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  • Costumery: Cento with Lines from Early Reviews of Wuthering Heights, and: Self-Portrait as Thunder and Lightning, and: Rewriting Emily, and: Heathcliff's Curse
  • Jane Satterfield (bio)

Costumery: Cento with Lines from Early Reviews of Wuthering Heights

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë posed as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell to publish their work and be taken seriously as authors; rumors swirled around the nature of their identity and their novels' composition.

The whole firm of Bell & Co.               staring down human life—

a depravity strangely their own               one family, one pen—

provincialisms, blasphemy, the brutalizing               influence of unchecked passion

Scenes so hot, emphatic,               and so sternly masculine in feeling

Its sex cannot be mistaken               even in manliest attire

A sprawling story casts a gloom               one presiding evil genius

two generations of sufferers               the highest effects of the supernatural

an atmosphere of mist . . .               A more natural unnatural story

we do not remember having read:               But what may be the moral? [End Page 91]

Tempers spoiled in childhood               violence, dogged obstinacy

a ferocity fatal to tranquility:               rakes and battered profligates

nightmares and dreams               many chapters, good dashes of character, too

But however well these Brothers Bell               may write by rule and line—

their work still bears the stamp of more               than one mind and one sex

sundry guises, sundry authors               what we may call costumery [End Page 92]

Self-Portrait as Thunder and Lightning

"Apparently, Emily did have a dress that had a thunder and lightning pattern on it, which is amazing. It's sort of telling of her character."

—Chloe Pirrie, who plays Emily in a production of Sally Wainwright's PBS Masterpiece Series drama To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters.

She stabbed at stitchery, affecting a fix with fine tucks.Thrift makes a fine muse.

A sampler is memory stashed in a drawer.Think inky thread, foam creaming the waterfall's edge.

The fabric for patience is fluid. The set task—sitting still.An apron is coarse courage: egg splash, a welter of stains.

A house is sometimes a prison, a palace.Fold a linen and out flies a wish.

The romantic sister believes elaborate smocking honors Creation.The faithful one admits to adornment's sorcery.

The corseted body is morally firm; the pretty heroine, artless.Tight-lacers are rarely tempted to stray.

A new wife's ease with her "duties" is signaled by her light-colored summer dress.A ripping good yarn dresses up social critique.

Daydreams may induce a distempered mind.Literature cannot be the business of women, and it ought not to be. . ..

When we walk as men, we stride in hunters' jackets and kilts.Updrafts caressing the thigh; a laughable huff on cigars.

In another century, her sister's dress will survive, time-tanked in museum glass.Admirers will flash by in leggings branded Look at me now! [End Page 93]

She'll roll up her sleeves to be as God made me,above the whirl of woolen mills on hushed horizons—

quicksilver in the eyes of the fox,in the flare and flame of the fox threading high hills with its ochre. [End Page 94]

Rewriting Emily

"I have just read over Wuthering Heights, and for the first time, have obtained a clear glimpse of what are termed (and, perhaps really are) its faults."

—Charlotte Brontë, "Editor's Preface to the New Edition of Wuthering Heights (1850)"

"After Emily died, Charlotte took the reins and became the impresario of her posthumous reputation. Her attempts to rewrite her in fiction, criticism, and biography, and as an editor, are often as obfuscating as they are revealing."

—Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth

Because, to the critics, the Bells          must appear a bad set, serving up          the salacious—

Because readers are hills, and hamlets must seem          unfamiliar, even alien, to be a "misanthrope's heaven"—

Because she was no more than a nursling of the moors,          a walker and watcher in the weather's skitter and shift—

Because her mind held a strange though somber power          and I did suspect our work was not what is called "feminine"

Because she adored the uncanny          and as little as possible put down her pen—

Because the work wants sunshine          and she worked...


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