Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Introduction

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Emily Brontë  (1883)  by A. Mary F. Robinson


There are, perhaps, few tests of excellence so sure as the popular verdict on a work of art a hundred years after its accomplishment. So much time must be allowed for the swing and rebound of taste, for the despoiling of tawdry splendours and to permit the work of art itself to form a public capable of appreciating it. Such marvellous fragments reach us of Elizabethan praises; and we cannot help recalling the number of copies of 'Prometheus Unbound' sold in the lifetime of the poet. We know too well "what porridge had John Keats," and remember with misgiving the turtle to which we treated Hobbs and Nobbs at dinner, and how complacently we watched them put on their laurels afterwards.

Let us, then, by all means distrust our own and the public estimation of all heroes dead within a hundred years. Let us, in laying claim to an infallible verdict, remember how oddly our decisions sound at the other side of Time's whispering gallery. Shall we therefore pronounce only on Chaucer and Shakespeare, on Gower and our learned Ben? Alas we are too sure of their relative merits; we stake our reputations with no qualms, no battle-ardours. These we reserve to them for whom the future is not yet secure, for whom a timely word may still be spoken, for whom we yet may feel that lancing out of enthusiasm only possible when the cast of fate is still unknown, and, as we fight, we fancy that the glory of our hero is in our hands.

But very gradually the victory is gained. A taste is unconsciously formed for the qualities necessary to the next development of art—qualities which Blake in his garret, Millet without the sou, set down in immortal work. At last, when the time is ripe, some connoisseur sees the picture, blows the dust from the book, and straightway blazons his discovery. Mr. Swinburne, so to speak, blew the dust from 'Wuthering Heights'; and now it keeps its proper rank in the shelf where Coleridge and Webster, Hofmann and Leopardi have their place. Until then, a few brave lines of welcome from Sydney Dobell, one fine verse of Mr. Arnold's, one notice from Mr. Reid, was all the praise that had been given to the book by those in authority. Here and there a mill-girl in the West Riding factories read and re-read the tattered copy from the lending library; here and there some eager, unsatisfied, passionate child came upon the book and loved it, in spite of chiding, finding in it an imagination that satisfied, and a storm that cleared the air; or some strong-fibred heart felt without a shudder the justice of that stern vision of inevitable, inherited ruin following the chance-found child of foreign sailor and seaport mother. But these readers were not many; even yet the book is not popular.

For, in truth, the qualities that distinguish Emily Brontë are not those which are of the first necessity to a novelist. She is without experience; her range of character is narrow and local; she has no atmosphere of broad humanity like George Eliot; she has not Jane Austen's happy gift of making us love in a book what we have overlooked in life; we do not recognise in her the human truth and passion, the never-failing serene bitterness of humour, that have made for Charlotte Brontë a place between Cervantes and Victor Hugo.

Emily Brontë is of a different class. Her imagination is narrower, but more intense; she sees less, but what she sees is absolutely present: no writer has described the moors, the wind, the skies, with her passionate fidelity, but this is all of Nature that she describes. Her narrow fervid nature accounted as simple annoyance the trivial scenes and personages touched with immortal sympathy and humour in 'Villette' and 'Shirley'; Paul Emanuel himself appeared to her only as a pedantic and exacting taskmaster; but, on the other hand, to a certain class of mind, there is nothing in fiction so moving as the spectacle of Heathcliff dying of joy—an unnatural, unreal joy—his panther nature paralysed, anéanti, in a delirium of visionary bliss.

Only an imagination of the rarest power could conceive such a dénouement, requiting a life of black ingratitude by no mere common horrors, no vulgar Bedlam frenzy; but by the torturing apprehension of a happiness never quite grasped, always just beyond the verge of realisation. Only an imagination of the finest and rarest touch, absolutely certain of tread on that path of a single hair which alone connects this world with the land of dreams. Few have trod that perilous bridge with the fearlessness of Emily Brontë: that is her own ground and there she wins our highest praise; but place her on the earth, ask her to interpret for us the common lives of the surrounding people, she can give no answer. The swift and certain spirit moves with the clumsy hesitating gait of a bird accustomed to soar.

