I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.
Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights

zondag 5 juni 2011

All this time I've been trying to be Cathy when I should have been trying to be Jane

Girls, pick your bedtime reading with careSaints and rebels, mavericks and misfits... these are the role models of literature. But Samantha Ellis asks whether she learned the right lessons from their passionate and tortured lives.

Last summer I was on the Yorkshire moors, making the pilgrimage to Top Withens and arguing (over the wuthering) with my best friend about whether we'd rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Like Kate Bush, I chose wild, free, passionate Cathy over stoic, virtuous Jane. But my friend found Cathy silly, a snob who betrays Heathcliff for Edgar and makes them all unhappy, while Jane makes her own way. As we reached the top, I had a moment of realisation:

All this time I've been trying to be Cathy when I should have been trying to be Jane

So I decided to reread the books I'd read as a girl, the books that shaped my ideas of how to be a woman, to see if I'd always chosen the wrong role models. To see what I'd learned from the books, to see where they'd misled me.

Back in London I stacked them up. They were scarred from use – battered, tear-stained, mascara-smeared, their jackets scuffed, spines cracked, margins scrawled in; some had flowers pressed between the pages, some bulged from being dropped in the bath. As to the contents: I was excited about meeting my heroines again, but what if they'd changed for me? What if I didn't like them any more? What if I ended up feeling they'd ruined my life?

After all, Gone With the Wind was directly responsible for me feeding my sandwiches to the ducks for years in the hope of getting Scarlett's 17-inch waist. The Little Mermaid gave me some very skewed ideas about love (she exchanges her voice for legs to get a man). The Secret Garden made me value imagination so highly that I had nightmares. And using Cassandra Mortmain as my internet dating name did nothing for my love life except flummoxing some men who hadn't read I Capture the Castle and were hoping for a posh blonde.

I read these books to dream up adventures I might actually have, lives I might live. My mother had already had a storybook life – a childhood in Baghdad, persecution, prison, a failed escape across the mountains of Kurdistan, a real escape to London and a whirlwind romance with my father. And all this by the time she was 22. No wonder she wanted me to have a boring life.

Her idea of my happy ending was a wedding, which might be all right as long as I could marry a prince – a challenge because there are no Jewish princes. But Esther had done it, and in my cream-and-gold Esther dress and tiara maybe I could, too. Of course when you reread the biblical story of Esther, who becomes queen of Persia and saves the Jews, it's Vashti the dissident queen who makes the more interesting role model. I'd thought she was a villain, but she's not; she's incredibly brave. The king asks her to dance for his drunk friends in her jewels (possibly, say scholars, in just her jewels), and she says no, knowing she'll be executed for her refusal. Meanwhile Esther mainly fasts and faints.

Although I hadn't yet learned about saying no to the patriarchy, I was too shy and awkward to be a princess, and I ditched the plan of becoming one altogether when I read LM Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. I read the Anne books so many times that I felt as at home in turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island as in 1980s suburban north London. Like a lot of my heroines, Anne was a misfit, a maverick, a clumsy girl. And because she wanted to be a writer, I decided I would be one, too. She was the first of my writer-heroines, and my favourite, but I also liked Little Women's Jo March, with her "scribbling suit" and her hat to wipe her leaky pen on, and Frost in May's Nanda – not just a writer but a fury. Her battle to be herself inspired me to fight to be myself.

It was confusing being caught between two cultures. At home my grandma was telling me the cautionary tale of her mother being taken out of school at 14 because reading was spoiling her eyes (and men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses). Meanwhile in school drama classes I was acting out suffragette Emily Davison being trampled by a horse. My friends were reading Jackie Collins and Judy Blume, but Jane Austen felt more relevant to my life. And I liked Pride and Prejudice's Lizzy Bennet best because she was strong and funny and wouldn't marry Mr Darcy until he grew up. "Do not consider me now as an elegant female, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart," she says in true protofeminist fashion. Rereading Austen as an adult, I love her irony and her gutsy, vanity-puncturing humour; compared to Little Women, Pride and Prejudice is practically amoral.

