Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

“My Brontë is better than your Brontë”– The Great Vulpes Libris Brontë Slapdown.


Emily_Brontë_croppedOur CharlieSo, it was like this: one day last year in the Den, we were talking about directions VL could take, and the idea of a multi-Fox debate was mooted. Bookfox Hilary (in a valiant attempt to get us organized and all facing in the same direction) drew up a list of possible topics to which Kate fatefully added “Charlotte vs Emily slapdown, with me on team Charlotte” …

In order to share the uniquely Bookfoxy atmosphere of the events that followed, many of the bystanders’ comments are included, and our gentle readers will quickly realize that the debate took place over many months as Real Life intervened, work deadlines loomed and mojos waxed, waned then waxed again …


Moira: Ooh. An Emily -v- Charlotte slapdown. Are you sure you want to stick your neck in that noose, Kate?

Kate: Ready for ANYONE on that front. You challenging?

Moira: Oh yes, I’m up for it  …

Kirsty: *gets popcorn*

Jackie: *scoots next to Kirsty on couch, reaches for popcorn*

Hilary: My work here is done. Thank you my children.

Kate: *struts into ring*  … My challenge to the Emilyites is, what can she offer to match these epic moments in literature by Charlotte?

1) Jane turning St John Rivers DOWN (epic because a woman stood up to this domestic tyrant and refused not only his name and his idea of marriage, and would only work with him as a relative and colleague)

2) Shirley and Caroline crouching in the bushes as the Luddites are talked down by Robert (he saves his factory and capital, they are witnesses to male violence and the alternative to violence)

3) Lucy wanders the streets of Brussels at night, totally lost, and also hallucinating (the solitude and vulnerability of the single woman, the exotic city with an alien language and religion can only be indulged in by the upright / uptight Protestant Englishwoman in the dark and possibly also when out of her mind)

*sits gracefully in the corner seat, being flapped by attendants in white linen*

(There is an elapse of some time …)

Moira: I’m not ignoring you, Kate. I have a killer response half-formulated …

Kate: *taps well manicured nails on ropes, and waits. Pointedly. Adjusts pearl-grey silk dress*

(More time elapses.)

Moira: *dons lead-weighted boxing gloves* … Okayyyyy … so let me start by pointing out that Emily wrote just ONE book. Well, she almost certainly wrote TWO, but dear Charlotte is believed to have destroyed the second, unpublished, novel after Emily’s death, presumably because she felt that it did nothing to burnish the image of her sister – and indeed the Brontë family – that she had so carefully constructed since Emily had snarled her way to her consumptive grave in December 1848.

She also destroyed Emily and Anne’s Gondal writings – except for some of the poems – messed with her poetry and generally interfered with her legacy. However, in spite of all of that,Wuthering Heights contains some of the most iconic moments in English – if not World – literature and I can offer moments that equal or surpass yours without even breaking into a sweat.

Vast chunks of Charlotte’s books – all of them – are desperately pedestrian. They have their moments (well, apart from The Professor … which has no moments at all), and Villette in particular demonstrates what a superb novelist there was, buried somewhere deep within that diminutive, chippy, snobbish little woman – but there is nothing in any of them that even approaches the sheer beauty of Wuthering Heights, which in places, is an extended poem.

Emily wasn’t interested in realism, still less in the conventions of the latter half of the 19th Century which deemed that a fictional hero who transgressed had to Pay the Price before he could be redeemed and live happily ever after. She set her chief male protagonist (and you won’t catch me calling him a hero) on – as Charlotte so splendidly put it – an ‘arrow straight course to perdition’.

Heathcliff dies in his bed. He’s one of the finest sociopaths in literature and he gets to DIE IN HIS BED. What’s more, judging by the expression on his face, he dies an insanely (and I use that word advisedly) happy man. That was a master stroke.

