Braving the Brontës–Kristin Czarnecki
Opening my beautiful volume of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre one night, thoughts rushed through my head like winds sweeping over the moors. First among them was that my father had held this book in his hands. I read his inscription several times, passing my fingertips over the ink: To Kristin for her 14th Christmas. Read with delight and pleasure, my dear. Love, forever and ever, Dad 1983. My Brontës volume is one of many books inscribed and given to me by my parents throughout my life—books I’ve been reading and writing about since they died within nine months of each other several years ago. I imagined my father selecting the book and considering how to inscribe it before handing it to my mother to wrap and place under the Christmas tree. I thought of my mother’s Anglophilia and the Victorian touches in our home growing up. I thought of Sylvia Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes, who lived for a time in Devon in a cottage near Top Withens, purportedly Emily Brontë’s inspiration for the setting of Wuthering Heights. Plath and Hughes enjoyed walking to Top Withens and visiting the Brontë Parsonage, and they likened themselves to Catherine and Heathcliff as they rambled over the moors. Like Emily Brontë’s doomed couple, and the Brontës themselves, Sylvia and Ted were also destined for a legendary afterlife.
I made my own pilgrimage to the Brontës’ Haworth Parsonage in June 2004 during a trip to see my friend Traci in York. I took the train up after attending the international Virginia Woolf conference in London, memorable for many reasons, top among them meeting Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Cecil Woolf, and his wife, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, with whom, to my utter astonishment and delight, I would become friends. Arriving in York, I asked Traci if a trip to Haworth would be doable, and indeed it was. The day of our excursion happened to coincide with the 150th wedding anniversary of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls. We attended a reenactment of their wedding in the church, and Haworth residents roamed about in period clothing. It was a magical day, and grim, for we also learned of Haworth’s mortality rates during the time of the Brontës—rates so atrocious, Patrick Brontë insisted upon an investigation into the matter, undertaken in 1850 by Benjamin Hershel Babbage.
Hair-raising sanitary conditions were to blame. As Blake Morrison writes in his Guardian article on the public’s never-ending fascination with the Brontës, “with no drains or running water, disease was rife—the average life expectancy in Haworth at that time was 28.5 years.” The custom of installing tombstones flat on the ground also led to death and disease. “Beneath the large markers lying on the ground deep pits were dug,” writes Jeff Minick, “and as family members died, their casket would be placed atop those below and the slab replaced. What the folk of that time did not understand was that the slabs kept oxygen from the earth, and the slowly rotting flesh was close to the water supply.” Emily Temple puts it bluntly in her Lit Hub piece on the subject: The Brontës “spent their lives drinking water contaminated by the local graveyard—and possibly the local privies, too.” Once Babbage ascertained the problem, “Patrick Brontë insisted on upright tombstones,” Minick writes, “and he planted trees in the cemetery to speed the process of decomposition.”
I made a second trip to Haworth in 2016 on the front end of that year’s Woolf conference, held at Leeds-Trinity University. A busload of jetlagged but eager Woolfians rode over on a cool, drizzly spring day and enjoyed an exclusive presentation by the Parsonage and Museum director. We then clustered in a reverential hush around the visitor guestbook to see Woolf’s signature in her maiden name, Virginia Stephen, from her long-ago visit to Haworth with her friend Margaret Vaughan. Her ensuing essay, “Haworth, November 1904,” was one of her first publications. She loved that the town of Keighley, four miles from Haworth, was still like “the Keighley of [Charlotte’s] day,” all the easier to “picture the slight figure of Charlotte trotting along the streets in her thin mantle, hustled into the gutter by more burley passers-by.” She paid homage in the Brontë house and navigated the crowded graveyard. “[T]he stones seem to start out of the ground at you in tall, upright lines,” she writes, “like an army of silent soldiers. There is no handsbreadth untenanted.” In the church, she gazed at “the slab which bears the names of the succession of [Brontë] children and their parents—their births and deaths.” Words beneath the names give thanks to God “which giveth the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Virginia Stephen deemed it an apt inscription, “for however harsh the struggle, Emily, and Charlotte above all, fought to victory.”
