Saturday, 18 March 2023

Film Review: Emily (2022)

As the author of a novel inspired by the scandalous lives of the Bronte siblings (Bronte’s Mistress), I’ve fielded a lot of questions recently about Emily, the 2022 biopic about the most mysterious Bronte sister, which only came to theaters in the US last month. Have I seen it? Do I like it? Is it accurate??

In this blog post I’m finally breaking down my response to the movie into two sections—highlights and lowlights. I’d absolutely love to hear your opinions too!


Location/Setting: The movie was shot on location, largely in the Brontes’ hometown of Haworth. It was a thrill for me to see the Bronte siblings on film in the parsonage, where they lived, and on the moors where they would have roamed. Emily is beautifully filmed, and the movie would be worth watching for the Yorkshire landscape alone.

Acting: The actors, especially Emma Mackey who played the title role, were stellar (although clearly cast for their talent rather than for any family resemblance between the siblings!).

Boosting Bronte-Mania: Critics and audiences alike seem to have really enjoyed the film, which is great news for Bronte fans (and Bronte-related authors like me). I hope it encourages even more readers to pick up Wuthering Heights and the other Bronte novels.


Romance: I was saddened, although not surprised, that much of the movie was given over to a fictional romance between Emily Bronte and the curate, William Weightman. I understand the film industry’s desire to add bodice ripping to every period drama. However, there was enough scandal in the Brontes’ lives without making more up and I felt the romantic focus took away from who I believe Emily Bronte really was—reclusive, introverted, and not writing from personal experience when she penned the violent passion of Wuthering Heights.

Publication History: The end of the movie was truly horrifying to me, and not because of the Bronte siblings’ speedy deaths. The screenwriters took a huge liberty in changing the publication history of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and suggesting that Charlotte only penned her famous novel in response to Emily’s success.

Charlotte and Anne: Speaking of which, both Charlotte and Anne came out of the Emily biopic particularly badly. While Charlotte’s genius was chalked up to mere sibling rivalry, Anne’s writing aspirations were barely mentioned. I appreciate that this was a movie about Emily, but do we really need to keep putting Bronte sisters down to raise others up?

Sibling Relationships: Branwell, the Bronte brother, also gets a lot of screen time. What was most puzzling to me here was that the movie suggested there was most sympathy and kinship between him and Emily, presenting them as the “fun” ones, compared to an uptight Charlotte and generally useless Anne. In fact, Branwell and Charlotte were incredibly close, as were Emily and Anne—that’s why these were the pairings in which they wrote their juvenilia. There were some early references to the siblings’ childhood make-believe worlds, but this aspect of their relationships was severely underdeveloped in favor of making Emily and Branwell our bad girl/boy rebels.

Lydia Robinson: Finally, as the author of a novel all about Branwell’s affair with Lydia Robinson, his employer’s wife, I was of course intrigued to see how the movie would cover this episode. Sadly, nothing that happened at Thorp Green Hall, or the impact this had on the Bronte family, made it into the movie. Instead, there was just a brief and confusing scene featuring Branwell flirting with a married woman closer to home. Hollywood scouts, if you’re reading this, there was a real Bronte love affair, and one with the scope for multiple sex scenes—you just need to read Bronte’s Mistress. ;)

So, there you have it—this has been my take on Emily. The film is beautiful and well-acted and few of my gripes will matter if you don’t know much about the Brontes. But if you do, you might find yourself screaming at the screen like me… 

Bronte fans, do you agree or disagree? I’d love for you to let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 25 February 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: Booth, Karen Joy Fowler (2022)

I imagine that many American readers will come to Karen Joy Fowler’s 2022 novel, Booth, with preconceptions about John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). However, having grown up outside the US, my knowledge of the killer and the theatrical family he was part of was essentially nonexistent before I sat down to read this latest book in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, about novels set in the nineteenth century but penned in the twenty-first.

Booth is one of those novels where we know what the climax will be—Lincoln will die. Suspense comes instead from anticipating the emotional and practical responses of the rest of the Booth family to John’s actions. We move between three of his nine siblings’ points of view in the novel, jumping from the mind of invalid and put-upon Rosalie to famous actor Edwin to beautiful and fiery Asia. This isn’t a book about a murderer—it’s a book about how a murderer’s actions affect those who love him most, so I was unsurprised to read in Fowler’s author’s note that she was partially inspired to write the book by considering the position of modern mass shooters’ families. 

The real-life Booths are wonderful fodder for a novel. In addition to John’s assassination of Lincoln, parental bigamy, alcoholism, daring and dangerous journeys across the United States, theatrical productions galore, and a stock of other juicy rumors were all at Fowler’s disposal when she sat down to write this book. If she’d made all this up some reviewers would have called Fowler’s novel farfetched but all the craziest details about the Booths are true, meaning, especially later in the book, there is, at times, too much incident. I would have liked some breathing room to give the characters even more page space to react and reflect.

