Fifteen Wild Decembers by Karen Powell

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Reviewed by Harriet

‘I’m sick of those two.’ The words arrived in my mouth like hard, round pebbles, threatened to take up all the space. I stopped for a moment, needing to be sure that my breath could find a way around these unfamiliar objects….’Emily’s speaking!’ shouted Charlotte, jumping up with a look of triumph on her face…. ‘I told you she could.’

The speaker here is six-year-old Emily Brontë, recently returned home with her sister Charlotte from Cowan Bridge School, where their two older sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, had contracted the tuberculosis which had led to their recent deaths. Whether Emily did not speak as a small child I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised, given the accuracy with which Karen Powell’s novel follows the known facts of her life. 

Although I admire all the Brontës and have had huge pleasure in reading all their novels, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre  and Villette in particular, Emily has always been my personal favourite. I’ve always loved the wildness and strangeness of Wuthering Heights, which, as we learn in this novel, puzzled contemporary critics, many of whom recognised its power but disapproved of its morality. Clearly the novel reflects the personality of its author, who emerges fully formed and wholly convincing in Karen Powell’s depiction. The novel follows Emily’s life through her early, silent days at The Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge, where the children suffered badly from privations and abuse, through her childhood at home, being educated by her father and her aunt and writing stories and poems with her sister Anne. It’s clear that she did not thrive when away from home – a brief period at a school where Charlotte was a teacher was ended by her homesickness, and her own attempts at schoolteaching affected her already fragile health. Accompanying Charlotte to Brussels to learn French, she was highly praised by their teacher Constatin Héger for her ‘powerful reason’ and ‘capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman’, but the death of their aunt brought the sisters back to the parsonage at Haworth. She never left the parsonage again, taking on all the work of the house, cooking, cleaning and generally caring for the family. This became unbelievably challenging as her brother Branwell’s alcoholism spiralled: some of the most upsetting passages in the novel describe her attempts to care for him in his desperate mental and physical state. 

Life for the sisters changed when Charlotte discovered the poems Emily had been secretly writing. When Anne admitted to writing poetry too, the three managed to find a publisher who brought out a joint edition of their poems, written under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Although few copies were sold, Emily’s poems were singled out by critics as possessing power and genius. The novels followed, with Charlotte’s and Anne’s being better received than Emily’s. Although she apparently started a second novel, its whereabouts have never been discovered (the novel offers a tantalising suggestion – maybe someone will follow it up!).

So much for the biography. But Fifteen Wild Decembers is not a biography, though it provides all the details of Emily’s life.  But of course it’s her inner life that is really the heart of the novel. It’s not too much to say that nature is a food for her, and without it she starves. Here she is at six, on a walk with her sisters: 

We would wander off through the trees that lined the beck, where the wild garlic was pungent and the wood anemones formed a delicate, starry carpet. I liked to lie face down on the bank watching the small brown fish twitch through the sparkling, dark pebbled water, pulled this way and that on invisible threads. The beck sang its cold song and the swallows flashed down to scoop up the watering the insects that floated above the surface. I liked the elegance of their forked tails, the indigo gloss of their back tails.

This intense love of the natural world never leaves her, and is the one thing that sustains her through all the pains and difficulties and hard work of her daily life. The novel shows her frequently leaving the house and walking for hours on the moors, and, in a departure from any known facts about her life, it’s here she sees a man who lives at Top Withens, the farmhouse generally believed to be the source location of Wuthering Heights. This is her memory of her first view of him:

I thought of the man I’d encountered on the pathway across the moors. The day before we’d left for London, I caught sight of him leading a horse into the farmyard at Top Withens. As Charlotte unclasped her hands and began to snore, I tried to seat him behind a desk, to dress him in city clothes but for once my imagination failed me.

From this point on, he becomes something of an obsession. On her return from Brussels, she finds herself  ‘in thrall to a new force which sent me climbing up towards Top Withens every time I left the house’.  She rarely sees the man on her many visits, though once, having fallen asleep in the heather, she wakes to see him apparently watching her from the top of a hill.  From now on, he fills her thoughts, especially in the ‘darkest hours of the night’, though they never meet.

A great deal of ink has been spilled in speculation about the source of Emily’s passionate poems about a lost love, and of course of the passionate obsession that animates her novel. It’s perfectly possible that it was all imagination, but I’m happy to buy Karen Powell’s version.

In any case, this is a really excellent novel and I’m very happy to have read it.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books

Karen Powell, Fifteen Wild Decembers (Europa, 2023). 978-1787705456, 288pp., paperback original.

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