Then there are Catherine’s moments of unrivalled lyricism – words that generations of impressionable schoolgirls have committed to heart and declaimed passionately to the walls of their bedrooms or – in at least one case – across the vast, empty acres of the Berkshire Downs:

Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire […] My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

Heathcliff, of course, is not to be outdone in the timeless barnstorming stakes:

And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!

*retires to her corner, heaving gently, like a ship at anchor*

Kate: *snorts* … That’s IT? You palter with Romantic tosh.

I have never been able to abide / endure / tolerate / believe / suspend disbelief for any of Wuthering Heights because it is a load of old cobblers. I cannot believe in any of the characters, except possibly Nelly, because they storm! they shriek! they glower! they are not PEOPLE they are monsters of an imprecise and gushingly hyperbolic imagination that had no idea where the OFF button lived. I can’t be bothered reading about lurid and dramatic happenings. That is the stuff of melodrama, and the trotting out of archetypes to re-enact mythic tropes in which all the characters are symbolic and don’t leave anything for my imagination to work on. I also don’t believe in passionate doomed love affairs that last as long as rocks. Balderdash. ‘Do not leave me in this abyss’: get up and groom a horse, for goodness’ sake! She’s dead, get over it. Self-centred protagonists bore me. I have to believe in the reality of that character, of him (for it is a he we are discussing) being able to walk into a room and out through a door like a normal homo sapiens. Heathcliff is not like that, he is a glower and a rage personified, without any sense of being a man of his time, and so as a character he does nothing for me.

Now, in Villette, we have a deranged and desperate woman storming about the streets of Brussels (now buried under a rather good Art Nouveau concert hall and massive art gallery) for love, and she’s so much more believable than Heathcliff because Lucy’s interiority speaks instantly to any person who has struggled under injustice, and in thrall to confused emotions that she doesn’t understand.  You are spot on when you say that Emily wasn’t interested in realism. She did not write realism because she did not live in the world, she existed emotionally in her dreams, and we all know how tiresome people like that are when we need to change the sheets on their bed, or sweep under their lounging sofa, while they lounge and don’t get up to help. Although Charlotte used the vocabulary of Romantic passion in Lucy’s dialogue, she was writing interior realism; she described the city impressionistically but also realistically. It’s interesting that both these novels (all the novels) are about the struggles of love affairs to start, and keep going. Because Charlotte lived in the world, she made the love affairs she described part of daily normal existence. Emily did not live in the world, and so her characters storm und drang like weather formations and forces of nature who still had to wear stays and breeches and write with quill pens, and I simply don’t believe in them.

*retires to ropes, fanned by nymphs*

Hilary: *stands by with towel, gum shield and British Boxing Board of Control on speed-dial*

Rosy: (Who is supposed to be doing something else) *sneaks in under the tent flap* … The wonderful thing about Wuthering Heights is that it IS so over the top. It is melodrama and it is gothic. It is designed to be taken with a pinch of salt. I love it for the following reasons:

That Catherine Earnshaw is such a B**** – and is no-one’s passive helpmeet like Jane Eyre. She is spoiled and she is selfish. It is the perfect novel for teenagers.

The connection with the moor and the outside. I think this elemental tempestuous relationship with the moor is actually Emily Brontë’s greatest and realest love. For me, all the stuff between the two tempestuous lovers is really all about crashing emotions and relationship with weather and place. I related to this as a teenager, I relate to it now.

Heathcliff stabbing Hindley’s hand through the window. It’s a moment that’s so wonderfully over the top it makes me laugh out loud – and I kind of think Emily wants that.

The contempt for the restraints and snobberies of her society. I find Jane Eyre SO much more problematic with all that locking up the mad ex-wife in the attic stuff, and the conveniently-bumping-her-off stuff, and the lack of sympathy or understanding for those deemed mad, or different, or from somewhere else, or people who don’t fit in, or people who aren’t conventional and don’t abide by the rules. I find Wide Sargasso Sea and the questions it raises far more interesting – and the lack of awareness of these issues and the people they affected disturbs me greatly about Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights is all about the revenge of those who don’t abide by the rules and refuse to be contained by those rules.