I visited Traci and her family, now living in Sheffield, after the Leeds-Trinity conference, too. Just before flying to England, I emailed her and asked if we could visit Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, just nine miles from Haworth, after she picked me up at my hotel when the conference was over. She told me she had already bought us all tickets to a professional cricket match. I had to admit that sounded like a more enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
As I have so many times before, I hungrily devoured Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre when I recently reread them. Like readers around the world for nearly two hundred years, I was captivated by the intricate plotlines, complex characters, and descriptions of the natural world. Emily and Charlotte knew every inch of the moors—their flora, fauna, and weather throughout the seasons, and their caprices and moods as well. Yet I struggled with intertwining anxieties as I read that threatened to impede my full immersion in the stories. My old nemesis Impostor Syndrome had sidled up to scoff at me for thinking I could write anything new and interesting about these novels. Harold Bloom coined the term “anxiety of influence” for the pressure authors feel to write something original while bearing the weight of all the writing that came before them. Is there a similar term for readers? What do we do with all the literature crowding our brains? How do we sort it? Or does it defy organization and slosh around like water at the bottom of a leaky boat? Either way, we have no choice but to accept the assemblage of words, scenes, and images accrued over a lifetime that orbit our minds as we read.
These musings rang a bell. Searching through old files, I found a conference paper from 2008 in which I addressed similar issues. “My presentation today explores the early letters of Virginia Woolf,” the paper begins, “covering the years 1888 to 1912, when Virginia Woolf was still Virginia Stephen . . . My concern today is how we might read the letters of Virginia Stephen without burdening them with all we know of Virginia Woolf’s life and writing.” All these years later, I had come full circle but with the Brontës instead of Woolf.
In standard academese, my conference paper provided a rundown of various theories of reading. Embarking on Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, I again heard the siren song of research. I brought the Norton Critical Edition of each novel home from my campus office and intended to read their introductions and excerpts from scholarly sources. There the books sat, next to my desk, taunting me until I reminded myself of what I originally set out to do on that rainy October night when I reached for the Brontë volume: read the books inscribed and given to me by my parents for pure enjoyment, free of expectations. Another intention, though, was to follow any pathways that opened up as I read. So I resisted the Nortons but turned to Virginia Woolf’s 1916 essay “Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights,” marveling as always at her gift for discerning the essence of a writer and her work. “[A]ll her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, ‘I love’, ‘I hate’, ‘I suffer,’” she says of Charlotte. “She could free life from its dependence on facts,” she writes of Emily; “with a few touches indicate the spirit of a face so that it needs no body, by speaking of the moor make the wind blow and the thunder roar.”
Even Woolf is fallible, though. In her Atlantic article on the Brontës, Judith Shulevitz claims Woolf missed the mark when she stated in A Room of One’s Own that Charlotte Brontë compromised Jane Eyre by imbuing her eponymous character with anger concerning women’s circumscribed lot in life, for “if one reads [her pages] over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation,” Woolf writes,
one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmy. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. … How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted? One could not but play for a moment with the thought of what might have happened if Charlotte Brontë had possessed say three hundred a year.
“But Woolf gets it exactly wrong,” Shulevitz states, and I have read enough by and about both Woolf and the Brontës to concur. “The sisters’ social and economic disadvantages didn’t hold them back. Charlotte and Emily explored—and exploited—the prison-house of gender with unprecedented clear-sightedness.” Their brief, ill-fated “forays into the marketplace of female labor gave them their best material,” Shulevitz asserts. Woolf would go on to express an altogether different stance on anger, deploying it to spectacular effect in her feminist, pacifist work, Three Guineas. Perhaps by that time she had changed her mind about anger in Jane Eyre as well.
Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” arose next in my mind, a remarkable poem/lyric essay in which Carson reflects on the end of a relationship, her efforts to recover, and her aging parents through the lens of Emily Brontë’s poetry and prose—though not without misgivings. “I fear I am turning into Emily Brontë,” Carson writes, “my lonely life around me like a moor, / my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of / transformation / that dies when I come in the kitchen door. / What meat is it, Emily, we need?” Although Emily’s biographers over the years have insisted on the “fact” of her unremarkable life, Carson senses something far more visceral at play. “The little raw soul was caught by no one,” she states. “She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a / salary / or a fear of death . . . Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons, / . . . ‘What was this cage, invisible to us, / which she felt herself to be confined in,’” the critics ask. “Well,” Carson reflects, “there are many ways of being held prisoner.” She imagines possible sources of Emily’s anger and whether “anger could be a kind of vocation for some women.” How else explain the wrath of Heathcliff or the fury in some of her poetry?