She tells us what she saw; and what she saw and what she was incapable of seeing are equally characteristic. All the wildness of that moorland, all the secrets of those lonely farms, all the capabilities of the one tragedy of passion and weakness that touched her solitary life, she divined and appropriated; but not the life of the village at her feet, not the bustle of the mills, the riots, the sudden alternations of wealth and poverty; not the incessant rivalry of church and chapel; and while the West Riding has known the prototype of nearly every person and nearly every place in 'Jane Eyre' and 'Shirley,' not a single character in 'Wuthering Heights' ever climbed the hills round Haworth.

Say that two foreigners have passed through Staffordshire, leaving us their reports of what they have seen. The first, going by day, will tell us of the hideous blackness of the country ; but yet more, no doubt, of that awful, patient struggle of man with fire and darkness, of the grim courage of those unknown lives; and he would see what they toil for, women with little children in their arms; and he would notice the blue sky beyond the smoke, doubly precious for such horrible environment. But the second traveller has journeyed through the night; neither squalor nor ugliness, neither sky nor children, has he seen, only a vast stretch of blackness shot through with flaming fires, or here and there burned to a dull red by heated furnaces; and before these, strange toilers, half naked, scarcely human, and red in the leaping flicker and gleam of the fire. The meaning of their work he could not see, but a fearful and impressive phantasmagoria of flame and blackness and fiery energies at work in the encompassing night, So differently did the black country of this world appear to Charlotte, clear-seeing and compassionate, and to Emily Brontë, a traveller through the shadows. Each faithfully recorded what she saw, and the place was the same, but how unlike the vision! The spectacles of temperament colour the world very differently for each beholder; and, to understand the vision, we too should for a moment look through the seer's glass. To gain some such transient glance, to gain and give some such momentary insight into the character of Emily Brontë, has been the aim I have tried to make in this book. That I have not fulfilled my desire is perhaps inevitable—the task has been left too long. If I have done anything at all I feel that much of the reward is due to my many and generous helpers. Foremost among them I must thank Dr. Ingham, my kind host at Haworth, Mrs. Wood, Mr. William Wood, Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Ratcliffe of that parish—all of whom had known the now perished family of Brontë; and my thanks are due no less to Mr. T. Wemyss Reid, as will be seen further on, to Mr. J. H. Ingram, and to Mr. Biddell, who have collected much valuable information for my benefit; and most of all do I owe gratitude and thankfulness to Miss Ellen Nussey, without whose generous help my work must have remained most ignorant and astray. To her, had it been worthier, had it been all the subject merits, and yet without those shadows of gloom and trouble enjoined by the nature of the story; to her, could I only have spoken of the high noble character of Emily Brontë and not of the great trials of her life, I should have ventured to dedicate this study. But to Emily's friend I only offer what, through her, I have learned of Emily; she, who knew so little of Branwell's shames and sorrow is unconcerned with this, their sad and necessary record. Only the lights and sunshine of my work I dedicate to her. It may be that I have given too great a share to the shadows, to the manifold follies and failures of Branwell Brontë. Yet in Emily Brontë's life the shaping influences were so few, and the sins of this beloved and erring brother had so large a share in determining the bent of her genius, that to have passed them by would have been to ignore the shock which turned the fantasy of the 'Poems' into the tragedy of 'Wuthering Heights.' It would have been to leave untold the patience, the courage, the unselfishness which perfected Emily Brontë's heroic character; and to have left her burdened with the calumny of having chosen to invent the crimes and violence of her dramatis personœ. Not so, alas! They were but reflected from the passion and sorrow that darkened her home; it was no perverse fancy which drove that pure and innocent girl into ceaseless brooding on the conquering force of sin and the supremacy of injustice.

She brooded over the problem night and day; she took its difficulties passionately to heart; in the midst of her troubled thoughts she wrote 'Wuthering Heights.' From the clear spirit which inspires the end of her work, we know that the storm is over; we know that her next tragedy would be less violent. But we shall never see it; for and it is by this that most of us remember her suddenly and silently she died.

She died, before a single word of worthy praise had reached her. She died with her work misunderstood and neglected. And yet not unhappy. For her home on the moors was very dear to her, the least and homeliest duties pleasant; she loved her sisters with devoted friendship, and she had many little happinesses in her patient, cheerful, unselfish life. Would that I could show her as she was!—not the austere and violent poetess who, cuckoo-fashion, has usurped her place; but brave to fate and timid of man; stern to herself, forbearing to all weak and erring things; silent, yet sometimes sparkling with happy sallies. For to represent her as she was would be her noblest and most fitting monument.