Yes, it’s over the top and no I don’t think it’s realistic – but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. Any more than many great pieces of drama or literature are supposed to be. It’s just a different style and tradition altogether and designed to be read in a slightly different way.

Phew. *wipes brow* Off to continue writing again now… *sneaks away again*

Moira: *slips a couple more ounces into the gloves* … Quite, Rosy … My point exactly. Emily didn’t give a fig for the normal conventions of novel-writing and characterization. She did it her way.  And this image of Emily as the visionary, the fantasist, drifting around misty-eyed and useless, staring into the middle distance and living in her own imagination is absolute tosh – for which we have to thank bloody Charlotte. Emily was, in fact, the most practical member of the family. When the family’s aged cook/housekeeper, Tabitha Ackroyd, was in failing health, it was Emily who took over many of her duties. She cooked, she cleaned, she baked bread. On top of that, she invested money in the new-fangled railways, read the newspapers assiduously to keep abreast of developments and was pretty handy with a pistol to boot. She was the smartest member of the family by quite a long way and was streets ahead of Charlotte intellectually, too. You only have to read the essays they wrote during their time at the Pensionnat Heger to realize that. Charlotte’s were plodding and schoolgirlish. Emily’s were assured and the product of a very unusual mind.

Which brings me neatly to Lucy Snowe, deranged in Brussels. Yes – it is a fine and convincing piece of writing – and there’s a reason for that. Lucy Snowe was Charlotte Brontë. That’s EXACTLY what Charlotte did … she went comprehensively out of her mind through unrequited love. I mean, have you READ her appalling, cringe-worthy letters to Constantin Heger? Kudos to her for taking her experience and turning it into a stonking good read … but if either of them had an imprecise and gushingly hyperbolic imagination, it was Charlotte, not Emily. Emily was the scholar. Emily was the accomplished speaker and writer of French and German. Emily was the one who cast a shrewd eye over the human race, and decided that – on the whole – she preferred it in Haworth. Charlotte was the pedantic snob.

Oh – and Wuthering Heights isn’t romantic tosh. It isn’t romantic. It barely qualifies as a romance at all. It stands alone – a one-off, an original – and nothing so mundane as a melodrama. Yes, it spawned kajillions of imitators – but it stands head and shoulder above them all – and at the time it was written, it was quite unlike anything that had come before it. It literally caused shock waves: the reviews were variously outraged, dismayed – and admiring. One reviewer, memorably, referred to it as ‘the large utterance of a baby god”.

It would be unkind at this point to start talking about their respective poetry, of course …

*stomps off stage left with all the elegance of a sack of bricks and slams door loudly on her way out*

(Elapse of much time as Things Happen in real life and multiple work deadlines intervene. Eventually, however …)

Kate: I’m baaaaaaaaack.

So, I reread Wuthering Heights yesterday, standing in a train from Oxford to London for three hours, and then sitting (thank you, gods of ‘Great’ Western Trains) for two hours on the return trip that normally takes AN HOUR. So I finished the novel in a day.

Yes, it’s tripe. It is seething, unrestrained blubbery stuff that I do not wish to ingest ever again. It is full of characters who I dislike extremely, have no patience with or tolerance for, it is a parade of grotesques who don’t live, they simply emote. Much like Sex and the City, these tedious characters were created for only one reason: to behave horribly to other people and scream and storm about their enthralldom to love, which I cannot possibly believe in because there is not a redeeming feature in their personalities to hang onto that anyone could love.

There is no reason to read the novel, as far as I can see. The poetry you spoke of earlier: nah. I reread and reread passages like that, trying to produce a readerly response, a flicker of interest, but nothing happened. Wuthering Heights doesn’t speak to me, it just storms and rages and is so damn boring because nothing happens. Nelly Dean is like a distracted mother trying to keep order in a nursery of petulance, because Hindley won’t speak to Heathcliff, who won’t speak to Catherine, who storms off in a strop to be nice to Edgar, so Heathcliff won’t speak to him either, and then he comes back miraculously transformed (really? how? whose money? where? with what new skills? oh forget it …) as Regency Buck Mark I, to systematically kill off all remaining upper-class protagonists including his own son. With no-one else in the neighbourhood noticing, or caring, or saying anything. Really? I have to read this stuff for pleasure? Its Gothic navel-gazing: again, I cannot be bothered.

