G. K. Chesterton, musing over the Brontës in his monumental work The Victorian Age in Literature, reflected:
There is really, in a narrow but intense way, a tradition of Emily Brontë: as there is a tradition of St. Peter or Dr. Johnson. People talk as if they had known her, apart from her works.
This is one of the great tragedies of the Brontë sisters, and particularly of Emily. Evading public attention in life, she has in death been beset with every conceivable misreading that could be concocted against the domestically-inclined (borderline-antisocial), virginal daughter of an Anglican clergyman. The facts about her life are meager. So-called critical studies and film adaptations have deliberately misinterpreted what we do know, transforming her into a proto-feminist, a Marxist, and a nymphomaniac. Consequently, there are few works about Emily that are worth their weight in salt.
Rarely before has the scant data about Emily Brontë received such an illuminating treatment as it does at the hands of Tim Powers in My Brother’s Keeper. With all the thrilling trappings of the preternatural, this novel constitutes a more creditable contribution to Brontë Studies than the majority of books, articles, and professorial assertions I encountered while I was a graduate student. (The only additional pieces I would recommend to Brontë lovers are Joseph Pearce’s introduction in the Ignatius Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights, the ICE of Jane Eyre, and Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth.)
Powers is perfectly suited to take on the Emily Brontë challenge. An award-winning novelist of wide popularity, he is the reigning king of “supernatural” or speculative fiction. At the same time, his skill, knowledge of literary history, and incomparable imagination have made him one of the greatest Catholic novelists now living. He effortlessly spans the divide between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”. In a particular way, his work should always be of particular interest to Catholics. Without ever lapsing into sentimentalism or awkward proselytism, Powers brings to his work a moral and metaphysical sensibility derived from his inescapably Catholic understanding.
Powers’ approach to fiction is frequently in the form of “secret histories”; he chooses a moment in history and investigates it, finding a compelling, supernaturally-infused interpretation of the facts—facts which he scrupulously refuses to alter or ignore. The result is a radical but eerily convincing way of answering deep questions in history. The tormented lives and genius of the Romantic Poets or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are thus seen through the lens of occult coupling with succubae, and Cold War espionage through the machinations of demonic creatures on Mount Ararat.
With such an approach, the Brontës are a rich breeding ground for Powersian horrors. Powers has little at his disposal, and exuberantly utilizes it all: the elaborate, high-fantastical juvenilia concocted by the four surviving Brontë children (published posthumously as Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal), a very small collection of letters, some of Emily’s poetry, her one published novel (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte’s account of her sisters after their deaths, and the selectively-accurate The Life of Charlotte Brontë by fellow novelist and Brontë friend Elizabeth Gaskell.
What are the facts? Patrick Brontë, son of an Irish Catholic laborer, rose from poverty to become an Anglican clergyman living out most of his life in Yorkshire. His wife died young, leaving him with six children, the eldest two of whom died of tuberculosis in childhood. Brontë’s remaining four children–Charlotte (1816–1855), Patrick Branwell (1817–1848), Emily (1818–1848) and Anne (1820–1849)—died in their early adulthood, three of them most likely from tuberculosis. Before their deaths, the three girls published a volume of poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, as well as six novels: three by Charlotte, two by Anne, and one by Emily.
This last is a complex legacy. The highly-stylized and oppressively dark novel Wuthering Heights has fascinated, bewildered, thrilled, and disgusted readers since its publication. The most hilarious early review I have ever read came from an American magazine in 1848: “We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.” On the other hand, Kate Bush’s 1978 debut single “Wuthering Heights” not only made the artist’s career but became an iconic piece of that mythological tradition of Emily Brontë. (If you have not yet experienced the song, prepare yourself for an earworm from hell.) The challenge of understanding the novel is not merely a modern issue; as Chesterton put it:
Her imagination was sometimes superhuman—always inhuman. Wuthering Heights might have been written by an eagle. She is the strongest instance of these strong imaginations that made the other sex a monster: for Heathcliffe fails as a man as catastrophically as he succeeds as a demon.
To help us understand Emily Brontë, therefore, we are well served by turning to a writer who understands monsters and demons.
Powers grapples with all that is strange, wondrous, and deeply human in the Brontës. Pseudo-Catholicism is not least among things weird and wonderful therein; as Chesterton put it, the Brontës brought “the blast of the mysticism of the North” from their “Irish blood” and the “windy heights of Yorkshire” into fiction:
. . . where Catholicism lingered latest, but in a superstitious form; where modern industrialism came earliest and was more superstitious still. The strong winds and sterile places, the old tyranny of barons and the new and blacker tyranny of manufacturers, has made and left that country a land of barbarians.
