The reviews for Ellis Bell’s debut novel were, to use the polite term, ‘mixed’. Some were scathing; perhaps even brutal enough to give an author working on a second book pause for thought.
A critic in Graham’s Magazine wrote: ‘How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.’
The North British Review’s man said: ‘Here all the faults of Jane Eyre are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.’ Paterson’s Magazine was in no doubt: ‘Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.’
How much more horrified would these critics have been had they known that such a depraved and unnatural book wasn’t written by a man, as the pen name ‘Ellis Bell’ led them to believe, but by Emily Jane Brontë, a well-read, middle-class young woman; the daughter of a Cambridge-educated clergyman?
Born 200 years ago, Emily was one of four siblings living with their father and aunt in the parsonage at Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, the youngest, wrote from an early age. Wuthering Heights, completed in 1846, was published alongside Anne’s Agnes Grey as a single edition in December 1847, two months after the publication of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre.
A dark and violent story of obsessive passion and revenge, contemporary film and TV versions have often sold it as a romance but it is as much a hate story as a love story. Critics then were shocked by it. To read it now is still a bracing experience.
Emily died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty, just twelve months after it was published, and before it had gained the status it has today, when it is recognised as a work of genius. There is an assumption that the only novel Emily published was the only one she wrote. And that she was so horrified by the criticism, as the theory goes, that she never again picked up her pen. An alternative school of thought maintains that she discharged all of her creativity in that one strange, fierce, electrical storm of a novel. It earthed her – there was no spark left and she wrote nothing else in the two years between its completion and her death.
Perhaps it was the case that she had simply poured everything she had into her first novel and had no more to offer. ‘That notion couldn’t be further from the truth,’ says O’Callaghan
Neither theory holds water. ‘Frustratingly, we simply don’t know what she thought of the reviews,’ says Claire O’Callaghan, author of Emily Brontë Reappraised (Saraband), a book published last month that is aimed at dispelling the mythology surrounding the novelist. ‘But it’s intriguing that she did keep five of them – largely critical – and they were found in her writing desk.’
Perhaps we can surmise her feelings about critics from a letter Charlotte wrote to her publisher in November 1848, when Emily was seriously ill. She describes reading one of the more savage reviews to her sister with the aim of entertaining her. Emily, breathing with some difficulty, sat back in her chair and ‘smiled half-amused and half in scorn’.
In relation to Emily, we have to surmise a lot. Juliet Barker, author of several works on the Brontës and a former curator and librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, has written of her and Anne: ‘The known facts of their lives could be written on a single sheet of paper; their letters, diary papers and drawings would not fill two dozen.’
But what we do know of her suggests that while she was painfully shy, she was neither timid nor easily swayed. In fact, she was independent-minded, resilient and, when she thought she was right, unbendingly stubborn. In her best-known poem she declares: ‘No coward soul is mine.’ Her French teacher wrote that ‘her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have been given way but with life’. She was even handy with a gun. Her father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, fearful of Luddite civil unrest, taught her how to use his pistol.
So, yes, it is conjecture, but does she really sound like someone who would be unduly discouraged by the fact that a few critics just didn’t get her? Perhaps, then, it was the case that she had simply poured everything she had into her first novel and had no more to offer. ‘That notion couldn’t be further from the truth,’ says O’Callaghan. ‘This was somebody who, from a very young age, lived in a creative world in her mind. There was the imaginary world of Gondal she created, and which spawned so much, including her poetry and, some would argue, Wuthering Heights.’
‘I think she definitely did make a start, at the very least, on a second novel, even if it was in note form or in planning’
Since childhood, Emily had been writing stories with Anne about Gondal. None have survived but a handful of poems and references suggest they were a richly layered fantasy, a sort of Game of Thrones saga of warring kingdoms and the intrigues of emperors and queens. It is inconceivable, says O’Callaghan, that the creative wellspring had run dry. ‘We know she was still writing poetry – her last dated poem was May 1848. I think she definitely did make a start, at the very least, on a second novel, even if it was in note form or in planning.’
Barker agrees: ‘It would be very odd if both Anne and Charlotte wrote a second novel but Emily didn’t,’ she says. ‘It seems to me that there is no way Emily would not have embarked on a second.’
A note from her publisher Thomas Newby found in her desk seems to confirm this. Dated 15 February 1848, it is apparently in response to a letter from ‘Ellis’: ‘Dear Sir, I am much obliged by your kind note & shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your next work . . . I shall therefore, have pleasure in accepting it upon the understanding that its completion be at your own time.’
And in a ‘Biographical Notice’ included in an 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Charlotte wrote: ‘Neither Ellis nor Acton [all the sisters wrote under male pseudonyms] allowed herself for one moment to sink under want of encouragement; energy nerved the one, and endurance upheld the other. They were both prepared to try again.’