If I were teaching the novel (and teaching a novel I dislike and get angry about is a very good exercise, to explore the emotional responses to see how and why they arise) I’d direct the students to consider how EB structured the novel inside nested narratives, and ask what it was about the early 19thC Gothic novel that needed such separation between reader and authorial voice (cf: Frankenstein also). I’d say, look at the fanaticism of Joseph and consider if he is an archetypal old retainer, or a symbol of angry non-Conformism, a static character who fails to develop and change over time, or functioning as a Chorus from Greek tragedy in a tragedy that has no use for him. I’d talk about early 19thC conduct rules for women, compare those used in WH to similar ones used by Jane Austen, and also talk about how the Brontës wrote historical fiction (cf: Shirley). I’m much happier using Wuthering Heights as a teaching tool for its material, because there’s a lot in there to explore lit history with, how women wrote at the time, and so on. But as a novel to read for pleasure? No way.

*retires to ropes, to wash hands in scented water and dry them with cashmere towels*

Jackie: Oh my goodness, what a comeback! And I really am glad I won’t be around Moira when she reads it…. Wait, wait, cashmere towels??? Is there such a thing????

Kate: I have just invented them. They cost a lot of money, but the yarn exists, so one can knit them. Not me, obviously, but One.

Moira: Tsk, tsk, tsk … I will be with you shortly. I’m attending to the serious business of flogging stuff on eBay at the moment … specifically, wrapping up a really horrid toby jug well enough to (I hope) make it all the way to Australia in one piece.


Moira: Oh nooooooo …. I just wrote a great long response … and it’s BLOODY VANISHED. No. No. Don’t do this to me ….

Later still:

I’ll tackle it again tomorrow. NEXT time I’ll do it as a Word document, then cut and paste it …

And still later:

It was a work of art, too … It had got quotations from critics in it and everything.

Hilary makes soothing, clucking noises. Kate sportingly deploys a ‘blood-draining-from-face’ smiley.

Moira: I’m back. The pain has receded. I’m working on it. Offline. I will return shortly. *rolls up sleeves*


Moira: You know, I’ve never believed in reincarnation – until now. You were plainly a Victorian book reviewer in a previous life, because you’re channelling them: “The general effect is almost inexpressibly painful”, “such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity”; “brutal cruelty, and semi-savage love … the most diabolical hate and vengeance”, etc, etc, etc … you get the picture.

Some of the reviewers, however, could see beyond the Gothic improbabilities to something far greater: “The reality of unreality has never been so aptly illustrated”; “strangely original … but a fragment, yet of colossal proportion, and bearing evidence of some great design”; “a strange book  … but not without evidences of considerable power”. One even went so far as to say, “We are quite confident that the writer of Wuthering Heights wants but the practised skill to make a great artist; perhaps, a great dramatic artist”. (I am obliged to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës  for putting all the quotes in one place and saving me the trouble of rummaging around in my books and online.)

Emily never got the chance to practise that skill, of course – and it remains a matter of conjecture what her second novel would have been like … but for a first novel, Wuthering Heights is utterly extraordinary. Charlotte’s first novel, on the other hand, was The Professor. Now, if you want to talk about a book where ‘nothing happens’ … I rest my case.

And enough about the characters’ ‘enthralldom to love’ …. twaddle. The headline act – Catherine and Heathcliff – aren’t in thrall to anything or anyone except each other. It’s an obsession, and one that eventually kills them both.