Lovers of Shakespeare will enjoy how much Fowler makes of the importance of the bard to the Booth family culture and may also be intrigued by the altered versions of his famous plays most performed during the nineteenth-century. I also liked learning about other popular plays from the time period, and the history of costuming (the fact that actors owned their own expensive costumes for different roles was fascinating!). 

Coming back to the preconceived ideas readers may have about the Booths, Fowler handles the topic of slavery very deftly. Without lecturing, the novel explores how and why the siblings ended up with opposing ideas about abolition, and the divisions created by birth order, age gaps, and very different childhood experiences in a large family rang particularly true. This is the story of the Booth siblings, but secondary characters, including the family’s Black servants who are trying to buy the freedom of their children still trapped in slavery, give us an even broader perspective on the macro-forces at work in the country during this era. 

What novel would you like to see my review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Like what you read? Sign up to my email newsletter for monthly updates on my writing and blogging. 

Saturday, 18 February 2023

Emily Bronte’s Love and Friendship: An Analysis

Emily Bronte is the Bronte sibling who’s top of mind for many of us right now, with the release of the biopic Emily (which I’m hoping to see this long weekend!). So, in honor of the most mysterious Bronte sister I thought I’d spend some time on an exercise I haven’t done in a long time on my blog—a close reading of a poem. 

I’ve previously shared analyses of other Victorian poems, including Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells,” Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Kraken” and “To Virgil.” Today it’s the turn of Emily Bronte’s “Love and Friendship”.

Here’s the poem…

Love and Friendship

Love is like the wild rose-briar,

Friendship like the holly-tree—

The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms

But which will bloom most constantly?

The wild rose-briar is sweet in spring,

Its summer blossoms scent the air;

Yet wait till winter comes again

And who will call the wild-briar fair?

Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now

And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,

That when December blights thy brow

He still may leave thy garland green.

Let’s start by paraphrasing the poem in prose to make sure we all understand what Emily Bronte is telling us here. 

In the first stanza, Bronte compares romantic love to one plant (“the wild rose-briar”) and platonic friendship to another (“the holly-tree”). Then she poses a question about which “will bloom most constantly,” i.e., be a more consistent source of joy.

In the second stanza she answers her own question, telling us love, unlike friendship, will be short-lived, just as the rose-briar is stripped of its beauty in winter.

Based on this conclusion, in the third stanza she offers some advice: the reader should reject romantic love in the present and invest in their friendships so that in the future (when we’re old) these platonic relationships will bring us happiness. 

So that’s what Emily Bronte is saying, but let’s discuss some of the notable things about how she expresses this idea in her poem.

First, I want to draw your attention to Bronte’s use of rhyme. In the first stanza, “tree” and “constantly” rhyme, but “briar” and “blooms” definitely do not, giving us a ABCB rhyme scheme. In the second stanza, again lines 2 and 4 (“air” and “fair”) are a perfect rhyme, while lines 1 and 3 (“spring” and “again”) inch closer to rhyming. Finally, in the third stanza, we get a true ABAB scheme with two pairs of perfect rhymes (“now” with “brow” and “sheen” with “green”). What is the effect of this? The paired rhymes in the last stanza add to the feeling of finality in Emily Bronte’s poem and bring the piece to a more satisfying end. And the progression towards this rhyme scheme we see in the first two stanzas is similar to that of rhetorician building a persuasive argument.

The next detail that’s worth diving into is Bronte’s choice of which plants should represent each subject. Using the rose to depict romantic love is so classic as to border on cliché, but here the decision to make this a “wild rose-briar” adds interest. The choice suggests natural and unbridled passion, reminiscent of the tumultuous love between Cathy and Heathcliff in Bronte’s only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). Meanwhile, the holly-tree is a plant with a strong association with one time of year—Christmas. This suits Bronte well as her lesson is that we should garland ourselves with friendship now, even though we mightn’t understand its full rewards until later (i.e., at the end of the year/our lives). 

Bronte’s message may seem to be a total rejection of romance (after all, she does tell us to “scorn” it), but it is also worth noting that she doesn’t tell us to remove the “silly rose-wreath” from our heads and imagines this crown remaining there, if blighted, on our brow come winter. Maybe then we should read the verse as encouraging us not to take our romantic entanglements too seriously and certainly not to neglect our friendships in favor of them?

One last detail I’d love to point out is the use of alliteration throughout to make the poem pleasing to the ear (“wait,” “winter,” “will,” and “wild-briar” all appear close together, as do “scorn” and “silly,” “blights” and “brow,” and “garland” and “green”). This is a technique that fiction writers can also use in our writing whenever we want to make our prose sing.

Have you seen the new Emily movie yet? I’d love to hear what you think! Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Writers’ Questions: Why, oh why, is writing so hard?

I’ve been publishing blog posts as part of my Writers’ Questions series since 2019, covering a range of topics related to craft and the business of writing. But many of my most-asked questions really boil down to one that’s psychological, rather than artistic or technical, in nature: why is this writing thing so damn hard?!

Feeling down? Digest these tips and eat some ice cream...

