Friday, July 31, 2015

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Always Emily opens in the year 1825, with the service for Elizabeth Bronte, ten years of age. The three remaining Bronte children, nine year old Charlotte, eight year old Branwell and seven year old Emily have a morbid fascination with the family crypt that holds not only Elizabeth but also their mother and their sister Marie. Ten years later, Emily and Charlotte are on their way to Roe Head School where Emily will be enrolled as a student and Charlotte will teach. Charlotte has arranged this against Emily's wishes because she believes that Emily needs to learn both academic subjects as well as music and deportment if she is to earn a living. Charlotte has been concerned about their father's health after his serious illness during the past spring and worried about how they would support themselves if he died.

However, things do not go well for either young woman at Roe Head. Emily is caught climbing out a second storey window by the French mistress, Madame Librac. Emily tells Charlotte and Miss Wooler, the headmistress, that she wants to go home. Miss Wooler dismisses Emily's concerns, telling her that sending her home will only reward her bad behaviour and that she will conquer her homesickness. Meanwhile Charlotte finds herself increasingly distracted by her desire to work on writing a romance fantasy, resulting in her neglecting her teaching. After dealing with Emily, Miss Wooler also tells Charlotte that her teaching is less than desirable and she indicates that she hired her despite her father's political activities.

A week later finds Emily desperately ill with a fever. This leads Miss Wooler to conclude that this might be a ruse to get sent home, however, Charlotte is convinced that Emily is truly ill. She realizes that her sister can no longer stay at Roe Head and she arranges for her to be sent home to Haworth.

At her father's parsonage in Haworth, Emily quickly recovers her health amidst several unusual happenings. Her father is burying old Mr. Heaton of Ponden Hill who died under somewhat suspicious circumstances. An accomplished rider, he died after going riding with his son Master Robert, after they had had an argument. Emily also encounters Branwell involved in a mysterious meeting at the parsonage. Against her father's and her Aunt Branwell's wishes begins walking on the moor once again. On her first walk she encounters a camp hidden in a hollow beneath a small bluff. Racing home, Emily finds Branwell, drunk outside the parsonage.

Later that night Emily's father shoots off his pistol to ward off someone breaking into the parsonage. Rev. Bronte believes the attempted break in may have something to do with his support for the millworkers. He can't understand why someone would try to rob the parsonage since it contains only parish records and his personal correspondence. Rev. Bronte tells Emily that Robert Heaton, who is leading the mill owners against the workers has complained about his editorials and sermons in support of the workers. Heaton has mentioned to Bronte that he has seen a strange man about the moors.

A month after Emily's return home, Charlotte too finds herself returning to Haworth after her novel-in-progress, The Romantic Adventures of the Queen of Angri comes to the attention of Miss Wooler. The headmistress believes Charlotte should return home for a short time to determine if she wants to continue teaching. Humiliated, Charlotte leaves but intends to return. She is soon distracted when her carriage is stopped  by a hysterical woman who tells Charlotte that a man has locked her up and taken away her son and her fortune. Immediately a man on horseback arrives, addressing the woman as Rachel. He identifies himself as Robert Heaton and tells Charlotte that she is a dependent of his family who is mad. Charlotte tells him she is the daughter of Rev. Bronte and seeing the woman's distress, offers to transport Rachel to Ponden Hall. However, Robert declines telling her Rachel doesn't live at Ponden Hall.

When she returns to the parsonage, Charlotte asks their housekeeper, Tabby, if she knows about the mysterious woman she met on the moors. Tabby tells Charlotte that she does remember that Robert Heaton has a sister who got pregnant by the son of a shopkeeper. They married but he drank and was abusive. After several months, he died and Heaton's sister returned to Ponden Hills to have her son. The family never let her forget her mistake, especially since her son, Harry was sickly. Charlotte wonders if the woman she met on the moors was Robert's sister. Charlotte's investigation into Branwell's strange behaviour leads her to watch him hidden in the church when he meets John Brown, her father's sexton. Branwell is told to meet for a special ritual on Friday at Newall Street.