Emily was unconventional in virtually every way possible. Charlotte was desperate to be accepted as respectable and genteel but Emily didn’t give a toss about social conventions. She was the clergyman’s daughter who didn’t go to church. She was the tall, thin, strange woman who yomped across the moors, probably hung out of her window watching thunderstorms and who revelled in nature at its wildest and most uncontrolled. She was the relative from hell that you had to spend your life apologizing for.

If you’re looking for likeable characters that you care about, or convincing portrayals of the human condition, you’re looking in the wrong place. Emily took the Gothic route. She didn’t care about reality; she dragged her characters kicking and screaming out of Gondal and gave us Grand Guignol before the term had even been invented. Had she lived to write other books, she might have turned down the volume and become more contemplative, as Charlotte did (I mean you can’t call Jane Eyre anything other than overwrought wish fulfilment …) – but I’d like to think that she wouldn’t have. I’d like to think that her singular, cold flame would have continued to burn intensely to the end and that she would have carried on writing books that left the reviewers slack-jawed and struggling to find the vocabulary to describe what had just happened to them …

Kate: If Wuthering Heights is a ‘fragment’ of ‘colossal proportion’, I don’t want to be around when the rest of it drops. It staggers under its own weight. I think it was patronising to say that EB needed a bit more ‘practised skill’ to become a better writer: she clearly was where she wanted to be and this novel was her best work on the subject. I just don’t get the subject, the style or the point of it all, and I find the novel hugely effortful, and tedious to read. And that’s the problem. I’m not saying books shouldn’t need working at, but if a novel is to succeed it must speak to the reader, and (hopefully) transport them. I was not transported. I was not even getting on the bus.
I rather liked The Professor, but I haven’t read that for twenty years or more, so have no recent rational thoughts on it. Villette is a twisted tortured masterpiece of very odd storytelling, and I love it. Jane Eyre is of course an epic monument to anything anyone wants to write about women and free will, for persecuted lovelorns everywhere. Shirley: I really like Shirley, but it goes on a bit. I’ve never read the poetry of CB or EB so let’s not even go there.

But could we talk about Anne?


So, where do YOU stand in this debate? Do let us know, we’d love to hear from you …

Neither Kate nor Moira are strangers to writing about Charlotte and Emily on VL …

Kate: How could I have ignored this Charlotte Bronte novel for so long?

Kate: Passion in Angria

Moira: Often Rebuked – by Emily Bronte?

Moira: A Monster is Born

Moira: Wuthering Heights – A tale that grew in the telling?

Moira: Unquiet Slumbers

Moira: Adaptation Week – Wuthering Heights

9 comments on ““My Brontë is better than your Brontë”– The Great Vulpes Libris Brontë Slapdown.

  1. Pingback: the great Brontë slapdown | Kate Macdonald

  2. Simon T
    January 23, 2015

    This is hilarious!
    I should have popped my head into the tent to say that… I think Anne is better than either of ’em. Wuthering Heights is extraordinary, a work of passion and hatred, but it is the work of a schoolgirl’s mind, who thinks cruelty is sexy. As does, thinking about it, our Charlotte – “Oo, you wanted to commit bigamy with me? You TEASE. When you’re blind, we’ll see.”

    Anne was sensible, and – more to the point – wrote brilliantly, and knew more about how to structure the perfect novel (Agnes Grey) then either of her histrionic sisters. In conclusion:

  3. Desperate Reader
    January 23, 2015

    It’s Anne for me too.

  4. wordartskate
    January 23, 2015

    As you probably know, my all time favourite novel is Wuthering Heights. Coincidentally, I reread it for about the millionth time in the past few weeks. I have no reason to change my opinion. In fact every time I read it, I see more in it, and find it an even more extraordinary novel. As for Jane Eyre – well, it’s readable, I quite like it – but I’ve always disliked Jane. Can’t help myself. I’ve known people like her in real life. One of those steely women who are always banging on about how small and helpless they are. Meh. Probably a lot like Charlotte. But it’s well written, I’ll give you that!