As I grew older my heroines got more restless, more angry. Armed with Scarlett O'Hara's ruthlessness and the conviction, gleaned from Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, that leaving home was the first step to liberation, I convinced my parents to let me go away to university. It had to be Cambridge, because that's where Sylvia Plath had gone. As a stroppy, intense teenager I was obsessed with her poetry, which seemed to be all about exquisite suffering. It turns out to be tangled and dauntless and funny and life-affirming, but I didn't know that then. I wrote endless poems about being unhappy. I wasn't unhappy (and later, when I was, I didn't want to write about it) but I thought that was what poets did. In her Journals Plath charts honestly her struggle to become a woman writer; there are also wonderful descriptions of Cambridge. I expected to go to wild parties, read the Greeks and meet my very own Ted Hughes, with whom I'd live a life of "Books & Babies & Beef Stews".

By the time I got there I was already in love with a man who wanted me to follow him into Orthodox Judaism. When I couldn't, we broke up and I turned to Salinger's Franny and Zooey for consolation. From Franny I learned that prayer can take many forms, that grace is everywhere. Her brothers tell her she can "be God's actress" if she wants to, and they promise to "rent tuxedos and rhinestone hats and solemnly come round to the stage door with bouquets of snapdragons". A couple of other students asked me to write a play with them. Because of Franny, I said yes.

A few weeks later I began to reel. I'd trail off mid-sentence as the ground fell away, and I was lost. Ever the romantic, I thought this was heartbreak. But then I started falling, flailing and having spasms, and a neurologist diagnosed seizures. What Katy Did is a very different book to read when you've had seizures for 18 years; this time when Katy started banging on about "the School of Pain", I threw Susan Coolidge's book at the wall. I was confused. I'd remembered Katy Carr as a rebel, not a saint. I'd thought I was guilty and neurotic because of growing up Iraqi-Jewish, and that the books had rescued me. It turns out a lot of them are rammed with selflessness and self-sacrifice. It's not just Katy – although I blame her for the fact that I wasn't more usefully angry about my seizures early on. I blame Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar for making me think theatre isn't a proper job, even though now I find its ending so jarring (Marjorie abandons her acting aspirations and her lover to bury herself in suburbia) that I think this might be her author's fault instead.

And Hans Christian Andersen's got a lot to answer for; The Little Mermaid made intense, messy, painful love seem the only kind there is. I wish I hadn't loved Scarlett O'Hara so much – I might have realised unrequited love is just deeply boring. The same goes for Anne in Valley of the Dolls, who only gets her man after a lot of ugly scheming. Now, having read my 1970s feminists, I think any heroine who spends a whole novel in unrequited love with someone should be disqualified from being a role model for girls. And the amount of guilt these heroines felt about writing! I was so appalled by much of What Katy Did that I almost missed the bit where her writing gets burned. Jo March's writing gets burned, too, and Nanda's first book gets cast into hellfire. Thank goodness for Anne of Green Gables; I still think its message that altruism and hard work eventually get rewarded is, if not true, then at least a good way to live.

But as a girl I fell into the books and got lost in them; I would no more have questioned the heroines than I would have questioned my best friend. And I miss reading that way; it's much less fun to read as a more dispassionate adult. But it's also good to have a bit of distance from some of the heroines. As I put the books back on the shelf, it crossed my mind to get rid of some of the ones I'd changed my mind about. But I didn't; after all, I loved them once.

Reading around the books, through writers' biographies, diaries and letters, I tried to work out why some writers forced their heroines to give up and why some were brave enough to try to make their characters' dreams come true. And I wanted to know how the writers' own stories ended, what really happened, which stories they didn't tell. Take Charlotte and Emily Brontë: Charlotte fell in love, got her heart broken, exorcised her demons by writing them out, and married wisely. Emily never got to fall in love – imagine what she might have written if she had. Maybe it would be more interesting to have to choose between Charlotte and Emily than Jane Eyre and Cathy Earnshaw.