First, I feel you—being a writer isn’t easy. Second, if you’re currently struggling with the emotional toll of writing, this blog post might help by digging into some of the potential reasons why…

You're realizing writing isn't for everyone. Literacy rates are very high in the countries where I and most of this blog’s readers live. That means that almost everyone can write and does write (emails, texts, ranting comments on the internet etc.) all the time. But don’t confuse that with thinking that everyone can write well. One thing that’s hard about pursuing this as a career path, or even a hobby, is that it’s very easy to start writing (unlike say, picking up a violin and starting to play), but, at some point, you’re going to hit an issue and understand your lack of experience. If this is where you’re at now, don’t fear! Recognizing where your writing could be better is vital for improving your craft, and thinking your prose is perfect as a beginner is a recipe for disappointment.

You’re not looking after your physical needs. There may be a certain appeal to the trope of the starving artist, but, if you’re tired, hungry, cold etc., trust me—you’re not going to be producing your best material. Get better at diagnosing what’s actually wrong when you’re feeling low and understanding what your mind and body needs and wants. It’s not virtuous to push yourself to breaking point. Great writing might be about suffering but should never require it.

You like the idea of writing. I hate to break it to you, but writers love the act of writing, not just having written. When you’re at your best (i.e., not tired, hungry etc. as I list above), can an hour slip away from you, unnoticed, as you type at your keyboard or scrawl in a notebook? If not, why on earth are you doing this to yourself? If you want someone to listen to you, consider therapy and/or get better friends. And if you want fame, fortune, and praise, there are much easier paths to take.

You’re playing an imitation game. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your writing because you’re copying your literary heroes, rather than developing your own style. If you’re doing this, it’s unsurprising that you’ll always be underwhelmed by the result. Stop trying to be Tolkien. You’re never going to be Tolkien. 

You’re writing the “wrong” thing. Or maybe it’s the type of writing you’re doing that’s the problem? You could be better suited to working in a format other than a novel e.g., penning a play, poem, screenplay, or short story. Perhaps secretly your heart is with another genre and you’re forcing yourself to write what you think you should be writing (e.g., following the market or writing literary fiction when you prefer to write genre). When in doubt, try mixing it up, and see if things get any easier.

Your inner critic is being too harsh. Self-editing is part of a writer’s job, but too much self-critique can be paralyzing. If you struggle with this, then try to operate in different modes (writer mode vs. editor mode). Then assign these versions of yourself to different shifts. When your inner editor is away, let your inner writer play and enjoy.

You're struggling with feelings of rejection. Lastly, maybe you’re unhappy right now because you’ve faced a spate of writerly rejection. “No” is a word we hear A LOT in this business. This is emotionally difficult—there are no two ways about it. And you’re allowed to wallow for a few minutes when you receive bad news. But don’t let rejection cramp your style or stop you writing. Instead, I recommend distracting yourself, while waiting for news or after receiving bad news. Start a new project. Indulge in some guilty pleasure writing that reminds you why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. No agent, editor, judge etc. can ever take that restoring feeling of the joy of creation away from you. 

What question would you like to see me tackle next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Writers’ Questions: How shouldn’t I begin my novel?

Happy January, everyone! Many of you might have made writing a novel (or another novel) one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2023, so, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m covering what not to do at the opening of your book. I’ve already talked about the top mistakes beginner writers make when embarking on a fiction project. This time the focus is on what not to do in those crucial first few pages.

Of course, there are some caveats here. You may be able to think of wonderful novels that start in the ways I critique below (although I bet most of your examples are from before the year 2000…). And you might, of course, be a writerly genius who can pull any opening off. If so, good for you! But if your new novel starts in any of the following ways, it might just be worth rethinking your beginning…

Dreams: Readers are trying to orient themselves when they first pick up a new novel. Throwing them into a new world and then revealing it was all a dream is a sure-fire way to confuse them. Plus, dreams are boring unless you care deeply about the person dreaming. Have your eyes ever glazed over while an acquaintance tells you about their dream in real life? Don’t subject your readers to the literary equivalent, asking them to care about the sub-conscious mumblings of a character they haven’t even met yet. 

Waking Up Generally: The only thing duller than a character waking up from a dream is a character waking up from no dream and pursuing their morning routine of eating their cereal and brushing their teeth. Spare us the mundanity and get into why your story is interesting, I beg you.

A History/Science/Folklore etc. Lesson: Readers read books for entertainment. A novel shouldn’t begin like a textbook. There’ll be time enough later for your world building, e.g., explaining what fuels the spaceship or how your novel’s magic system works. For now, get into the action.

Too Much Action: However, don’t give us too much action. A James Bond style car chase works well at the start of a movie—on page one of a novel though, not so much. Action is hard to write, even after you’ve established characters, setting, and stakes. Beginning mid-battle or fist fight, it will be difficult for readers to understand what is going on or why they should care.

Unattributed Dialogue: One arresting line of dialogue might be a good opening sentence, but please establish who’s talking ASAP or readers won’t have a clue what’s going on. If your novel starts with back-and-forth conversation between two unnamed and un-described characters, you’re not doing yourself or your readers any favors.

Do you agree or passionately disagree that these are among the worst ways a writer can start a novel? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist