Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Emily Brontë’s Diary Papers: Genius or Just Genial?

Diary Paper November 1834

In most biographies of writers, you find the author reporting on the subject’s dozens, if not hundreds of letters left behind, as well as early drafts of their work, or discarded manuscripts that never got published. These works might have been kept by relatives or in museums, or stashed away in desk drawers. Charlotte's output of letters consists of 3 volumes. Writers must write. It's in their DNA. Emily and Anne wrote a couple of letters and a few pages of diary/birthday papers. Emily and Anne weren't writers, but Charlotte made them into authors when she announced to the world that Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell were three brothers. Later when the possibility of legal action necessitated her having to admit they were actually three sisters, she kept their male pen-names on the novels, and died before revealing their real names to her reading public. Why she did this is outlined and explained in detail in Charlotte Brontë’s Thunder.

A July 2009 article by literary critic Augustin Trapenard in the Brontë Studies magazine, entitled “Auctorial (Im)Postures in Emily Brontë’s Diary Papers” finds much to be admired in Emily’s writing. (The diary papers are also discussed in my book, but this link is quickly available.)

Trapenard begins: “Of Emily Brontë’s experience as a writer, the least we can say is that we do not know much.” He adds that reading the diary papers, “is enough to shatter the icon of Emily as a Romantic genius or Victorian martyr.” He says this because critics agree that the writing is bad and, as Juliet Barker points out, “the dreadful handwriting and spelling are scarcely credible as the work of a highly intelligent sixteen-year-old.”  If we were shown these papers without knowing who wrote them, we might bring a more objective eye to the childish musings, and view the writing as mediocre, but if we’re told Emily is a genius, we search through her words for a multi-layered profundity that simply isn't there. I personally don’t believe these diary papers contain sufficient complexity to warrant a close analysis, but if a critic like Trapenard wants to try, we should respect his efforts but be permitted to disagree. 

Emily and Anne wrote basic facts about their day and noted what had happened in the intervening years since their last diary entry. Trapenard states that “the two sisters’ auctorial postures were at first deliberately staged as a discursive imposture.” The sisters weren’t what they seemed. In one of the lines from the diary paper of 1834, the meaning must remain ambiguous because the last word is missing: “The last word of the phrase is an illegible blotch.” That's because Emily always got ink all over her hands and left blotches throughout her transcriptions of poems as well as on the diary papers. She rarely held a pen, so ink stains were a bi-product of her writing. Trapenard then analyzes Emily’s description of her interaction with Tabby the family’s servant. First, Emily’s remarks about Tabby telling her to peel potatoes: “Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O Dear I will derictly With that I get up, take a Knife and begin pilling.” 

Trapenard notes that the use of obsessive repetitions, the multiplicity of plosives and aggressive alliteration betray the speaker's refusal to work and her strong intention to challenge authority. But the hero’s weapon here is certainly not the kitchen knife (which she eventually takes to do her job) but the pen that she pokes at Tabby’s face. Could we dream of a better metaphor for Emily’s domestic rebellion?” 

He adds, “When writing is at stake, Emily appears as a powerful figure—and everywhere in the Diary Papers, her pen acts as a tool to renegotiate her position in the parsonage. Now if several critics have been alarmed by the writer’s untidiness, ill-spelling and childish syntax, I would argue that for a sixteen-year-old who has not ‘done [her] lessons and [. . .] want[s] to go out to play’, these mistakes may just be a creative, underground resistance to the rigid syntax of the domestic sphere.” 

He concludes, “The auctorial posture that Emily Brontë adopts is that of a role player, a chameleon actor, a Greek hypocrite whose multiple faces are veiled, in other words an impostor. For what is suggested here but a dramatized, protean self-image — an ethôs made of a plurality of fictionalized selves? Instead of legitimizing herself as a writer, Emily Brontë was paradoxically staging her writing as something totally private, thereby preventing anyone from authorizing her.

The image of Emily as a wild child running loose on the moors, storing visions and hearing truths with a mystic’s ear, is an image that people love. The emotional tie to the romantic version of the genius on the moors is understandable, which is why Emily is so much admired, but what if she really were just an intelligent, wonderful, loving sister who had no literary inclinations at all?  If we're honest, is there really that much depth in those childish musings? Most critics see them for what they are and scratch their heads in wonder, and ask how did Emily, within a few short months of the final diary papers, transform herself into the genius who wrote Wuthering Heights. O Dear, O Dear, O Dear that kind of versatility requires a substantial leap from peeling potatoes to “a dramatized, protean self-image.” 

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