Carson strikes a devastating note in “On Charlotte,” a Short Talk from Plainwater quoting part of a letter written by long-time Brontë family servant Martha Brown shortly after the deaths of Emily and Anne. Reflecting on the sisters’ nightly routine of walking around the kitchen table discussing their stories and novels, Martha writes, “Miss Emily walked as long as she could, and when she died, Miss Anne & Miss Brontë took it up—and now my heart aches to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking on alone.” Tears spring to my eyes whenever I read these lines, though I have read them dozens of times, just as my heart rises into my throat upon reading the fifth bracket in the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay, having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” In a swirl of associations, the trauma of Mrs. Ramsay’s death evokes the collected Brontë letters, every bit as absorbing as the novels. There’s sad, I thought when I first read them, and there’s Charlotte-writing-about-the-deaths-of-all-three-siblings-within-nine-months sad.
Writers of all stripes have fallen under the Brontës’ spell, evident in the biographies, critical studies, graphic and illustrated works—even a series called The Brontë Sisters for Babies and Children. Prequels, sequels—dozens of novels take up the lives and works in one way or another. Caryll Phillips’s The Lost Child provides Heathcliff with a backstory. Alison Case’s Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights expands the role of that novel’s principal narrator. In Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel of the Last Brontë, a female university student becomes embroiled in a hunt for a rumored Brontë estate. Brontë-inspired poetry includes Rita Maria Martinez’s The Jane and Bertha in Me. In her 1961 poem “Wuthering Heights,” Sylvia Plath contemplates the alluring, somewhat ominous moors, where sheep “stand about in grandmotherly disguise, / All wig curls and yellow teeth / and hard, marbly baas.” And of course, there’s the crème de la crème, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.
Saddened and bemused by the depiction in Jane Eyre of the Creole woman, Rochester’s first wife, Jean Rhys, Creole herself, transformed Charlotte’s snarling, raving “Bertha” into a character of depth, nuance, and poignancy. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway Mason tells of her lonely childhood, her troubled mother, her arranged marriage to an Englishman whose father and brother seek to rob him of his patrimony, their brief period of happiness, how it all went to hell, and finally, her imprisonment in the attic of Thornfield Hall until her death by suicide, leaping from the ramparts after setting the manor on fire. Rochester, unnamed in the novel, gets to speak his piece as well. In fact, it wasn’t until the Rochester character assumed a voice that the novel finally coalesced, as Carole Angier explains in her biography of Rhys. “Another ‘I’ must talk, two others perhaps,” Rhys wrote in a letter of 1958. “Then the Creole’s ‘I’ will come to life.” Angier attributes Rhys’s eventual breakthrough to her life-long love of poetry. “In early April  she wrote four poems,” Angier explains. “But it was the fourth poem that was important. It was called ‘Obeah Night.’ In it Jean became Edward Rochester: and when she did that her long battle with the novel was won.”
Hard won. Rhys worked on Wide Sargasso Sea in fits and starts for nearly a decade, possibly more, primarily in her dilapidated cottage in the Devon village of Cheriton Fitzpaine, where she moved with her third husband, Max Hamer, in 1960. Angier delves into the long slog that was the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea and the unlikely hero who helped see it through: the vicar of Cheriton Fitzpaine, the Rev. Alwynne Woodard. When Rhys’s brother, Edward Rees Williams, installed his troublesome sister in Devon, he paid the vicar a visit “both to warn Mr. Woodard and to ask him to help her.” In the end, Mr. Woodward would offer much more than pastoral care, “[f]or Alwynne Woodard was also a scholar, and in particular a lover of literature.” Jean trusted him and told him she was a writer—but a thwarted one “because of Max’s illness, because of poverty; but also because she was just stuck. . . . she told him that she’d thrown the book away.”
One day when Woodard arrived at the cottage, he found Rhys “drunk and ill, huddled in bed.” What happens next gives me goosebumps. Angier recreates the scenario:
he made up his mind to look for the book. At first he must have thought there wasn’t one after all, or that she’d thrown it away as she’d said for there was no normal pile of notebooks or paper on any of the tables. But then he must have seen a piece of paper sticking out somewhere; and suddenly he saw pieces of paper everywhere, covered with squiggles and scrawls. He retrieved them—from plastic bags and hat boxes, from under the bed and the sofa, from on top of the wardrobes and inside kitchen cupboards. He put them all together and took them home. He asked his daughter Helen to help him: together they spread out all the bits of paper they could on the big Rectory table. Luckily some pages at least were numbered, and a core of order began to emerge.
