Book Report: Emily’s Ghost

Author Denise Giardina grew up in rural West Virginia and has, in the past, been labeled an Appalachian writer. Previous novels Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth were both set in West Virginia. Giardina’s latest work, however, not only journeys out of the East coast mountains but crosses the pond to the moors of Victorian Yorkshire, England.

The book, Emily’s Ghost: A Novel of The Brontë Sisters (W.W.Norton & Co., 2009) is a fictionalized account of poet and novelist Emily Brontë and her family.

Giardina’s book is wonderfully dark and engaging, from its opening pages where Emily—whose plain speech and get-on-with-it-in-the-face-of-certain-disaster demeanor renders her an unwitting Goth princess—announces to her father that she’s dying. And follows that bombshell with the statement that she won’t be passing away too soon because “I have another book to write.”

Thus, the reader enters the complicated (if not terribly complex) world of Emily, her sisters Charlotte and Anne, brother Bramwell, their father the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Patrick’s newly-appointed assistant, clergyman William Weightman.

Of course, other than family names and the completed novel Wuthering Heights, little is known of Emily. That there ever was another novel is a matter of great speculation, but beyond the collected poems of Emily and her sisters, no other writing of the author—who died at age 30—has been found. Giardina doesn’t let this stop her.

While Giardina’s speculations (the abuse the Brontë sisters suffered at boarding school, the harshness of their life as daughters of a clergyman in a small, impoverished village, their impetus for writing and the nature of their unpublished works and—perhaps most titillating—Emily’s relationship with William Weightman) aren’t without scholarly merit (in her introduction Giardina explains she’s read a number of Brontë biographies and met with biographers, librarians and record keepers), Giardina certainly took liberties. And that’s good: Fiction allows for that. What Giardina offers is a fully realized and terrifically human Emily Brontë, one who relishes solitude, cares little for social niceties and whose tempestuous moods call to mind her Wuthering anti hero Heathcliff.

Giardina’s main character is a mixture of puritan sensibility (“Emily did not understand the games men and women played. Flirting was as incomprehensible as Mandarin. What was it for? she wondered. To win the companionship of a creature who was not half so interesting as the dog.”) and unapologetic recluse (“She preferred the company of rough folk, when she wanted company at all. The poor of Haworth did not care if she did not keep to a social calendar. Only the better sort, the mill owners and their families, had any expectations, and they had long been disappointed in Emily Brontë.”). Whether or not there is any degree of accuracy in this description is sure to be a point of argument among academicians—yet to have such a complete picture of Emily is, if difficult to fully embrace, an enticing prospect.

But Giardina doesn’t stop with Emily. Ghost explores the familial relations around Emily (“Weightman noted that while in most families the women retired to another room, not to be seen again, that was not the state of affairs at the parsonage. Patrick, far from the overbearing paterfamilias, was often the most quiet of all. Clearly the old man admired his children and their intellect, and wished to allow them their scope.”) as well as Emily’s connection to the place she lived, her community and her station in life. Likely, as an author herself, Giardina was fascinated with what would compel a never-married 19th century woman to turn to literature. Was it a relief from a drab and rote existence? Was it her way to leave a mark on the word? Was she so moved by the English moors and the swirling dramas of love and loss played out around her that she sought to make sense of all of this through prose?

Of course we can’t know, but the Emily brought to life in Giardina’s Ghost is a compelling (and ultimately tragic) possibility.

Denise Giardina reads from Emily’s Ghost at Malaprop’s on Saturday, August 1. The 7 p.m. event is free and includes a wine and cheese reception. Info: 254-6734.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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