From life or from imagination

I had a lovely present from my mum over the weekend, a card and mug from the Bronte Parsonage gift shop. The Brontes have always been part of my life. I was named after Catherine Earnshaw, wilful and stubborn heroine of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. As a child visits to Howarth were a regular family trip, as well as the Parsonage museum we would go on the steam trains on the Worth Valley railway and walk on the moors.

I don’t know how old I was when I first read Wuthering Heights. I had a child’s version of the book (which simplified the story and cut the framing device of Mr Lockwood listening to Ellen Dean. At some point I graduated to the full version and then worked my way through Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Villette… everything. The poetry and even the juvenilia. The three sisters, and their ill-fated brother Branwell, produced a huge body of work, written in tiny handwriting in tiny, hand-made notebooks. What began as playing games with their toy soldiers evolved into complex sagas of imagined lands.

Emily Bronte only wrote one novel. She would die soon after her brother. Part of the enduring appeal of the Brontes is that the family story itself is so compelling and tragic. Like many female novelists there are continuous background rumblings that she could not have written Wuthering Heights herself. Most rumours suggest Branwell wrote it. One piece of “evidence” that keeps coming up is that Wuthering Heights is a dark, passionate story – how could a sheltered parson’s daughter write something so emotionally intense and darkly passionate? Well let me explain how fiction works. You make stuff up then write it down! It’s not autobiography. The Brontes were very well read, and their life was less sheltered than many imagine (Emily and Charlotte went to school for a time in Brussels, where Charlotte fell in love (unrequited) with the married professor of the school). While Charlotte did use experiences from her own life (Lowood school in Jane Eyre, her obsession with her married teacher in Villette and The Professor) in her books, as did Anne (her time as a governess inspired Agnes Grey and Branwell’s drinking influenced The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), where is no reason to think that Wuthering Heights is grounded in reality any more than Emily’s imagined kingdom of Gondal, the setting for her early work.

It seems to me that it is women writers who are assumed to write from life, whether it’s prose, poetry or songwriting. There are a lot of women (and men) writers who do write from their life, but many (including me) who don’t. People seem a bit disappointed when I tell them Mighty Like a Rose is from imagination, as if they’d prefer it if I’d gone through some of the traumas Mary has. I should take this as a compliment – something must be ringing true with people. But for the record – none of it is autobiographical.