Catherine Reef June 2014Bronte 1This is my interview with Catherine Reef.

When did you first become interested in the Brontës? The bookshelves of my childhood home held a 1943 boxed set of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with woodcut illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. As a young teenager I spent a lot of time with these two volumes. I was entranced by the stark, haunting pictures, and I immersed myself in the stories, which were unlike anything I had ever read. For me this was a powerful experience of literature and art, one that has remained vivid in my memory.

Which are your favourite images in this book? A big favorite has to be the one I chose to open the book: nervous horses desperately trying to gain a foothold as they struggle to haul a heavy cart up a steep hill. I wanted to begin with an image that emphasized the harsh, unforgiving environment in which the Brontës lived. It was a world indifferent to suffering, “a strange land,” as the sisters’ father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, said. I like the sight of George Smith, the youthful publisher of Jane Eyre, first encountering its author. He stares at a letter in his hand, then at the diminutive woman standing before him, then at the letter, and again at the woman, back and forth, until it dawns on him that she wrote this powerful novel. I also embrace the image of Arthur Bell Nicholls trembling with fear as he asks Charlotte Brontë for her hand in marriage. Nicholls was a mature man of thirty-three. As her father’s curate, he knew Charlotte well and had grown to love her through day-to-day contact. Yet he had to summon every bit of his courage to stand before her and open his heart.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? Jane Eyre begins on a rainy day. Prevented by the weather from walking outside, the title character curls up in a window seat with an illustrated book. She is attracted to its pictures of bleak shorelines and fields of ice, scenes that mirror the loveless world Jane inhabits. She focuses on a particular illustration of a “rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray.” Jane was reading a real book, Bewick’s History of British Birds, which was on the shelves of the Haworth parsonage. Brontë had perused it often enough in childhood to have the illustrations imprinted in her mind. It was a happy day for me as a researcher when I tracked down this peculiar book at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I found the page with the solitary rock, which now appears as an illustration in my book. I’m sure that Charlotte Brontë meant for the rock to symbolize Jane’s isolation in early life, when she is at the mercy of forces beyond her control.

Was there any information or were there images which were hard to source? One thing I do, when writing about creative people such as the Brontës, is to show young readers how their work was received in the subjects’ lifetime. The sisters’ novels, now considered classics of English literature and studied in classrooms around the world, shocked people when they first appeared. The Brontës had written frankly about the emotional lives of women and about male-female relationships, revealing truths that many Victorians resisted acknowledging in their own lives and objected to seeing printed on a page. For example, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë describes a disastrous marriage marred by alcoholism and discord. At one point the wife, Helen Huntingdon, locks her husband out of her bedroom, denying him access to her bed. Did this scene offend Victorian readers’ sensibilities? Most definitely. Did such things occur in mid-nineteenth-century English homes? Of course. But no one ever spoke of them. “The slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England,” commented May Sinclair, a writer of a later generation—or did she? I encountered this quote in several books discussing the novel, but not a single one credited a primary source. I had enough experience as a researcher to be suspicious, so I made it my business to track down Sinclair’s words. I found them in her 1913 book, The Three Brontës, but what Sinclair actually wrote was this: “The slamming of that bedroom door fairly resounds through the emptiness of Anne’s novel.” This was the quote I included in my book. It was less dramatic than the first one, but it was accurate—and sourced. In this way I made a small yet important correction to the literary and historical record. It felt good!

What do you love most about each of the Brontë sisters? Admire might be a better word than love. I admire the way Charlotte Brontë looked after the interests of her siblings, including the ones who didn’t survive childhood. The two oldest Brontë girls, Maria and Elizabeth, contracted tuberculosis while pupils at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. This charity school for the daughters of poor ministers used cruelty and deprivation in a misguided attempt to mold the girls’ character. A sadist can find a haven in such a place, and clearly one did—the teacher who singled out Maria Brontë for repeated abuse. As a small child Charlotte watched helplessly as her sister suffered, but as a novelist she spoke out in Maria’s behalf by modeling Lowood, the dismal institution to which the orphaned Jane Eyre is sent, on the Clergy Daughters’ School. Charlotte did her job so well that some readers recognized in her description the school at Cowan Bridge. I admire Emily’s determination to be true to herself. She simply was not going to bow to convention in manners or dress if doing so forced her to be dishonest or stifle her will. The fiercely private Emily Brontë lasted as a teacher at Miss Patchett’s School for a single term because she could not thrive by satisfying an employer’s expectations. Even when death was descending on her, she refused to bend; she played the piano, fed her dogs, and completed all the household chores that she loved to do right up until her final hours. No one else but Emily Brontë could have written Wuthering Heights, a novel that defied literary and social conventions to such a degree that it continues to resist interpretation and has the power to shock readers even today. I admire Anne’s power of observation. A shy, retiring young woman of limited experience, Anne Brontë nevertheless produced two novels that explore human motivations and relationships with insight and sophistication. She found characters and plot elements by watching and listening as a governess in the houses of the well-to-do and at home in remote Haworth. In The Brontë Sisters I describe an afternoon when Anne, as a proper clergyman’s daughter, entertains a visitor to the parsonage named Mrs. Collins. She listens politely as Mrs. Collins carries on for two hours about her unhappy marriage to an alcoholic cleric and her later success at being self-supporting. In Mrs. Collins’s saga Anne found inspiration for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

