Margot Miltenberger: The Brontës are a subject of fascination for many of us. What was it about Emily in particular that made you choose to tell her story? Was it always Emily for you?
Karen Powell: As a teenager I imagined myself to be wild and passionate and misunderstood, instead of suburban and unimpressive. When I first read Wuthering Heights at the age of thirteen, the novel – and by extension its author – seemed to speak directly to that idea of myself. My fascination with the book continued into adulthood, as it does for so many readers, perhaps because we like to believe we still retain some element of youthful uncontainedness.
There are certain writers too, who seem to stride god-like a few paces ahead of us, so that we are aware of their extraordinary minds at work even while we are caught up in their stories. I’m thinking here of the late Hilary Mantel, who was both Thomas Cromwell and at the same time entirely her own blazingly clever, free-ranging self, or Zadie Smith, whose fearsome intelligence and humour is evident in every sentence she writes. Emily Brontë is one of those writers. Whenever I read Wuthering Heights I am wholly immersed in the story and at the same time always aware of an authorial presence, the austere, uncompromising shadow of Emily over the page. The irony of that sense of recognition became clearer to me while researching Fifteen Wild Decembers though. Emily fought tooth and nail to retain her anonymity during her lifetime, insisted on the pseudonym of Ellis Bell to protect her identity. It was only after her death, at the age of thirty, that Wuthering Heights was published under her own name.
So it’s always Emily, but Charlotte comes a close second, as does Anne. Charlotte gets quite a hard time in the novel, partly because I recognise elements of her in my own nature, so it felt important to deflate and poke fun at her from time to time. Without her though, the sisters’ work might never have seen the light of day. And I’ve come to admire Anne hugely, now understand that she was a force of nature in her own right.
MM: You really bring Emily to life – any Brontë enthusiast will recognise the character traits we know from her own writing or the observations of others, such as her preference for animals and the moors, or her tendency towards social isolation. What did research look like for you?
KP: I’m lucky enough to live within driving distance of the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth and never tire of visiting. It’s an incredible privilege to step through the front door and see those rooms almost as the Brontë family would have known them. I’ve also spent many hours walking on the moors above Haworth which were so dear to Emily, observing the landscape in different seasons, getting stuck in the boggy ground. Emily was always a few steps ahead of me on those walks. She disappeared over the horizon, actively resisted my intrusion into her world. At the same time, I began to feel that her story had somehow been waiting for me all along, ever since I first read her only novel as a teenager, certainly long before I thought of myself as a writer.
I tried to follow in Emily’s footsteps to Brussels, where she and Charlotte spent some time trying to improve their teaching qualifications, but the pandemic came along and that was that. Anyone who’s read Charlotte’s novels will be familiar with her breathless, heartbreaking experiences in Brussels, but it struck me that Emily, torn from her beloved Yorkshire home and already suspicious of Charlotte’s motives in organising the trip, might have been in a pretty foul mood when she accompanied her on that voyage across the North Sea. That boat journey forms the first chapter of Fifteen Wild Decembers.
Early on in my research, it became clear that much of what we know about Emily comes to us through the prism of Charlotte. Unlike her sisters, Charlotte was a prolific letter writer, nurtured friendships outside of the family and, later in life, was the only one of them to move in literary circles. Charlotte’s voice is insistent and beguiling, but I needed to strip it away from the narrative, to look at the bare bones of the known facts about Emily – what she did, where she went – then try to imagine what she might have felt; to separate her entirely from Charlotte’s sensibility. I went back to the texts repeatedly, sought Emily’s voice in Wuthering Heights and in her poetry. Eventually the research came to a natural halt and my work became all about easing my way into the spaces between the facts.
MM: Many accounts of the Brontës are dominated by the ups and downs of Branwell’s life. You strike a good balance of showing how interwoven Branwell’s life is with his sisters, whilst not allowing him to take over the story. Was this something that was important to you?
KP: As the only son of an impoverished, yet brilliant clergyman, Branwell was the great hope of his family from the very beginning. Later, when his three sisters struggled to adapt to the teaching or governess work which was the only employment available to women of their background, and showed no signs of attracting husbands either, the pressure must have increased. Bright, talented and excitable – Charlotte describes him in the book as ‘more dancing puppet than boy, a creature barely in control of his own limbs.’ – Branwell showed every sign of succeeding until he didn’t. As Emily says of him: ‘Sometimes I thought our brother had enough ideas and words for a whole family. There was almost no need for the rest of us.’
I have huge sympathy for Branwell, which I hope shows itself in the novel. He liked to hang out with his friends and have a drink or two, something I also enjoy. And I’m not a fan of half-heartedness in any endeavour, so there’s a lot about Branwell’s enthusiasms that appeals to me. It felt important to show him at his exuberant, wildfire best, to try to understand his downfall in alcoholism and drug addiction too. But I also wanted to imagine what it must have been like for the rest of the family to live under the same roof as an addict: the chaos and disruption and self-destructiveness that must have permeated every moment of their lives, at a time when all three girls were struggling to make their way in the world and support themselves financially, and their father Patrick was ageing and going blind. Anyone who has visited the Brontë Parsonage will understand that there would have been no escaping Branwell’s suffering in such a small house – no secluded wing or remote attic to relegate him to! It would have felt remiss to gloss over the grim, domestic reality of living alongside someone in this condition, but I also felt it might have hardened the girls’ determination to forge their own paths, to write their way out of jeopardy. There’s a pressure behind the novels they wrote in this period, a kind of taut urgency driving those narratives forward, at a time when they were trying to wrest their lives in a new direction.
MM: The book has many satisfying passages foreshadowing the writing of the Brontë sisters, for example, a scene which contextualises what Anne will later make the subject of one of her books. You packed a lot of research into this book without making it feel heavy. How did you strike the balance between using research and keeping the story focused? In other words, how did you find a balance between biography and creative interpretation? Was there anything you wished you could include, but didn’t?
KP: When Charlotte went to Roe Head School at the age of fifteen, a classmate mentioned that she had a strong Irish accent, though she’d lived in Yorkshire all her life. This one-off remark seemed too flimsy a piece of evidence to make it into the novel. It’s fascinating to me though, that Charlotte and her siblings might have inherited their father Patrick’s Northern Irish accent, a clear indication of how little the children mixed outside of their immediate family.
This aside, I don’t worry too much about what’s been discarded. The things I don’t use still inform my writing. The first couple of drafts of a novel for me are about tipping everything onto the page, an unholy mess of ideas and vague themes, with the heavyweight of research thrown into the mix when it comes to a historical novel. After that it’s about finding a line and developing it, paring away everything that doesn’t pertain to it. I’m inexpert at this, so it can take me a long time to locate and then clear away the debris from a particular pathway, but there’s such a feeling of certainty then that I instantly forget all the idiotic blundering around, can no longer see anything but the path I’ve chosen.
With Fifteen Wild Decembers I wanted to answer just one question: how was it that a reclusive clergyman’s daughter who lived most of her life in a remote West Yorkshire village, barely mixed outside of her own family, came to write a novel so shocking and powerful that it still enthrals us to this day? Perhaps two questions, if I’m pushed: how was it possible that not one, but all three sisters, each destined only to be a governess or a teacher for the rest of her life, produced some of the most remarkable novels in the English language?
Fifteen Wild Decembers is published on 21 September with Europa Editions, and we have three copies to give away!
For the chance to win, tell us what you’re reading on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtags #NorthernBookshelf and #FifteenWildDecembers. Winners will be drawn on 22 September 2023.