Emily Brontë: Children Who Live in Glass Houses

Book discussed:  Glass Town: The Secret World of the Brontë Children – Michael Bedard and Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1997

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Today, July 30, 2018, is the bicentennial of Emily Brontë’s birth. There have been surprisingly few articles in the American press commemorating the birth of one of the greatest Romantic poets and novelists, as well as an icon of mysterious and stubborn independence to women authors.

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There have been more recent books for children about Emily and her siblings, including Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s The Brontës: Children of the Moors, from 2016.  Today, in the spirit of recognizing the half-hidden, I would like to bring attention to an older book about the secret literary creations, as well as the psychological defiance, of the three children of Haworth parsonage.  Narrated by Charlotte, the sometimes gloomy text and deeply expressive oil paintings of Glass Town chronicle how the wildly imaginative Brontë siblings devised their own parallel world of freedom in the midst of their repressive home. Children who live in glass houses “…seek delight in secrecy.”

Emily is portrayed, as she often is, as a brooding, exotic, spirit of nature:

 “Emily, too, is a solitary thing. She looks long, says little.  Now she is looking at the sky. She reads  the clouds as others read a book. She says a storm is on the way.”

Indeed, a storm is on the way, as Emily will grow up to become the (secretly) female author, Ellis Bell, of Wuthering Heights, as well as of outstanding examples of Romantic poetry.  As a child, she and her sisters and brother wrote about Glass Town, its utopian structures places where “…the vast remains of a vanished world…stood in silent grandeur, rising above the clouds, seeking the acquaintance of the skies.” The real world of their father’s home was structured and prosaic, although a certain level of neglect at least left the children on their own to experience both nature and their inner lives:

“Emily ran on ahead, hair flying in the wind…She dwells within these walls with us, and yet her home lies there. She is a child of the moors, a friend of all things wild and free. She feeds on clouds and drinks the wind.”

Fernandez and Jacobson’s images capture both the enclosed domestic world of the children, and the unlimited natural environment, as well as the world of Glass Town.  Their father ominously sets the hands of a grandfather clock, as the dark shadow of his arm looms against the staircase leading up to the children’s rooms. Emily and Charlotte lie in bed together in from of a large window looking out on the night.

If the image of Emily Brontë in this beautiful book seems stereotypical and lacking in critical distance, that is surely deliberate. Here are Emily’s own words, from her poem, “Come hither, child:”

 “When I was hardly six years old
I stole away from crowds and light
And sought a chamber dark and cold
I had no one to love me there”

Irrepressibly brilliant and maybe unknowable Emily Brontë will fascinate children in this poet and richly illustrated book.  There could be no better time to revisit it, and Emily’s poetry and fiction.

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