Literary daybook, July 30

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published July 30, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On July 30, Arthur Donnithorne's coming of age celebration.
-- "Adam Bede" (1859)
by George Eliot

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1818, Emily Brontë was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, the fifth of six children. When Emily was 2 years old, her father became curate in nearby Haworth; when she was 3, her mother died; and three years after that, her two oldest sisters died. These factors -- the isolated Pennine village, the burdened single parent, the three surviving girls and their brother (too shy Charlotte, shyer Anne, shyest Emily and way too wild Branwell) left to go their own imaginative ways -- have anchored almost every account of this most famous of literary families. Juliet Barker's recent biography ("The Brontës," 1994) disputes that either Haworth or Rev. Brontë was particularly withdrawn, but this would make the girls almost more remarkable, their distinctive talents and social eccentricities blooming in balanced rather than barren soil.

Most accounts portray Emily as the brightest, most intense and most difficult of the three sisters. Even Charlotte's posthumous description seems wary of her: "My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, without impunity, intrude unlicensed." She was certainly the most housebound, preferring her imaginative world of "Gondal," and then later transferring its themes and tortured passions to "Wuthering Heights" and to her poetry. When Charlotte found Emily's secretly written poems in 1845 she thought them "not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write," and with "a peculiar music -- wild, melancholy, and elevating." Many of the poems were written while Emily was in her teens, but given the mortality rate (41 percent by age 6), and the average life expectancy (25), and Emily's own poor health (dead at 30), it is more than teenage complaining to find oneself "As friendless after eighteen years,/ As lone as on my natal day." Reading the poems and then turning to "Wuthering Heights" is to feel before the mysterious Emily as tame Lockwood felt before the glimpse of a life he had outside his window:

"I discerned, obscurely, a child's face looking through the window -- terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, 'Let me in!' and maintained its tenacious grip, almost maddening me with fear."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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