Meanwhile, unknown to Charlotte or her father, Emily revisits the hidden camp on the moors and frees a large mastiff who was tied up. After comforting the dog who is thirsty, she names him Keeper. Charlotte discovers that the camp belongs to Harry, the nephew of Robert Heaton. Harry tells Emily that he left Ponden Hall because he was afraid his grandfather who despised his mother for making a poor marriage and him for being born, would kill him.He has been at sea for the past six years and cannot locate his mother, whom he fears is dead. Emily offers to check out the parish records at the parsonage. Harry believes that his Uncle Robert requires his mother's inheritance to finance the improvements he's making to the mills. Since the Heaton's own property all over the moors, Harry's mother might be hidden anywhere.

Charlotte confirms what she suspects, that Rachel is Robert Heaton's sister when he comes to challenge her father over his support for the mill workers. A bit of detective work by Charlotte leads her to Newall Street where she finds her way to a secret room and hides in a trunk. While in the trunk she witnesses Branwell's initiation into the Masons. The presence of Robert Heaton and the requirement that Branwell must do something for Heaton that only he can do peaks Charlotte's curiosity.

Neither Charlotte nor Emily realize they have both stumbled onto different sides of a mysterious affair involving the Heaton family, the parsonage and their brother, Branwell. Can the Bronte sisters manage to work together to help Harry find his mother and discover what the link to Branwell is?


MacColl has written an intriguing story based on the lives of the Bronte sisters. Always Emily is a mystery story that incorporates some events of the Bronte sisters lives and uses the area where they lived as its setting. Readers who are familiar with the Bronte sisters novels, especially Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre will recognize certain elements from both stories that are present in Always Emily.

Besides the mystery of Harry's mother, the novel focuses on the relationship between Emily and Charlotte Bronte, the two spirited heroines of Always Emily. At the beginning of the novel, neither sister is friendly towards the other and in fact they are almost constantly arguing. They are two very different personalities. Charlotte is petite and sensible, overwhelmed with the responsibility for her sisters. In contrast, Emily is tall, passionate and more self-absorbed and deeply resents Charlotte's obsession with responsibility. However, the mystery of Rachel Heaton helps them to begin to see the other's strengths and provides the perfect combination - daring, logical Emily and practical, ethical Charlotte - to solve the mystery.

Charlotte Bronte
For example, when Emily decides to hitch the wagon to a horse other than Robert Heaton's horse which is not used to wagons, Charlotte praises her sister say, " You're never wrong about animals..." Later on when a bog burst ruins Ponden Mills, Emily is chided by Charlotte for selfishly wishing revenge upon Robert Heaton. Instead of striking back at Charlotte, Emily tells her sister, "Dear Charlotte, that is why I have you. You are my practicality and my conscience." And when the two sisters arrive at the parsonage with Rachel in the wagon, instead of dismissing Charlotte's premonition that something is not right, Emily acts on it. When it turns out Charlotte is correct, Emily acknowledges this by telling her sister she may have just saved Rachel's life. Although the sisters still argue with one another as evidenced by one of the last scenes in the novel when they discuss love and marriage, they recognize and accept their differences. Charlotte would give anything including her writing to have a "great romance" while Emily doesn't believe she's destined for love nor does she care to marry.

MacColl provides a detailed Author's Note at the back of Always Emily that gives readers considerable background on the Bronte family. The Bronte sisters, due to their unusual upbringing were quite eccentric and MacColl captures some of that in her novel. The novel touches on the role of women in 19th century society for example, how very few occupations are acceptable for women and that their only other option is marriage. Rachel's situation was more common in the 1800's than was generally acknowledged; relatives including husbands, brothers or parents often committed women to asylums without their consent for any number of less serious reasons. Always Emily also briefly mentions the Poor Law which readers can find some information at this link: The 1834 Poor Law MacColl also brings the Freemasons into her novel, portraying the organization in a suspicious manner. How the Freemasons are viewed depends upon who you ask; Catholics for example, do not support the Freemasons and are automatically excommunicated if they join. A good summary of the Catholic position is provided from EWTN.

Overall, fans of the Bronte sister's novels, will probably enjoy Always Emily and those who may never have read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights or Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey may be encouraged to do so. MacColl's writing style is easy to read and well paced and the transitions between the two sister's narratives flow well. This author enjoys creating literature based on classic writers. Readers are encouraged to try her novel, Nobody's Secret, a murder mystery involving a young Emily Dickinson.

Book Details:

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl
San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2014
276 pp.

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