  5. wordartskate
    January 23, 2015

    Also, anyone who thinks that the cruelty in WH is ‘sexy’ and that Emily is writing with a ‘schoolgirl’s mind’ is definitely viewing the novel through twenty first century politically correct eyes. And this drives me WILD. Emily was born and bred in a violent, brutal place and at a time when domestic violence and casual sadism were commonplace. That’s what she wrote about. She was more honest about it all than her sisters. It’s part of what makes the novel such a work of genius. More honest about alcoholism and madness than anyone writing at the time. If it makes us uncomfortable, now, so it should. But we can’t expect her to write with all the benefit of foresight!

  6. Simon T
    January 23, 2015

    I’ll give you someone who wrote better about alcoholism at the time – Anne!🙂

  7. rosyb
    February 1, 2015

    What makes me laugh about this is the one who purports to be against the Gothic and overblown – I’m looking at you Kate – has responded to this in a very subjective, emotive way and the one who is on about the thunder and lightning – you Moira – is busy quoting from the Oxford Companion to the Brontes!

    I have to say – entertaining though your magnificent rant is, Kate (and i was laughing – brilliant) your subjective response and whether or not you relate to a particular style isn’t really enough to subject one of our greatest novels to the trashcan.

    I am obviously the only one to find a certain amount of humour in WH – a bit like in this piece itself. I think we are able to take it with a pinch of salt and that is one of the pleasures of it – for this reader.

    But I also want to take issue with the way you are judging it. Is it fair to judge it in terms of believability, likeability of characters etc etc etc when it is just not even attempting to do this? Isn’t this the equivalent of judging a cubist painting against whether it’s “photorealistic” enough? Is it fair to judge it in terms of how it is depicting the social world of that time (something you might be interested in sure looking back) when it is trying to create a whole other world? What about other works such as Frankenstein etc like you mention? Are we to dismiss them for not being social realism also? Are we incapable as readers in reading things more metaphorically? Symbolically? Does The Turn of the Screw have to turn on whether or not we “believe” in ghosts? What about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? The fact that many of these tales are related from a distance – I would argue – is because they are not going for “relatability” to use that horrid US movie phrase – or asking us to believe in them in realistic terms. We need a bit of a frame a bit of distance precisely because we’re not being asked to do that. And indeed what about the whole Gothic tradition that takes us all the way through to – oh I don’t know – Tim Burton even? Do we dismiss all that too?

    What I would have liked to see is a bit more discussion of Jane Eyre – the charges against which remain largely unanswered here! It is an interesting social document, charting a lot of the attitudes of the time – but, for me, a more alienating read due to the appalling in thrallness of Jane to Rochester, and the very disturbing stuff about Rochester’s first wife…surely all the more disturbing because of the greater possible “reality” of that situation – than WH. At least in WH Cathy and Heathcliff are both arseholes – and battle it out fairly equally. She is NEVER subserviant to him. And that – for me – is quite important.

    I haven’t read any Anne – tempted to now due to all the recommendations.

    PS on WH have just seen Andrea Arnold’s film – very much worth seeing.

  8. Jaie
    March 8, 2015

    this is genius!! thank you both so much!
    for me, in my adolescence, I was in love with WH and the idea of fate, love eternal and doom. later on, I discovered Villette and it was like lifting a veil ! so much complexity, truth, real depictions of different women — I was in awe…
    CB is the mastermind of literature; the tone of the novel, the voice of the narrator, the characters, everything was so resonant in Villete!
    in my opinion, Villette is the cornerstone of 19th Century female writing, and the fact that the novel is not su well known, and something of restricted academic interest, is plain cheating US from understanding what the movement was about.
    Villette presents the key to decode so many interesting subjects, women´s independence, work, social position, self value, friendship!! (Ginevra Fanshawe and Lucy Snowe have the best passive/aggressive friendship EVER!!),
    I could go on and on……🙂

  9. Pingback: Month in Review: January 2015 - The Emerald City Book Review

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