I might be older but I'm not wiser; it's still Emily. Not least because I read a telling little story about Charlotte's husband berating the women of Haworth for impiously hanging out their washing in the churchyard, and that makes me think he must have been a bit of a prig. Knowing more about the writers made me realise why so many of them left their heroines on the brink. Because interesting lives are difficult.

If I were writing myself as a heroine, I'd end the summer I graduated. I'd taken my play to the Edinburgh Fringe. The play was bad but it had heart. There were no rhinestone hats and no snapdragons, but it was thrilling. On the overnight coach back to London we scorned sleep, swigging a paperback-sized bottle of whisky, eating a block of Dairy Milk and talking about the future. I was finally growing out of the role models, finally becoming me. And I felt sure I was going to have an interesting life. Because interesting lives are difficult. As my mother knew.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell's Civil War saga is set at the same time as Little Women, but Scarlett O'Hara is a very different proposition. She sacrifices herself, too, but while Jo March sold her hair, when Scarlett married Frank she sold herself. I loved her courage, her optimism (I took on her mantra "Tomorrow is another day!" as my own) and her style; her curtain dress was much better than the curtain dresses in The Sound of Music. I was exhilarated by her ruthlessness. But this time round I felt sad that she doesn't know herself until the last page. It was hard to read 800 pages of her being blind to her own heart when all that time she could have been snogging Rhett.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

For years, Emily Brontë's novel was my template for raging, tempestuous love (the only kind). Cathy, the headstrong heroine, refuses to become ladylike and runs wild on the moors with brooding hero Heathcliff. Their love is so strong that even death fails to part them! But now, the idea of Cathy dying of a broken heart and haunting Heathcliff (trying to, as Kate Bush put it, grab his soul) seems less appealing, especially because it all comes from her betraying Heathcliff for puny, sallow Edgar.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I cried right through re-reading Alcott's story of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War. But I didn't like it. I used to love Jo the rebel, the writer. I was gutted to find she's a goody-goody. And the book is so moralistic; Jo gets slammed for writing a few racy stories to support her family but apparently it's fine, another time they're stuck for cash, for her to sell her hair. And at the end she gives up writing to marry a boring old German professor! It's all very troubling. And dishonest, because Alcott stayed a spinster and wrote smutty potboilers to the end. But then why make Little Women so preachy? I think Alcott felt guilty about her choices and loaded that guilt on to Jo.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

I remembered Jacqueline Susann's book as a gossipy, glamorous ode to female friendship. I liked Anne best because she escapes her prim, boring home town for showbiz New York. Turns out she's a Waspy ice queen whose big ambition is to be a secretary. I wish I'd gone for Neely as my heroine instead. She's bad but in such a witty way (the scene where she flushes her rival's wig down a toilet is hilarious) and she's got ambition. And, unlike the other women in the book, she's not deluded. "Guys will leave you," she says, "your looks will go, your kids will grow up and leave you, and everything you thought was great will go sour; all you can really count on is your talent." It's bleak, but bleaker still is that Susann gave her talent - writing - to a male character, the hideous "hero" Lyon Burke.


