Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Emily Brontë's Desk

I’ve been doing a lot of writing. It isn’t unusual for me as I ordinarily write every day. Even before I signed with MIRA, I spent hours writing at my desk. The difference now is that I have a deadline that is other than self imposed and I have editorial input from someone who cares as much about this novel, EVIDENCE OF LIFE (to be published by MIRA in April of 2013), as I do, my very talented editor, Erika Imranyi. I don’t know why exactly, but for some reason as I’ve been rewriting, picking out and adding threads in accordance with Erika’s suggestions, I started wondering about Emily Brontë, specifically, her edits for WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

I re-read it recently and still love it. Imagine it! That story of love and loss and betrayal has lived more than 100 years. Probably because these themes are timeless. I know they contribute to the plot in Evidence of Life.

[caption id="attachment_826" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Emily's lovely fold-up writing desk with interesting contents"][/caption]

But what about Emily’s editing process, I wondered? Where I type and delete using a computer, she would have written longhand, in ink. If she wrote something that wouldn’t do, she would have had to scratch it out. I see her in in my mind’s eye pausing mid scene to ponder. Perhaps she is facing a window, gaze untethered, sightless, watching the characters in her mind, listening as they speak, writing down what she sees, feeling their words. Weighing them for their plausibility, their integrity. Asking all along the way, Is that right? At least I imagine it was this way for her because it’s how I work. But how painstaking to write in ink, in longhand! Would I? I have done short pieces by hand. I still journal almost daily that way. But a whole novel?

Emily was the fifth of six children. She lost her mother in 1821 and her two oldest sisters in 1825. That left siblings Charlotte, Anna, and their brother, Branwell. They were all avid readers and writers although Anna and Branwell are not as well known. There was such bias against female authors in the Victorian era that the three girls wrote under male nom de plumes; Emily’s was Ellis Bell. When at the publication of Anne’s second novel, written as Acton Bell, her publisher tried to pass the book off as having been authored by the more successful author of JANE EYRE, Currer Bell, aka Charlotte, she and Anne went to London to set straight the mystery of their gender and their identity. Emily didn’t go. She was reclusive for all that she was strong and at times bad-tempered. Branwell died suddenly in 1848 at the age of thirty-one from tuberculosis. He had undermined his health by abusing drugs and alcohol. Emily and Anna, who hadn’t, so far as I know, followed him shortly thereafter. Charlotte turned to her writing to sustain her through her grief and it was a surprise to me to learn that when permission was gained from the original publisher of Wuthering Heights to republish the novel, Charlotte edited the work, correcting many of the errors that appeared in the first edition. She also took the liberty of embellishing the story with her own creative voice. I wonder how much of the original story she altered. I wonder how Emily might feel if she knew.

[caption id="attachment_827" align="alignleft" width="124" caption="My less than lovely desk"][/caption]

To me, even when you love it, editing another author’s work is requiring of such delicacy. It means suspending judgment and prejudice. It means reading with as much of an open mind as possible. As an author, considering an editor’s suggestions requires the same skills: delicacy, the suspension of judgment and prejudice, an open mind. The whole thing is a true symbiosis; it is two people in different capacities working toward a unified vision for the work. It’s really a rather remarkable process, but it’s also painstaking, even laborious, sometimes confusing and occasionally frustrating. I bet Charlotte missed Emily when she was doing the edits for Wuthering Heights. I know I’m glad I have a partner.




  1. Best of luck with your revisions. It really changes writing to a collaborative project, but often, the final results blossom into something that far exceeds than the sum of their parts.

    Thanks for sharing the background info on Emily Bronte, too. Fascinating stuff. I can't imagine having the patience to edit the way she must have, but there is something about writing by hand...

  2. Thank you, Colleen, for your encouragement as always! I agree there is something about writing by hand, but I wonder if from all that writing, authors who wrote longhand had the same issues as time went on with their hands and wrists as we do? And they wouldn't have had such easy access to ice either!