I imagine Rev. Woodard got goosebumps, too, for he knew he had a work of genius on his hands. He visited Rhys in her cottage nearly every day to help her stay focused, organized, and comfortable. “He understood her perfectly. ‘She needs endless supplies of whisky, and endless praise . . . so that is what she must have,’” Angier quotes him as saying. Andre Deutsch published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, a watershed moment in the literary world, for along with being a masterpiece in and of itself, Jean’s novel works an unholy alchemy on Charlotte’s. It changes it. No one who reads Wide Sargasso Sea can ever read Jane Eyre the same way again—certainly not its characterization of Bertha, the woman who must die so that Jane may utter what would become one of the most famous lines in all of literature: “Reader, I married him.”
It dawns on me that Jean Rhys and Sylvia Plath overlapped in Devon for more than a year. North Tawton, where Plath lived, and Cheriton Fitzpaine are just 18 miles apart. There’s no evidence that they ever crossed paths, but Miranda Seymour, in her new biography of Rhys, offers the tantalizing fact that Rhys read Ted Hughes’s poetry and “was a greater admirer of the self-laceratingly honest work of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.” In addition, Plath scholar Amanda Golden shared with me that Plath filled out a survey for poets in the February 1962 issue of The London Magazine, the same issue that carried Rhys’s short story “Let Them Call it Jazz.” I don’t think it’s far-fetched to presume that Plath read it. If so, perhaps it resonated with her, living in the thick of Brontë country, for the main character of “Jazz,” Selina Davis, bears traces of Rhys’s Antoinette, born of Charlotte’s Bertha.
A biracial West Indian immigrant living in London, Selina Davis suffers persecution from her white English neighbors, the police, and predatory men due to her poverty, skin color, and Martiniquan patois. Unable to pay a fine after being brought up on charges for breaking her neighbors’ window, she serves a stint in Holloway Prison—as Rhys once did after repeated altercations with her neighbors. The story ends on an upbeat note as Selina experiences a renewed sense of self despite the theft of a song she wrote by a white male musician. The sum of her experiences, including incarceration, as a West Indian woman in a cold, hostile England evoke those of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. The publication timeline shows the two characters co-existing in Rhys’s mind—displaced, maltreated but spirited Creole women for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I like picturing Plath reading “Let Them Call it Jazz.” And I like imagining her and Rhys, just a stone’s throw away from each other, writing by the dawn light streaming into their windows.
And so, what was meant to be an essay on Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre becomes one on women readers and writers engaging each other across space and time, “for we look back through our mothers, if we are women,” Woolf declares in A Room of One’s Own. Connections exist everywhere. Do I fit into this larger story of women readers and writers? Is it all right to throw in my own two cents about the Brontë novels? Why am I asking permission, and from whom? Why not simply forge ahead?
As I began reading Wuthering Heights, Catherine Earnshaw’s passion for books and compulsion to write stood out more starkly than ever before. In the novel’s opening pages, Lockwood finds a stack of books in the bedroom at the Heights, where he’s been grudgingly installed by Heathcliff for the night while a winter storm rages outside. He opens several crumbly volumes to find that someone named Catherine has annotated and doodled in them. In fact, she seems to have written every chance she got in diaries as well as in the books she read. “I shut, and took up another, and another, till I had examined all,” Lockwood says. “Catherine’s library was select; and its state of dilapidation proved it to have been well used, though not altogether for a legitimate purpose; scarcely one chapter had escaped a pen and ink commentary—at least, the appearance of one—covering every morsel of blank that the printer had left.” Later, books cement the bond between Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw, for Cathy makes peace with the young man she had taunted for his illiteracy by offering to teach him to read. As I read Wuthering Heights this time around, I enjoyed tracking the many scenes involving books, reading, and writing.
Heathcliff’s brutal treatment of women emerges as a far less palatable theme. While I had always been appalled by his cruelty, I now found it especially hard to bear. No doubt the #MeToo Movement had awakened an even greater sensitivity to the novel’s frequent scenes of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. Heathcliff’s tormenting of his wife, Isabella, is particularly monstrous. In a long letter to Nelly Dean several weeks after marrying Heathcliff, Isabella divulges her husband’s physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. She finally escapes him, running off during a sudden spring snowfall, penniless and pregnant—a circumstance almost too ghastly to contemplate. Given Heathcliff’s contempt for his wife, and her hatred and fear of him, one can only surmise that their coupling was rough at best, rape at worst. As in the past, I could also barely stand to read of Heathcliff’s holding Nelly Dean and Cathy Linton captive in his house to force Cathy to marry his sickly son, Linton, and to prevent her from returning to Thrushcross Grange to tend to her dying father. The tension builds to an unbearable pitch—testimony to Emily’s skill along with my anxiety in the face of strife and frustration.
