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.

Valentine’s Day

Mighty Like a Rose begins 31 years ago to the day, on Valentine’s Day 1984. I didn’t particularly mean for the story to start on Valentine’s Day, the more important thing for me was that it was the day it was announced that Princess Di was pregnant with Harry. The fact that it was also the day Torvill and Dean won gold at Sarejevo with their “Bolero” (possibly one of the most 80s moments of the 80s) and it gave me a chance to show that all was not well in the Ryder household was a nice bit of serendipity, and felt like the story trying to write itself.

Valentine’s Day has run away with itself over recent years, back in ’84 Mary could just be mildly disgruntled that Nigel hadn’t bought her a card (it’s not the worst thing he does) but now I know for a fact that tomorrow Facebook and Twitter will be a tidal wave of pictures of flowers and chocolates, and meals in skyscrapers, and #loveyoubabe, and it’s all got a bit competitive.

I’ll admit, I’ve been very grumpy at my partner for forgetting Valentine’s Day on more than one occasion (including our first Valentine’s Day together). His initial defence was (not unreasonably) “I didn’t think you’d care about that crap”, but after a few tantrums he’s got the message that I do care about that crap. It’s no guarantee of a card though. He’s not great with dates, or with shopping. As I’ve got older I care a lot less. A well-chosen card on a very commercialised day is less important to me than what happens every day. One thing I hope that comes across in the book is that big, expensive gestures alone are meaningless, or worse. What is important is a mutual respect, a willingness to support each other and respect each other. I probably don’t tell my partner enough (and he doesn’t read the blog) how much I value his support, his understanding and all the things he does for me.

I still want some chocolates though.