So what became of the second novel? Barker suggests that it was probably never finished as first Branwell and then Emily herself fell ill and died (Anne died the following year). She thinks it possible that Charlotte, protective of her sister’s reputation, destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death. ‘Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is,’ Charlotte disapprovingly wrote in the preface to the 1850 edition, essentially arguing that Wuthering Heights was an immature work. It had been, she wrote, ‘hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials’. If Emily’s second had been more of the same, Charlotte might well have been inclined to prevent its publication.
Was Emily planning a contemporary novel, set in Yorkshire, about, and in defence of, Chartism the working class movement for social and political reform?
‘Did Charlotte do that? I’m not 100 per cent sure,’ says O’Callaghan. ‘We know that there was the destruction of a lot of material but it could have been that Emily herself did that when she finally realised just how ill she was. Again, like so much with Emily, we just don’t know.’
And in the absence of knowledge, there has been a great deal of speculation. Author and historian Sarah Fermi has a theory about the second novel’s intended subject matter, taking as her starting point a meeting in the 1840s between Charlotte Brontë and Francis Butterfield, a Chartist living in West Yorkshire. Fermi argues that anomalies in the account of this meeting imply that it was Emily rather than Charlotte who visited Butterfield. She postulates that this suggests Emily might have been planning a contemporary novel, set in Yorkshire, about, and in defence of, Chartism the working class movement for social and political reform.
In the 1983 novel, The Case of the Missing Brontë, by prolific crime writer and former chairman of the Brontë Society, Robert Barnard, the manuscript of the second novel resurfaces in the possession of a descendant of a woman with whom Branwell had an affair and triggers dastardly deeds in the Yorkshire dales.
And Morwenna Holman, a woman in Leeds, wrote a sequel to Wuthering Heights after an apparently extensive communication with the spirit of the author. ‘At the age of eighteen my psychic powers reached their full strength and Emily told me I had to write her second novel, which was destroyed by Charlotte when she lay dying,’ Holman told the Keighley News in 2014, adding that Emily was ‘hard to work with’.
Disappointingly, the literary world did not accept this evidence from the spirit world as conclusive proof of the ‘Charlotte the Destroyer’ theory. But if it is correct, Emily’s manuscript certainly wouldn’t have been the first book destroyed to preserve a legacy. In 1824, publisher John Murray had burned the supposedly scandalous memoirs of his star author, Lord Byron, who had died a month earlier. Murray and a couple of the poet’s friends had taken the decision to protect Byron’s reputation – and possibly their own.
Nor would it have been the last work to mysteriously disappear after the death of an author. Sylvia Plath loved Wuthering Heights, rereading it during a visit to Haworth and writing that she ‘really felt it this time more than ever’. She wrote a poem of the same name, walked the moors that the Brontës walked and sketched Top Withens, the derelict farm building said to be sited where Emily envisioned the Wuthering Heights farmhouse.
When Plath took her own life in 1963 at the age of thirty, her novel, The Bell Jar, had only just been published but she had begun a second novel, Double Exposure, the previous summer, at around the same time that she discovered her husband Ted Hughes was having an affair. Various people saw outlines and read parts of it and by the time of her death, she may have written up to 130 pages. What became of it is – to date – unknown.
However, new Plath material continues to turn up as do, from time to time, other missing manuscripts. Shirley Jackson, author of the novels We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The House on Haunted Hill as well as The Lottery – which was, prior to this year’s Cat Person, the New Yorker’s most talked about and controversial short story – died in 1965.
Her son, Laurence Jackson, opened his front door one day in the mid-1990s to find a shabby box on his porch. There was no return address – provenance unknown. The box contained the manuscript of one of his mother’s novels as well as half a dozen unpublished short stories.
In recent years ‘lost’ works by Edith Wharton, Beatrix Potter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Harper Lee have all been found. And this autumn, the Brontë Society is to publish a poem and short story written by Charlotte as a teenager, and discovered inside a book owned by her mother, Maria. The book was sold following the death of Patrick Brontë in 1861 and was in America for nearly a century.
As one of the events marking the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth, Kate Bush, a longtime fan whose single, ‘Wuthering Heights’, was a hit in 1978, has written a short tribute to the author. It will be engraved on a stone to be positioned on the moors between Thornton, the sisters’ birthplace, and Haworth. ‘Emily only wrote the one novel,’ Bush writes. ‘An extraordinary work of art that has truly left its mark.’
It certainly has left its mark, indelibly, but ‘only the one novel’? That’s far less certain. However unlikely it may seem, however vanishingly tiny the chance, I live in hope that one day a second or part thereof could well be found.
‘There is always a small possibility,’ concurs O’Callaghan. ‘We know that after Charlotte’s death in 1855, things were sold off and moved from the house. Who knows? It’s lovely to think that somewhere – maybe even undiscovered at the Parsonage – there might be a manuscript that somebody will find one day.’
And Barker recalls: ‘When I worked at the Parsonage, a lady turned up one day and said she had a Charlotte Brontë letter. And she really had – a genuine Charlotte Brontë letter that had never been published. It does happen every now and again. I do think it unlikely that a second Emily novel will ever turn up but I would never say never.’