Decentring Classics: Bringing Minor Characters to the Foreground with Alison Case

Good morning book fans.

Just thought I’d take a moment to tell you about a really fun day I had a few weeks ago. A small group of writers gathered together at Ponden Hall, the house that inspired Emily Bronte to create Thrushcross Grange in her beloved novel, Wuthering Heights. This was part of a range of events celebrating the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing.

Workshop

Led by Alison Case, author of Nelly Dean, we delved into the lives of some minor characters of classic novels. Most people chose to write about Bronte characters. We talked about Bertha Mason, Mrs. Reed, Helen Burns, Adele Varens in Jane Eyre; Isabella Linton, Zillah in Wuthering Heights among others.

Being in the inspirational home of the Lintons, I felt drawn to Isabella and wrote a short piece for her. During our discussions about Isabella, we explored her motivations with a strong emphasis on her childish idealism. We also talked about Emily Bronte’s opinion of Isabella and came to conclusion that she probably didn’t like her very much. I was interested in the influence on Isabella of the gender norms and values in her society. She had very limited options as a woman living in a rural location. She would have felt all sorts of social pressures from her family and while she is portrayed by Bronte as being a heady cocktail of downtrodden, masochistic and selfish, I like to think that there’s a little bit of self-assured control in there as well. Yes, she made some unusual choices and reveled in the torture of young dogs, but she was moulded into the creature she became by societal pressures. I wanted to give her a voice that cut through all the incidental evidence we have about her through the eyes of Lockwood and Nelly Dean.

Here is Isabella at Thrushcross Grange, a few weeks into Cathy’s lengthy sojourn, following being caught by the dogs as she spied on the Lintons with Heathcliff. Isabella is writing in her journal.

Mrs Phillips is bringing tea and cake into the room. Again. I am busying my mind and hand in this activity so that I will not be tempted to indulge her fancy that I love her cooking or that I shall remain so petite with such richness in my belly. There Edgar goes taking his fill. He is feigning a deep interest in a small volume of Shakespeare. I know not who he is trying to impress. That wild child will no more step inside the house than I would step out of it today. Unlike my deluded older brother, I see very clearly where Miss Cathy’s heart belongs and it most assuredly is not with poor Edgar. Do not mistake me; I do not sympathise with the fool. Pity, perhaps, but pity cannot survive where the seeds of triumph take root and flourish. All in time. There is no malice, no real harm. We are siblings and therefore share a healthy rivalry. But all rivalries must one day declare a victor, only in our case perhaps a “Victoria” is more apt a term? My! How clever I am. One day, perhaps I will share this tome with H. What fun we shall have as we pore over these pages and find new ways to ridicule our respective siblings and their pretentious marriage. Of course we will likely stay away from the Grange for many months. While I am while sure my H will be as devoted to me as he is devilishly charming, I cannot trust Cathy, for what hold can my poor insipid brother have on her affections when such a man as H is present. Of course I plan to trust H implicityliy but care must be taken. C is wild and uncouth. I must not expose H to that. And of course, once the marriages are made and homes established I shall be declared winner. For I will have H, who is wanted by C who is wanted by E, all the while being adored by Heathcliff. It is such a plan. And now I think I will eat some cake after all.

Alicia Bruce, September 2015

I was largely influenced by the amazing array of homemade cakes that were brought out for us, mid-session. I think I heard every single participant say that this was the most beautiful writing workshop they had ever been on. I concur. Look …

stairsmoorsPonden HallAlisonFireplaceCakeBox bedBedroomView

Can’t wait for next year’s Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing! 

While we’re on the subject, I believe there will be a celebration of all things Bronte at the Huddersfield Literature Festival 2016 which runs from 3rd to 13th March 2016, so keep an eye out for that.

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Nelly Dean by Alison Case

Nelly Dean

Young Nelly Dean has been Hindley’s closest companion for as long as she can remember, living freely at the great house, Wuthering Heights. But when the benevolence of the master brings a wild child into the house, Nelly must follow in her mother’s footsteps, be called servant and give herself to the family completely.

But Nelly is not the only one who must serve. When a new heir is born, a reign of violence begins that will test Nelly’s spirit as she finds out what it is to know true sacrifice.

Nelly Dean is a wonderment of storytelling, a heartbreaking accompaniment to Emily Bronte’s adored work. It is the story of a woman who is fated to bear the pain of a family she is unable to leave, and unable to save.

Harpercollins.co.uk

This is one of those inescapable titles that once seen must be immediately bought. Being a fan of anything Bronte with a particular adoration of Emily Bronte and her masterpiece of a novel, Wuthering Heights, how could I not read Alison Case’s Nelly Dean?

My attention was first brought to this book at a Huddersfield Literature Festival committee meeting in August. I was very innocently handed a flyer regaling the events taking place as part of the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing. Before said meeting had begun, I had very efficiently purchased a ticket to the writing workshop with Alison Case (more on this in a later post) and downloaded Nelly Dean onto my kindle. Oh technology, how I love thee.

A Professor at Williams College in Massachusetts with an academic background focused on Victorian Studies, Narrative Theory and Gender Studies, with several publications well respected in her field, Nelly Dean is Alison Case’s first novel.  Her expertise and love of 18th Century novels clearly comes across.

Nelly Dean was everything I expected and more. Case delves into life at the Heights, enriching Emily Bronte’s flawless story with expertly imagined back stories. She gives Nelly a stronger voice and deeper experiences while taking nothing away from Bronte’s original characterisation of the beloved house keeper.  In this, Case explores other minor characters from Wuthering Heights. This gives us access to individuals in the village that were overlooked in the original stormy love story on the moors. I was particularly blown away by Nelly’s relationship with Hindley and the ensuing complications; the enigmatic elderly woman with a penchant for potions; Nelly’s industrious mother and wayward father; the explanation of Mr Earnshaw’s adoption of Heathcliff; and all the inhabitants of the tightly knit community on the Yorkshire Moors.

If you’re a Bronte fan, you will adore this book.