The lingering, twisted threads of Catholicism are here, as is the strange new barbarism. Likewise we see the deeply inculcated knowledge of Scripture which all of the Brontës demonstrated in their writing. At the same time, the novel entertains questions of purgation after death—questions that rippled through all Brontë novels and much of the poetry—as well as Anne’s sentimentalist tendency toward the heresy of “universal salvation”.
The Brontë juvenilia, largely inspired by the children’s deep acquaintance with the Romantic Poets, with ancient myth, and with British affairs in the early nineteenth-century, receives beautiful treatment. Their early lives were full of grief and loss—the death of their mother in 1821 and the deaths by tuberculosis of their two eldest sisters in 1825—and we witness its influence. We see clearly the unsanitary conditions of the region, which cultivated tuberculosis and other diseases.
Further, the novel serves as an explicating homage to the much-misunderstood Wuthering Heights. A host of historical questions are addressed, not least among them: Why did Patrick Brontë (purportedly) fire a shotgun over the graveyard each day? Why was Branwell ignominiously dismissed from his position as a tutor? Why did Charlotte attempt to go to Confession while in Brussels? What happened to the manuscript of Emily’s second novel?
The explanation put forth by Powers is simple: the district is being plagued by a demonic werewolf god, brought unwittingly to Yorkshire by Patrick Brontë in his youth. When the god begins to possess Branwell Brontë, and a werewolf hunter named Alcuin Curzon appears to deal with the situation, Emily’s love and moral concern for her brother compel her to engage with these multiple threats. As the thrilling tale unfolds, the character of the novelist, with her deep—though theologically conflicted—faith, and her perception of things natural and supernatural are beautifully revealed. Powers’ affection and knowledge of Emily Brontë are as infectious as Emily’s affection and knowledge of her beloved dog, Keeper. As a result, Powers achieved something I didn’t think was possible: he successfully provoked me to care a groat about the soul of Branwell Brontë.
I have always considered Branwell at best a weak-willed here-and-therian, and at worst a narcissistic, manipulative addict. With a sulky sense of his own genius, he failed in every aspect of his life—he failed as an artist, he failed as a poet, he failed as a would-be libertine, and failed monumentally as a son and a brother. He is the shadowy figure overhanging the rest of his family. In fact, he literally painted himself out of a family portrait he attempted—a painting now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London—so that he appears as a ghostly, faded column behind his sisters.
Nevertheless, the impact of Branwell on his sisters and his father was profound. As I heard it described many years ago: When Branwell came home drunk, Charlotte lectured, Anne cried, and Emily put him to bed. Emily’s affection notwithstanding, I have always considered Branwell a suitable subject for kicking in the pants.
While Powers was writing the novel, he spoke to me of the challenge of making Branwell remotely sympathetic. Emily was always Powers’ primary focus, but he noted: “I need him to somehow be worth her saving.” That is precisely what he has achieved, and the vehicle for this transformation in charity is Emily herself. As a dim echo of Divine love—which we receive not because we are good, but because He is Good—I cared about the salvation of Branwell not because he is a sympathetic figure, but because Emily is. Emily reverberates with self-sacrificing love. The depiction provided by Powers prompted me, both in reading the unpublished manuscript and in reading the final, published novel, to pause more than once and pray sincerely for the repose of the soul of that unhappy young man.
This is a human and Christian response which would, I believe, have meant a great deal to Emily. She cared about eternal salvation and desired it for those she loved. She loved Branwell, though it appears that she was not blind to his many faults. While the novel’s title echoes the words of Cain—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—the story itself provides an answer, and one that will be particularly poignant to anyone who has ever loved a fellow fallen human being, especially an addict. Emily was not weighed down by grief or despair, though such would have been completely understandable given the repeated losses suffered in her short life. She could look in the face of demons and of death, and feel the life-sucking influence of ghosts rising from the contaminated ground outside her home, and yet have hope.
For all of these reasons (despite my enduring loyalty to The Anubis Gates as—perhaps—my favorite Powers novel and Declare—possibly—as his finest), I have a special place in my heart for My Brother’s Keeper. Powers crowns all the achievements of the novel with this: faithfully exploring all that we can know factually about Emily, he imaginatively brings us to a more intimate acquaintance with this extraordinary writer in all of her complexity. Readers of her poetry (especially those who go beyond the first stanza of “No Coward Soul Is Mine”) will find in this novel a character who could have written both Wuthering Heights and the collection of poetry available to us.
I believe Powers could have provided G. K. Chesterton with food for further thought. Emily Brontë was not an eagle, far beyond our knowledge, but a loving sister who, through grace, genius, and inherent goodness, proves strangely well-equipped for the battling of Powersian demons.
My Brother’s Keeper
By Tim Powers
Baen Books; September 5, 2023
Hardcover, 320 pages
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