We Wove a Web in Childhood
Conversation with the Author Ruth Thomas
Q: Your version of events challenges the accepted notion that Charlotte’s marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls was a happy one. Were you influenced by James Tully’s book in which he suggests that the Bronte siblings were poisoned by Nicholls?
RT: I found the plot somewhat far-fetched, but his central premise was intriguing. However, where we firmly part company is his treatment of Charlotte, which is unnecessarily harsh. I do not think for one moment she was in any way involved or complicit in the deaths of her brother and sisters, whom she loved deeply and whose loss she mourned.
Q: But you do think Nicholls might have been responsible for poisoning them? In the chapter where John Brown voices his suspicions to a fellow Mason, the reader is left speculating “There’s summat not right here”
RT: It’s only conjecture. John Brown is a fairly central character in that he knew the family well, and was close to Branwell. The general consensus is that Emily and Anne died from tuberculosis, but there is a lingering suspicion that Nicholls may have murdered his wife, or hastened her end: he was the sole beneficiary of her will, which was mysteriously altered at the end of her life. All the people close to Charlotte – her father, her childhood friend Ellen Nussey, the household servants, and her biographer Elizabeth Gaskell – all took a violent dislike to the man and distrusted him, and there must have been a reason for it. We don’t know what Charlotte’s brother and sisters thought of him, as their opinions are unrecorded. What we do know of him has to be gleaned from the material which survives. And we would not have had access to Charlotte’s voluminous correspondence if her husband had got his way. On several occasions he urged Ellen to burn his wife’s letters – an unreasonable request which clearly outraged her, and which thankfully she ignored.
Q: Branwell comes across as a fascinating character – how much was based on fact and how much is fiction?
RT: I think he was very charismatic. He certainly exerted a profound influence – not only on his immediate family – but on most people he came into contact with. Most people are familiar with the tragic circumstances of his life, his addiction to alcohol and opium, the sheer waste of talent etc. He was the focus of the family’s attention: from an early age all their aspirations and hopes for the future were centred on Branwell, who showed so much promise. I gave my imagination free rein in the scenes where he frequents The Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, extrapolating from the known facts.
Q: Is there any evidence that Emily disguised herself as a youth in order to accompany her brother to the Black Bull as described in Chapter 3?
RT: I made up the incident where she impersonates a French aristocrat for dramatic effect, but it has a certain plausibility: she and Branwell were often thrown together whilst Charlotte and Anne were away from home employed as governesses – and when you consider Emily’s nonconformist character, I think she would have been intrigued by the possibility of entering into her brother’s social milieu.
Q: But wasn’t she quite reserved by nature?
RT: Yes, but also fiercely independent. Family members had observed her increased confidence whenever she was wearing a mask or play-acting, such as when they enacted scenes from their private worlds of Angria and Gondal. The scene in the inn where they pretend to quarrel and almost resort to a mock duel is just an extension of their childhood games where Emily took on the persona of Parry the explorer.
Q: Is there any factual basis in your description of Emily’s out of body experiences whilst a pupil at Roe Head?
RT: She appeared to suffer from a form of bilocation: able to function quite competently on one level whilst being mentally and emotionally absent, with one foot in the imaginary world of Gondal, and the other firmly planted in the material sublunary world: composing the most sublime poetry in snatched private moments, and then turning her attention to mundane domestic chores like blackleading the kitchen range. But then total absorption in another world is part of the creative process, and I imagine most writers experience something similar. Whilst writing the book the Bronte family and their domestic preoccupations became so real to me I felt like the spectre at the banquet, recording and observing.
Q: Emily’s enigmatic character has been the subject of much speculation: nowadays she would be labelled as borderline schizophrenic.
RT: She didn’t suffer fools gladly and preferred to keep most people at arms’ length – is that evidence of schizophrenia? Certainly she found it extremely difficult to form close attachments outside her family – far more so than the others, which makes it even more extraordinary that she could have written such an original and ground-breaking novel as Wuthering Heights.
Q: That brings me to the burning question – do you think that she and Branwell collaborated on Wuthering Heights?
RT: I think it is very possible: a conversation was reported where they both freely admitted as much, at least in the initial stages of the book, and the differences in literary style between the opening chapters and the rest of the novel have been remarked upon. The passion between Heathcliff and Cathy may well have been partially inspired by Branwell’s infatuation with his employer’s wife. Emily would have been privy to the whole affair and it’s worth noting that Thorp Green and Thrushcross Grange have the same initials.
Q: Charlotte seems to have been in awe of Emily, despite the fact that they obviously clashed on occasions.
RT: They had very different temperaments. Emily may have lacked the worldly ambition of Branwell and Charlotte, but she and Charlotte nevertheless shared an intimacy based on their shared experiences and time at school together. But, yes, she does appear to have idolised Emily, and the latter’s death – coming so soon after Branwell’s – was simply devastating.
Q: Emily’s disembodied presence after her death – as Keeper or ward of the house, watching over the living – serves to ratchet up the tension further, as she continues to observe and comment on what is happening from beyond the grave. The claustrophobic atmosphere at the parsonage is cleverly invoked…. sobbing coming from Emily’s bedroom, ghostly footsteps, sounds of a piano playing, shadowy figures glimpsed on the landing… Do you think it was haunted? After the death of her brother and sisters, Charlotte was increasingly absent from Haworth, making several trips to London and staying with friends.
