That marvellous Emily Brontë, that gigantic Emily Brontë
Lyndall Gordon is an academic, born in South Africa and now Senior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College, who is well known for her literary biographies, which include T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Mary Wollstonecroft and Charlotte Brontë. She spoke to a captivated audience in Haworth, on Thursday 2 October.
Her new book is to be published shortly with the intriguing title of Lives like Loaded Guns. This concentrates on the poet Emily Dickinson by way of the so called ‘Dickinson feud’. The feud explodes over adultery but comes to focus on the poet.
Mrs Gordon came to Haworth to speak of how the lives and characters of the Brontës, most especially Emily, and Emily Dickinson follow a very similar pattern. There are so many similarities between the Brontës and the Dickinsons, for example strong fathers, both imbuing their children with a demand for learning. Although we have Mrs Gaskell to blame for the myth that Patrick was something of a tyrant, all evidence points to his being a loving and concerned father to his little bereaved flock, and Mr Dickinson was apparently captivated by his elder daughter’s wit and indulged her college education. Emily consistently describes her father in a warm manner.
It is fair to say that both girls’ characters were shaped by their father and perhaps influenced by the lack of a maternal figure in their lives. In the case of the Brontës we know that they were too young, when she died, for their mother to have had much influence on them and although Emily Dickinson’s mother died when the poet was fifty two, correspondence suggests that she was cold and aloof and if Emily was in trouble it was to her brother Austin that she would turn.
Other similarities between the two Emilies are that they were devoted siblings, albeit with some rivalry, and both were acutely homesick when away from home and family.
Emily Brontë drooped and suffered when absent from Haworth and the moors - when staying at Roe Head and Law Hill- and similarly Emily Dickinson left college early and, like Emily Brontë, returned home to occupy her time with household duties. This early return could have been a combination of homesickness or a possible rebellion against evangelism - she did not want to be instructed in faith and this may have played a part in her dropping out of college. This sounds all very familiar to the Emily Brontë we know - the Emily who rebelled against her father’s religion - who found ‘God within her breast’. Both girls were individuals who insisted on thinking for themselves - spirited, strange, concentrating on visionary faith.
In her early thirties Emily Dickinson did not leave her home unless it was absolutely necessary and avoided speaking to people face to face. Emily Brontë became more and more withdrawn, tramping the moors with only her dog, Keeper, as companion. Both Emilies have been described as reclusive, but this could be said to be a form of freedom and, as other people have done, they both achieved much even in this state. Florence Nightingale did nothing visible after the Crimea but actually managed to reform the sanitation of India, and Darwin, the invalid - his achievements speak for themselves.
It is thought that the Brontës influenced Emily Dickinson from beginning to end. ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’ – Emily Brontë’s wonderful poem, was read at her funeral, and the library in the Dickinson’s Amherst home held many Brontë books which had been acquired as published. Dickinson called her guide ‘gigantic Emily Brontë, marvellous Emily Brontë’ but Wendy Powers, in her article ‘Parallel Lives’ says both Emilies lived in ‘an independent world, created out of pure intelligence’.
Lyndall Gordon delivered an informative and enjoyable lecture a few hundred yards away from where Emily Brontë lived and wrote one of the greatest works of literature in the English Language and I am sure the lecture left those who had heard it wanting to learn more about the parallel of these two writers, separated in age by a decade and in location by the Atlantic and thousands of miles, but whose lives ran in parallel courses from childhood to death both trying to put the ‘unsayable’ into language.
Below, Lyndall Gordon