Giardina turns from socially conscious historical novels (Fallam’s Secret, 2003, etc.) to a fictionalized biography of sui generis poet and novelist Emily Brontë.
It begins with a flash-forward in which Emily, anticipating her death from consumption, begins to read her masterpiece Wuthering Heights to her indulgent father Patrick, a venerable Yorkshire clergyman. The story then focuses on Emily’s childhood as one of five sisters, two of whom predecease her, and the bond of solidarity formed with siblings Anne and Charlotte, who will also live to write memorable fiction. Headstrong Emily incurs the displeasure of her masters at the Clergy Daughters’ School, to which the Brontë girls are sent to prepare for careers as governesses, and upon returning home scandalizes neighbors by roaming the moors unchaperoned, accompanied by her favorite dog and trained hawk. But her horizons expand significantly when handsome young curate William Weightman arrives to assist elderly Reverend Brontë. Weightman’s romantic imagination and passionate solidarity with exploited workers agitating for overdue reform attract Emily’s sympathetic attention and eventually her devotion. A catastrophic cholera outbreak destroys the incipient lovers’ dreams, and Emily retreats into the world of her teeming imagination, creating her passionate antagonist Heathcliff out of Weightman’s stoical decency and her own austere independence. Giardina’s research tends to occupy undue space and slacken the narrative pace. But the surpassingly strange Brontë family, which also includes surly ne’er-do-well brother Branwell, offers a fascinating spectacle, and the reader’s attention is held throughout several labored and redundant sequences. Most interesting, perhaps, is the pointed contrast Giardina presents between Emily’s untrammeled, indeed often admirable egoism and Charlotte’s emotional meanness and ruthless careerism.
Something less than the definitive portrait of a frustratingly elusive great writer, but an agreeable read nonetheless, and a good bet for reading groups.