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The Parlour

The Parlour



Charlotte Bronte

Presently the door opened, and in came a superannuated mastiff, followed by an old gentleman very like Miss Bronte, who shook hands with us, and then went to call his daughter. A long interval, during which we coaxed the old dog, and looked at a picture of Miss Bronte, by Richmond, the solitary ornament of the room, looking strangely out of place on the bare walls, and at the books on the little shelves, most of them evidently the gift of the authors since Miss Bronte's celebrity. Presently she came in, and welcomed us very kindly, and took me upstairs to take off my bonnet, and herself brought me water and towels. The uncarpeted stone stairs and floors, the old drawers propped on wood, were all scrupulously clean and neat. When we went into the parlour again, we began talking very comfortably, when the door opened and Mr. Bronte looked in; seeing his daughter there, I suppose he thought it was all right, and he retreated to his study on the opposite side of the passage; presently emerging again to bring W---- a country newspaper. This was his last appearance till we went. Miss Bronte spoke with the greatest warmth of Miss Martineau, and of the good she had gained from her. Well! we talked about various things; the character of the people, - about her solitude, etc., till she left the room to help about dinner, I suppose, for she did not return for an age. The old dog had vanished; a fat curly-haired dog honoured us with his company for some time, but finally manifested a wish to get out, so we were left alone. At last she returned, followed by the maid and dinner, which made us all more comfortable; and we had some very pleasant conversation, in the midst of which time passed quicker than we supposed, for at last W---- found that it was half-past three, and we had fourteen or fifteen miles before us. So we hurried off, having obtained from her a promise to pay us a visit in the spring... ------------------- "She cannot see well, and does little beside knitting. The way she weakened her eyesight was this: When she was sixteen or seventeen, she wanted much to draw; and she copied nimini-pimini copper-plate engravings out of annuals, ('stippling,' don't the artists call it?) every little point put in, till at the end of six months she had produced an exquisitely faithful copy of the engraving. She wanted to learn to express her ideas by drawing. After she had tried to draw stories, and not succeeded, she took the better mode of writing; but in so small a hand, that it is almost impossible to decipher what she wrote at this time.

I asked her whether she had ever taken opium, as the description given of its effects in Villette was so exactly like what I had experienced, - vivid and exaggerated presence of objects, of which the outlines were indistinct, or lost in golden mist, etc. She replied, that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything which had not fallen within her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling to sleep, - wondering what it was like, or how it would be, - till at length, sometimes after the progress of her story had been arrested at this one point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened. I cannot account for this psychologically; I only am sure that it was so, because she said it. ----------------------She thought much of her duty, and had loftier and clearer notions of it than most people, and held fast to them with more success. It was done, it seems to me, with much more difficulty than people have of stronger nerves, and better fortunes. All her life was but labour and pain; and she never threw down the burden for the sake of present pleasure. I don't know what use you can make of all I have said. I have written it with the strong desire to obtain appreciation for her. Yet, what does it matter? She herself appealed to the world's judgement for her use of some of the faculties she had, - not the best, - but still the only ones she could turn to strangers' benefit. They heartily, greedily enjoyed the fruits of her labours, and then found out she was much to be blamed for possessing such faculties. Why ask for a judgement on her from such a world?" elizabeth gaskell/charlotte bronte

Poem: No coward soul is mine

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the worlds storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heavens glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast.
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life -- that in me has rest,
As I -- Undying Life -- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move mens hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast Rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou -- Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Emily Bronte

Family tree

The Bronte Family

Grandparents - paternal
Hugh Brunty was born 1755 and died circa 1808. He married Eleanor McClory, known as Alice in 1776.

Grandparents - maternal
Thomas Branwell (born 1746 died 5th April 1808) was married in 1768 to Anne Carne (baptised 27th April 1744 and died 19th December 1809).

Father was Patrick Bronte, the eldest of 10 children born to Hugh Brunty and Eleanor (Alice) McClory. He was born 17th March 1777 and died on 7th June 1861. Mother was Maria Branwell, who was born on 15th April 1783 and died on 15th September 1821.

Maria had a sister, Elizabeth who was known as Aunt Branwell. She was born in 1776 and died on 29th October 1842.

Patrick Bronte married Maria Branwell on 29th December 1812.

The Bronte Children
Patrick and Maria Bronte had six children.
The first child was Maria, who was born in 1814 and died on 6th June 1825.
The second daughter, Elizabeth was born on 8th February 1815 and died shortly after Maria on 15th June 1825. Charlotte was the third daughter, born on 21st April 1816.

Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls (born 1818) on 29th June 1854. Charlotte died on 31st March 1855. Arthur lived until 2nd December 1906.

The first and only son born to Patrick and Maria was Patrick Branwell, who was born on 26th June 1817 and died on 24th September 1848.

Emily Jane, the fourth daughter was born on 30th July 1818 and died on 19th December 1848.

The sixth and last child was Anne, born on 17th January 1820 who died on 28th May 1849.

Top Withens in the snow.

Top Withens in the snow.



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