stopping in full career to lift in her arms the weanlings, tender as dew, or the chance-hurt cubs of the mountain, might have chosen her as her hunt-fellow. Or Brunhilda, the strong Valkyr, dreading the love of man, whose delight is battle and the wild summits of hills, forfeiting her immortality to shield the helpless and the weak; she would have recognised the kinship of this last-born sister. But we moderns care not for these. Our heroines are Juliet, Desdemona and Imogen, our examples Dorothea Brooke and Laura Pendennis, women whose charm is a certain fragrance of affection. 'Shirley' is too independent for our taste; and, for the rest, we are all in love with Caroline Helstone.
Disinterested, headstrong, noble Emily Brontë, at this time, while your magical sister was weaving for you, with golden words, a web of fate as fortunate as dreams, the true Norns were spinning a paler shrouding garment. You were never to see the brightest things in life. Sisterly love, free solitude, unpraised creation, were to remain your most poignant joys. No touch of love, no hint of fame, no hours of ease, lie for you across the knees of Fate. Neither rose nor laurel will be shed on your coffined form. Meanwhile, your sister writes and dreams for Shirley. Terrible difference between ideas and truth; wonderful magic of the unreal to take their sting from the veritable wounds we endure!
Neither rose nor laurel will we lay reverently for remembrance over the tomb where you sleep; but the flower that was always your own, the wild, dry heather. You, who were, in your sister's phrase, "moorish, wild and knotty as a root of heath," you grew to your own perfection on the waste where no laurel rustles its polished leaves, where no sweet, fragile rose ever opened in the heart of June. The storm and the winter darkness, the virgin earth, the blasting winds of March, would have slain them utterly; but all these served to make the heather light and strong, to flush its bells with a ruddier purple, to fill its cells with honey more pungently sweet. The cold wind and wild earth make the heather; it would not grow in the sheltered meadows. And you, had you known the fate that love would have chosen, you too would not have thrived in your full bloom. Another happy, prosperous north-country matron would be dead. But now you live, still singing of freedom, the undying soul, of courage and loneliness, another voice in the wind, another glory on the mountain-tops, Emily Brontë, the author of 'Wuthering Heights.'
- Mrs. Gaskell.
- 'Biographical Notice.' C. Brontë.