Heathcliff’s violence extends to animals—or maybe it began with animals as is often the case with abusers—most notably when he hangs Isabella’s dog, Fanny, whom Nelly rescues after happening upon her strangling, dangling from a fence. The novel is far more disturbing than film adaptations would have us believe, for they generally paint Heathcliff as a handsome, brooding Byronic hero with a hidden but profound capacity for love. Yet as Catherine admonishes Isabella when she fancies herself in love with Heathcliff, “Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He’s not a rough diamond—a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic; he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man. . . . and he’d crush you, like a sparrow’s egg, Isabella, if he found you a troublesome charge.” Emily Brontë’s insights into the dark realms of human nature are not for the faint of heart. Mercifully, humanity and goodness break through as in the growing love between Cathy and Hareton as the story draws to a close. Finally, I thought, a chance to exhale and know the next generation will set things right.
Jane Eyre has no shortage of its own miserable characters: Jane’s Reed relations, who render her an outcast in their home; Mr. Brocklehurst, the cruel, hypocritical superintendent of Lowood School; snooty Blanche Ingram, who detests Jane for her hold on Rochester’s affections; and the insufferable St. John Rivers, who bullies Jane with his verbosity as well as the silent treatment. Throughout the novel, I admire Jane’s presence of mind and determination to sit calmly with her thoughts, assess her circumstances, and gauge her emotions before making her next move, whether responding to one of the insults lobbed her way or deciding to leave Thornfield Hall when confronted with the fact of Rochester’s wife. I love her contemplative turn of mind, her strong sense of self, her guilelessness, and her kindness and compassion towards people I would have junk-heaped at the first opportunity. And I appreciate her occasional emotional torrents, rendering her even more complex and fully human.
I respect Jane’s intelligence and envy her exquisite—and often very funny—turns of phrase, as when the guests at Thornfield Hall awaken and panic upon hearing a blood-curdling scream in the middle of the night. “‘What awful event has taken place?’ said [Miss Ingram.] ‘Speak! Let us know the worst at once!’ ‘But don’t pull me down or strangle me,’ [Rochester] replied; for the Misses Eshton were clinging about him now, and the two dowagers, in vast white wrappers, were bearing down on him like ships in full sail.” Jane’s eye for detail and gift for vivid description keep me invested in her story. “It was not a bright or splendid summer evening, though fair and soft,” she observes upon departing Thornfield to tend to her dying Aunt Reed:
the haymakers were at work all along the road; and the sky, though far from cloudless, was such as promised well for the future: its blue—where blue was visible—was mild and settled, and its cloud strata high and thin. The west, too, was warm; no watery gleam chilled it—it seemed as if there was a fire lit, an altar burning behind its screen of marbled vapour, and out of apertures shone a golden redness.
I exult in such beautifully rendered scenes.
And I commiserate with Jane during her early days at Lowood, modeled on Cowan Bridge School, where Charlotte and her sisters briefly resided when they were little girls. In the spring of 1824, Patrick enrolled Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily at Cowan, where deprivation and contagion were the norm. Maria contracted tuberculosis there and died at home on May 6, 1825, age 11. Elizabeth died of the same disease five weeks later at age 10. Patrick rushed back to Cowan Bridge to retrieve Charlotte and Emily before they met the same fate. I held my breath as Jane described the rampant sickness and death at Lowood—the same conditions that destroyed Charlotte’s older sisters and that account in no small part for the world’s fascination with her family. “That forest dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence,” Jane recounts, “which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded schoolroom and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into a hospital.” The mild, beautiful spring days belie the horrors within.