RT: She was haunted by unhappy memories, certainly, which would have explained her reluctance to return. There are locals who maintain the parsonage is still haunted – by Emily in particular – and that Branwell’s spirit has been sensed in and around Haworth. It seems reasonable to suppose that Charlotte herself might well have believed it was haunted. She was extremely nervous of anything supernatural.
Q: You have portrayed the literary rivalry and increasing estrangement between Charlotte and Branwell at some length – do you think it may have spurred her on to greater literary achievement?
RT: I’m sure it spurred both of them on. As children, they had collaborated closely in the creation of Verdopolis – later Angria – but later the playful teasing, and the enjoyment they derived from their worlds of make-believe degenerated into bitterness. Charlotte was increasingly intolerant of what she perceived as Branwell’s self indulgence. As the only boy in a household of girls he was undoubtedly spoiled and fussed over. Having more freedom, Branwell went out into society more than his sisters – drinking at the local taverns with his friends – but was probably no worse than many of his contemporaries. In fact many young men were addicted to laudanum as it was freely available and cheap.
Q: What is your own opinion of Branwell?
RT: I confess to a soft spot for Branwell: he was so full of zest and bright hopes, and must have been very appealing as a child. But it’s not enough to possess talent and ambition. You don’t achieve anything of lasting value without application and self-discipline, something his three sisters instinctively understood. To an extent they were advantaged in that they had discipline and structure imposed on them through their formal schooling, but Branwell was educated at home by his father and left very much to his own devices.
Q: What makes this work of fiction so compelling is that you have cleverly juxtaposed biographical material with fictional episodes. Were you influenced by any other biographies?
RT: I am indebted to Juliet Barker’s superb biography of the Brontes. The depth of her research and scholarship was invaluable in that I was able to structure my novel around a chronological sequence of events: thus real events and incidents provide the basis for invented scenes and dialogue, and extracts from actual correspondence and diaries are seamlessly interwoven with fabricated journal entries and letters. Above all I wanted the story to be credible. I have far too much respect for the Bronte family to have produced some sensationalist piece of fiction which bears no relation to the truth and dishonours their memory. But I am a novelist not a historian or biographer, so the emphasis in my book reflects what I find interesting: the shifting family dynamics and differing viewpoints of family members, all of whom were strong characters. On the one hand you have Charlotte observing bitterly to her friend Ellen that Branwell has given up trying to look for work, and disgusted that their elderly father is forced to discharge his drinking debts. At the same time we find Branwell confiding to his friend Leyland, the Halifax sculptor, that “work is the only remedy” (for his broken heart) and in another letter practically begging his former colleague Francis Grundy to assist him to find work on the railways. Because they don’t confide in each other any more, they don’t really know what’s going on in each other’s heads, and jump to erroneous conclusions. Branwell is convinced that Charlotte thoroughly despises him – whereas half the time she is just trying to make sense of his baffling behaviour.
Q: There is a passage in the book I found inexpressibly moving where Charlotte wanders into the schoolroom on the anniversary of his death – clutching one of his toy soldiers – and discovers a letter he had written to Leyland in which he casually mentions the success of Jane Eyre. What makes it so poignant is the estrangement between brother and sister preceding his death, and Charlotte’s belief that her brother knew nothing of his sisters’ literary successes whilst he was alive.
RT: I am convinced he knew what was going on. Branwell may have been intoxicated a fair amount of the time, but he was not stupid. As with many alcoholics his drinking was largely an escape from having to face up to his demons, his failure to achieve anything worthwhile in comparison with what his sisters had achieved. He found it impossible to live up to his family’s expectations, and towards the end of his life all the evidence points to the fact that he was in a state of despair.
Q: Many Bronte fans tend to favour one or other of the sisters. Are you a Charlotte or an Emily person?
RT: What about Anne? It’s arguable that Jane Eyre wouldn’t have been written if the latter had not first penned Agnes Grey. And in its stark depiction of the effects of a life of dissipation and vice, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is undeniably gripping. Just because respectable Victorian readers were uncomfortable with the subject matter doesn’t mean it lacks literary merit, and it is now generally recognised that Anne’s work has been underestimated.
Q: But you must have your favourites?
RT: I am a self-confessed Brontemaniac and in love with the entire family. Venturing into Bronte territory is highly addictive: I found myself obsessing about what really went on at Haworth parsonage. The Brontes I admire the most are Emily and their father Patrick, for whom I have a tremendous respect.
Q: It’s arguable that without Patrick Bronte we would never have heard of his remarkable children. The typical Victorian paterfamilias is somewhat stern and remote, but Patrick appears to have been accessible to his children, open-minded and tolerant. He was amazingly supportive, even by modern standards – paying for music and drawing lessons, subscribing to educational periodicals, and so on. Branwell refers to him mockingly as “the Old Cossack”.
RT: An allusion to his stoicism and a brief military stint when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. According to Charlotte he underwent an eye operation lasting a full 15 minutes without benefit of anaesthetic and without flinching, and would tramp for miles across the moors in all weathers in order to minister to his flock. In addition to his pastoral duties he had a keen interest in the political and social issues of the day, which sprang from a genuine compassion for his parishioners. By all accounts he was widely respected as a man of God when many clerical appointees were simply after a soft billet. The lives of the Brontes were visited by much personal tragedy, but I hope I have also managed to convey the sheer exuberance and sense of fun they brought to their childhood games and early literary endeavours, and their extraordinary closeness as a family.