What do you think is the lasting appeal of the Brontë novels? People are drawn to the Brontës’ novels in part because the sisters’ own story appeals to the imagination. Think of it—children growing up in a bleak environment where death is a constant presence, having only one another as playmates, creating an imaginary world, and writing down the sagas of its inhabitants. How wondrous it was that three of those children became important novelists, and how tragic that all three died before age forty. It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened if they had lived. Had Anne continued to write, would she have rivaled Jane Austen? Her two novels revealed so much promise. Would Emily have published a second novel? Some scholars think that she wrote one, and that Charlotte destroyed it out of a fear that it would be misunderstood. And what about Charlotte? Would she have been satisfied as a clergyman’s wife? Would she have abandoned novel writing, as her husband had wished? We can never know. The Brontës’ books also have lasting appeal because, like all novels that have become classics, they deal with timeless themes: an individual’s journey toward self-actualization, in the case of Jane Eyre, for example, or the destructive nature of unbridled passions, as illustrated in Wuthering Heights. They offer insight into human emotions, from fervency to rage to despair. Edward Rochester is very much a man of the nineteenth century, yet readers of our own time understand his world weariness. Helen Huntingdon lives in a society that in many ways was different from our own; a married woman had no right to her property in mid-nineteenth-century England, or even to her children. Yet the suffering she feels as a partner in an unhappy, abusive marriage is no different from the pain an individual in such a situation experiences today. As Ernest Hemingway said about his own novels, the Brontës’ books are true. The characters and plot details are fictional, but they are built upon a foundation of truth.

What do you choose to do during your time off? Some people who work hard spend their free time relaxing on a sofa and watching television. Not me—I like to be doing something. If I am not writing, you are likely to find me planning or finishing a craft project, cooking dinner for friends, visiting a museum, attending a concert or play, or going to a restaurant. If it’s evening and the television is on, I will be knitting. I also read steadily and eclectically. I don’t read much current fiction; I generally like novels best when they have had time to season. I enjoy as well reading biographies, memoirs, and any nonfiction of high literary quality. And of course I love to read poetry, but I can only absorb poems slowly.

Do you collect anything? I have never deliberately set out to collect things, yet I have ended up with a number of collections: pottery bowls, crockery decorated with fish motifs, covered dishes shaped like birds, vintage hand-knitted sweaters, knitting magazines from bygone decades. Certain objects have their connotations or particular appeal, are grouped together, and voilà—there’s a collection. Quite a few quirky old books have also attached themselves to me.

What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? It is my dream to travel to the Northwest Territories of Canada and see the Northern Lights. I saw them once on a frigid winter night when I was very young and living on Long Island, New York. My mother woke my brother and me and brought us to a window. As we looked out at a wondrous, glowing curtain of green hanging in the sky, my mother explained what we were seeing. She told us never to forget the sight, because we might never see it again. An obedient child, I have not forgotten, but I do want to see the lights at least one more time.

What are you working on next? In August, Clarion will release Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, my biography of the great lexicographer. Webster had a talent for raising his contemporaries’ hackles by writing provocatively about politics and language, yet he managed through those writings to influence the development of the young United States and the English language as used by Americans. He witnessed key events of his time and met a number of its great personages. He was an arrogant, opinionated, and socially awkward old fellow, yet I grew quite fond of him. I hope readers enjoy getting to know him too. Then, in 2016, look for my young adult biography of Florence Nightingale, the illustrious nurse. Many, many books on Nightingale have been written for young children, but virtually nothing is available for adolescents and teens. This is a shame because her story is one they will identify with strongly. What young person hasn’t felt misunderstood by his or her family, as Nightingale did? Who doesn’t feel at odds with society while coming of age? Nightingale was a pioneer in calling for a woman’s right to work in the field of her choosing, and what she accomplished as a woman in Victorian England is remarkable. And, of course, the account of her years in the military hospitals of the Crimean War is nothing short of sensational. So I am excited!

Read my review of ‘The Brontë Sisters; The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne’ here.

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