I wonder what it took for Charlotte to write the horrors of Cowan Bridge, and the suffering and deaths of her sisters, in such meticulous detail, for she also recreated her sister Maria in the character of Jane’s closest Lowood friend, Helen Burns—saintly, mistreated by sadistic teachers, then ill and dying in the middle of the night as Jane sleeps by her side. In the novel, typhus, not tuberculosis, spreads throughout the school, reminding me of the typhus that ravaged Virginia Stephen’s family when her beloved brother Thoby died of the disease, contracted on the Stephen siblings’ trip to Greece in 1906. For several weeks after he died at age 26, Virginia pretended he was still alive in letters to her friend Violet Dickinson, who was also ill at the time and whom Virginia didn’t wish to distress with news of the death.
On November 22, two days after Thoby’s death, she writes to Violet, “Thoby is as well as possible. We aren’t anxious.” On November 25: “Thoby is going on splendidly. He is very cross with his nurses, because they wont give him mutton chops and beer; and he asks why he cant go for a ride with Bell, and look for wild geese.” In early December: “Thoby is more hungry but healthy and rather better they say. I suppose he cant get stronger till he eats. These dreary details you will supply for yourself. They say his attack must have been worse than yours as his temp. was so high, but its a thing that leaves no ill effects—indeed it recoats your inside—so you can look forward to a double life in purity and cleanliness.”
Virginia wrote 18 such letters, through December 17, when Violet learned the truth by accident. “Beloved Violet, Do you hate me for telling so many lies?” she writes on December 18. She extends sympathy, trying to comfort Violet about Thoby’s death rather than seek comfort from her. “These great things are not terrible, and I know we can still make a good job of it—and we want you more and more. . . . Thoby was always asking about you. I know you loved him, and he loved you. The only thing I feel I could not bear would be to think that this news should make you worse. . . .” Woolf would write about Thoby for the rest of her life, in the character of Jacob Flanders in Jacob’s Room and Percival in The Waves, for instance—promising, adored young men dead before their time. Having written a book about a deceased sibling in my own family, I like to think of Charlotte and Virginia as kindred spirits, sharing the need to memorialize our lost sisters and brothers. “You’re bringing her back to life,” my father wrote to me in an email after reading a draft of my book. “What a wonderful exercise in the recovery of memory! And what a great gift you have given to your parents.”
I wish I could tell my father how much I treasure his gift of the Brontës. I wish my mother and I could have visited Haworth together. The memories and chains of association that arise from writing about the books my parents gave me enable me to hold them close in a way I would not have thought possible, calling to mind Susan Orlean’s wonderful Library Book. “In Senegalese,” she explains, “the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.” She puzzles over the phrase before concluding that “it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. . . . if you can take something from that internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited—it takes on a life of its own”—as does each of my parent-inscribed books, full of life and cherished more with each passing day, just like the people who gave them to me.
Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. Little, Brown and Company, 1990.
Brontë, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë. The Brontë Sisters: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre. Longmeadow Press, 1983.
Carson, Anne. Glass, Irony & God. New Directions, 1992.
—-. Plainwater. Vintage, 2000.
Czarnecki, Kristin. The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming. Main Street Rag, 2020.
Minick, Jeff. “Brontë Sisters Part and Parcel of the Magic of Haworth.” Smoky Mountain News, 24 June 2015. Web.
Morrison, Blake. “The Rise and Rise of Brontëmania.” The Guardian, 9 Sep. 2011. Web.
Orlean, Susan. The Library Book. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Plath, Sylvia. “Wuthering Heights.” The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Harper & Row, 1981.
Seymour, Miranda. I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys. William Collins, 2022.
Shulevitz, Judith. “The Secret of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.” The Atlantic, 15 June 2016. Web.
Temple, Emily. “Apparently the Brontës all died so early because they spent their lives drinking graveyard water.” Lit Hub, 14 May 2021. Web.
Woolf, Virginia. “Haworth, November 1904.” The Guardian. 21 Dec. 1904.
—-. “Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.” Collected Essays, Volume 1. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.
—-. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume One, 1888-1912. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
—-. A Room of One’s Own. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.
—-. To the Lighthouse. 1927. Annotated and with an Introduction by Mark Hussey. Harvest, 2005.
Kristin Czarnecki is the author of the memoir The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming and have published creative nonfiction, poetry, literary criticism, and book reviews in a variety of venues. She also has a chapbook forthcoming from dancing girl press. Her essay “Expressing the Inexpressible,” published in Peatsmoke: A Literary Journal in April 2021, was nominated by the editors for the 2022 Best of the Net anthology. She holds a Ph.D. in English and is past president of the International Virginia Woolf Society. You can learn more about her writing at https://kristinczarnecki.com/.