We have all read a novel or poem at one time in our lives, maybe in high school or college, and then read it later in life and experienced the work in a different way — usually finding meaning that was absent the first time around. For example, I read Catcher in the Rye in high school and found only a couple of scenes memorable.
Later in life, only about ten years ago, I read it again in one sitting and understood for the first time that Holden Caulfield is grief-stricken over the death of his brother. I had missed that critical explanation for his depression and failures at school the first time. I no doubt also appreciated more the second time how the adult world repeatedly fails Holden.
That novel is one salient example, but I could name many others because for me the experience of rediscovery upon a later reading is more the rule than the exception.
In no case could the discovery of new meaning upon a later reading be more important and exciting than it was in reading Wuthering Heights again in 2006. I had read it more than once before. When I read it in 2006, I discovered that the topic of death was central to the novel; that Brontë explores all facets of death and analyzes grief with a psychological perspicacity ahead of her time (as she does other topics as well, like alcoholism and childhood).
I surmised, and then supported with textual evidence, that Emily Brontë made use of her own personal numeric symbolism for death. I adopted the mission to dispel the idea that Wuthering Heights was a great love story. All of those discoveries led me to write an article and become published for the first time.
That 2006 reading experience also inspired further reading (every biography on the Brontës, every novel written by the Brontës, other poets). From there I embarked on reading assiduously her poetry and writing another article, this time on her poetry, and later, sundry posts on Brontë in my blog thelivingphilospher.com. I, in short, became a fan (which is of course short for fanatic). I travelled to Haworth with the excitement and reverence of a pilgrim; I have a print of her profile portrait and a rendering of a Yorkshire farmhouse (purported architectural inspiration for Wuthering Heights) on my walls.
Knowing Brontë’s novel and life primed me for appreciating her poetry more fully than I otherwise would have been able to. So, I again had the experience of reading literature a subsequent time in an entirely new light. When I first learned that Brontë wrote poetry (a fact that I think most people don’t know, which my book hopes to remedy), I read a few poems and I was rather baffled by some. I wondered what or whom precisely she is addressing in some poems; whose “bright eyes” is she referring to; what does she mean by being “happiest when most away . . . from a world of clay”? I wasn’t sure, and now I am, with the result that I can benefit from her ideas.
Literature improves upon better acquaintance, so that the process of discovery upon subsequent readings figures as a wonderful and natural part of reading literature and distinguishes great classics from transient material. The Poetic World of Emily Brontë might hasten or facilitate the discovery process, although it still is up to the reader to re-read poems from time to time. By giving a context for Brontë’s poems and even explanations as I do in my book, I hope to encourage that process and foster the greatest possible appreciation for Emily Brontë.
Laura Inman is an independent scholar who has long been fascinated by Emily Brontë and has written about Wuthering Heights and Brontë’s poetry in Brontë Studies and Victorians: Journal of Culture and Literature. She is a freelance writer, whose essays and fiction appear in online magazines and blogs, including her own blog, thelivingphilosopher.com. Formerly she practiced law, holding a J.D. degree from The University of Texas Law School. She is a New York State certified teacher in English Language Arts and French. She lives in Rye, New York.
Category: On Writing