A more apt title for this psychobiography of Emily Brontë would be A Soulfood Chain. It argues, you see, for a strong connection between Emily Brontë’s artistic sensibility and her eating habits. The willowy, stubborn child of the moors who never loved, but who knew all about tempestuous passion and wrote about it in lyric poetry and Wuthering Heights, was anorexic. Or so biographer Katherine Frank has decided to claim.
Emily Brontë, like her sisters Charlotte and Anne, lived in her imagination. Even more so than they, she shunned contact with society and reveled in a life of cooking and cleaning for her widowed clergyman father at the rugged Haworth parsonage. She died at age thirty of the tuberculosis to which her family was prone (it claimed the lives of her siblings Maria, Elizabeth, and Branwell Brontë before her, Miss Frank reports.)
The Emily Brontë who emerges from this book does seem to have the nunlike purity and unearthly imaginative powers of such purported anorexics as St. Catherine of Siena. But no evidence is presented to bolster Frank’s suggestion that her subject wrote beautiful poetry under the influence of “trance-like states—provoked perhaps by hunger and fasting.” In three cases Brontë apparently refused to eat so that her father would do her bidding: once so a favorite servant who had fallen ill would be allowed to remain at Haworth, and twice so she would not have to stay at boarding school. The minute she returned to the parsonage she was happy, as Frank tells us time and time again to the detriment of her case. Consider the three or four “diary papers,” a sort of family newsletter Emily Brontë would jot down every few years, which are the only personal writings that have survived. These describe the sturdy contentment of a very forward-looking English girl. She writes, in one fairly typical passage, “merely desiring that everybody should be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding, and then we should have a very tolerable world of it.”
It is too bad Charlotte Brontë, whose correspondence gave posterity most of what it knows about her younger sister Emily, was a plump woman. As Frank portrays her, she fits the psychological profile of the anorexic much better. As the one who sought public recognition of her family’s talents, she had many disappointments and wrote many a despairing letter. Frank takes it from there, alleging, for instance, that the failure of Charlotte Brontë’s dream of founding a private school so she and her sisters could stop slaving away as other people’s governesses gave her a “gnawing sense of powerlessness” that “led to an obsession with control.” Frank goes on: “Hadn’t Charlotte herself always been the stronger, older, more practical one, protecting her younger, frail, eccentric, reclusive sister? Now it was Emily who was large and strong. Charlotte could not consume the food Emily cooked for her, could not eat or write at the dining room table.”
It could be the biographer has strained a point to oblige her publisher with an “original” angle. Or it could be that Frank was very attached to her provocative thesis, which Houghton Mifflin decided could be padded out to book length. Frank’s method of padding, it must be said, is the very worst. Quoting passages from letters or poems, she provides “expository analysis” by repeating the passages nearly word for word, as in: “‘We are all about to divide, break up, separate,’ [Charlotte] reported, emphasizing the fragmentation of the family with the three forceful verbs, ‘divide,’ ‘break up’ and ‘separate.’”
One imagines this work as the twenty-page essay it should have been, nestling harmlessly in one of the academic journals. Some Gastromysticism Monthly—or perhaps a Cahiers de Culinary Deconstruction, if there is one—would have just eaten it up.