Literary daybook, Dec. 19

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
December 20, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On Dec. 19, 1989, Adrian Mole buys a suit (with some difficulty).
-- "Adrian Mole: The Lost Years" (1994)
By Sue Townsend

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1848 Emily Brontë died at the age of 30. Of all the death and drama in the Brontë household over the surrounding eight months -- events that now stand as famous and poignant as any in the Brontë novels -- none seems to impress or import more than Emily's. In September, 31-year-old Branwell had died in his exuberant manner, the last stages of his dissolution and tuberculosis expressed in delirium tremens cursing and despair. The following May, 29-year-old Anne would die in her cooperative, affirmative manner, also of tuberculosis. Squeezed between the two, also tuberculosis but typically as if on her own mysterious terms, came Emily's death.

Charlotte described Emily as having a "powerful and peculiar" character in life, one that inspired "an anguish of wonder and love" in death. She never left the house after Branwell's death, never spoke of her condition or allowed others to, never gave up her work routine even on the last day, never allowed a doctor until literally the eleventh hour -- telling Charlotte just before noon, "If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now," and then dying at 2 o'clock. This was the same in-your-eye scoff Emily had given fame some months earlier by refusing to accompany her sisters on their historic visit to disclose the true identity of "Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell" to their publishers, as the first waves of admiration and protest were arriving over "Wuthering Heights."

Only the family and servants were in the funeral procession, and Emily's dog -- sitting in the Brontë pew during the service, as it would sit and howl by Emily's door for a week afterward. Writing about all this in a Christmas Day letter, Charlotte tried not to hear Emily's constant "deep hollow cough," and to bite her tongue: "... So I will not ask why Emily was torn from us in the fullness of our attachment, rooted up in the prime of her own days ... why her existence now lies like a field of green corn trodden down ... I will only say, sweet is rest after labour and calm after tempest, and repeat again and again that Emily knows that now."

Charlotte was no Nelly Dean, but that sounds like it -- for example, in the middle of "Wuthering Heights" when Nelly looks on in head-shaking wonder as the dying Catherine embraces and scorns Heathcliff: "'I wish I could hold you,' she continued, bitterly, 'till we were both dead! I shouldn't care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn't you suffer? I do!'" Perhaps the better parallel is Emilyb

"I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

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-- Steve King

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


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