|| Delving deeply into Emily
Brontë's work, Davies finds evidence to suggest that the
shy and virginal Emily was much more than she seemed. Shy she
certainly was, silent to the point of rudeness in the company
of strangers. Virginal, too, for there is no hint of a lover,
male or female. But Davies argues that Emily had a profound
understanding of human passion and sexuality, and that, politically,
she was a true revolutionary. While her sisters could be categorised
as "Tory, Anglican, individualist feminists", advocating judicious
reform, she was sceptical, convinced that human nature would
never change. Davies presents a provocative view of a highly
unconventional woman, living in an age which could not accommodate
|| The Sunday Times
|| Stevie Davies's impassioned
and brilliant study of Emily Brontë, rather like turning
from an epic to a lyric, occupies the space Barker [The
Brontës by Juliet Barker] leaves empty. It is an
ambitious and arresting rereading of Emily's poems, novel and
essays, and rightly takes her seriously as an intellectual with
a profoundly philosophical and audacious imagination.
Emily Brontë was a heretic, she argues, because she denied
the possibility of a benevolent God and a benign natural order:
she asserted the independent power of her own feminine sexuality
and refused patriarchy; she interpreted Victorian social hierarchies
as the ultimate in brutal power struggles; she refused the metaphysic
of human superiority to animals and asserted parity between
men and animals because of their shared propensity to violence;
she became a convinced political revolutionary by the end of
her life. Hence Charlotte's extreme embarrassment and shame.
In an essay, "The Butterfly", composed in Belgium, Emily Brontë
wrote that "the entire creation is equally meaningless... the
universe seemed to me a vast machine constructed solely to produce
evil". Davies wonderfully contextualises the granite intransigence
of this statement. She sees Brontë as a Blake-like writer
of the contraries who recognised that the logical consequence
of a binary universe of struggle is a harsh, perpetual questioning
of stable values.
Returning from Brussels, she believes, Emily avidly pursued
the German thought Friedrich Schlegel and F. W. J. Schelling,
for instance which explored the idea of dialectic and
the notions of dualism and romantic irony associated with it.
Davies reads Wuthering Heights as an ironic exploration
of power and violence rooted in German ideas. At the same time
she is attentive to the detail of the novel, showing how subtle
is its use of simple, solid household objects such as
the dresser at the Heights, which is part of the visual and
physical experience of two generations of Earnshaws and Lintons.
Davies is aware of the irony of Emily's assertion, "No coward
soul is mine", when her inability to tolerate anywhere but the
safety of Haworth is well known, but argues that only by refuge
in regression could she sustain the burden of her heresy. This
account of Emily will be influential for some time to come.
For this reason it is worth making some cautionary points.
The book has a tendency to pass too quickly over perplexing
aspects of Emily's life and work. Just as it oversimplifies
her sexual knowledge by resorting in some desperation to a theory
of masturbation, so it converts Emily's celebration of power
too precipitately into an overcoming of violence. The Brontës
were saturated in the Tory ideology that put the Duke of Wellington
detested and reviled as a dictator by radicals of the
early 1830s at the centre of their childhood fantasies.
Here Barker's historical world should meet Davies's philosophical
world, as we see the contradictions of Patrick Brontë handed
on to his children.
They were fascinated by the will to power that justified Victorian
discriminations of class and race even while they struggled
with it. Emily Brontë's heroic philosophical struggle did
not always slip the noose of the master/slave sadism that shocked
her early readers. A tradition of reactionary violence, issuing
in writers as different as Tennyson and, later, Lawrence, came
down to her.
Both Barker and Davies concur in their dislike of bossy old
Charlotte... Without her Emily would be unknown...
|| Times Higher
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