STRADDLING THE LAST STEP AT THE FERRY terminal, one foot in Bremerton and the other returning to Seattle, I cleared the sweat from my glasses, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently into the vastness of Elliott Bay. Two weeks ago, in the reverse position, I had not imagined that a horrible ordeal was dawning nigh. When my friend had offered me a stint house-sitting his apartment in that Navy town, I'd seen merely a mountain-climbing opportunity. Not a snowy peak, but a literary mountain. I would read every novel by all three Brontë sisters in two weeks
The Professor (Charlotte)
The sparse apartment sits in a red brick building with white trim. Once officers' quarters, it's now silent like the town. I crept across the brown sculpted carpet, scratched his cat. I unpacked my comfy sweats, the appropriate CDs (The Smiths, Magnetic Fields, Momus, Frazier Chorus), and the books. I settled onto the couch with The Professor, a tasty little red volume. It was a grey day in early April, a cold betrayal of previous spring teases of warmth. By page six I'm on my first run to the dictionary, for "contumacity." A veritable GRE hit parade follows: effervesce, casque, pecuniary, vapid, epistle, alacrity, perfidy, quiescence, and my all-time favorite, punctilious. Does the Education Testing Service pull all their vocabulary words from Brontë novels?
By bedtime I'm feeling cocky: 11 chapters the first day. It's been uneventful, but I'm enjoying it. The height of the mountain is still daunting, but if I like The Professor this much, at least it won't be a wholly unpleasant climb.
Wrap-up: Orphan gets a job teaching in Belgium. He falls in love with the headmistress, but she's engaged to the headmaster at another school. He falls in love with a teacher auditing his class; they both quit and get new jobs. They marry and live happily ever after. 244 pages.
Agnes Grey (Anne)
Today I learned that Haworth is the town where the Brontës lived--it's also the name of my next book's publishing company. Strange coincidence; a supernatural air grows thick around me. The Salvation Army headquarters' red neon cross glows in the night outside my window....
I'm kinda liking Agnes Grey's bratty kids, especially sassy Rosalie: "I must have somebody to flirt with," she pouts. And: "Reformed rakes make the best husbands, everybody knows." ...Now Agnes and Rosalie are vying for the same man. Will he choose petulant cock tease or prim Christian governess?
Wrap-up: A girl gets a job as a governess with a horrible family. She gets fired. She gets a job with a less horrible family. Falls in love with the local curate. Goes to another town to help her mom start a school. The curate becomes vicar of a nearby town, seeks her out, marries her, and they live happily ever after. 455 pages.
Wuthering Heights (Emily)
Intense beginning--in first paragraph we already have a mysterious "solitary neighbor" in a remote part of England celebrated as "a perfect Misanthrope's Heaven."
I'm at a high school park among baseball teams, kite flyers, and a young couple who've named their daughter Xena. Despite the sunshine, my lingering viral cough is making me feel quite the consumptive. Perfect.
M. had warned me that Wuthering Heights is a comedy. I'll be damned, he's right. There's almost Nöel Coward-caliber repartee, plus random dark humor: Isabella runs away from Heathcliff, only to bump into sexy lunk Hareton "hanging a litter of puppies from a chair-back in the doorway."
The feudin' families are straight out of Ricki Lake.
The cold rains have returned, thankfully. ...Amazing how ultimately something sincere and moving arises from such an over-the-top narrative. It casts a pall over the early comedy, as if comedy was Emily's only way to grapple with the pain of existence.
Wrap-up: A stupid man adopts a street kid who makes everyone's life hell. 770 pages.
Jane Eyre (Charlotte)
Warm summer weather returns to usurp my somber atmosphere. I sit in the park's bleachers in shorts and a wife-beater T, sweat beading on my upper lip. It's hard to transport to the smoky hearths of Thornfield Hall when li'l Kody runs by screaming after the ice cream truck, his diaper hanging off his ass.
Feisty Jane is immediately likable. There's gothic fun a-plenty from the get-go: swooning! ghosts! physiognomy (a Brontë must-have)! consumption! sleeping with a dead body! supernatural career advice! demonic laugh in the middle of the night! gypsy fortune-teller! secret disguise! secret door! crazy woman locked in a room, biting and sucking a man's blood! suicides! reading headstones in a cemetery (cue Smiths)! tempest! telepathy! fiery ruins!
Ate tonight at a diner advertising "free food with order" in their window. "Wow! That's the fifth cobb salad today," cute blond waiter notes. Can't tell if he's gay or just pathologically perky. Should I flirt? I didn't make celibacy a requirement for this adventure, but it might be apropos. I would feel guilty, as if betraying the sisters' spirit, to curl up with one of their lovelorn novels, flush with post-coital glow and basking in the warm, yeasty smell of semen....
But I won't stop masturbating for the Brontës. Get real.
Wrap-up: Obstinate orphan goes through hell growing up, finally gets a good job (governess, natch), falls in love with employer but won't marry him due to an ethical quibble. Her decision nearly kills her, indirectly kills another character, blinds and maims him, and drives them apart. A bunch of incredible coincidences fix everything. 1308 pages.
"If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning...."
GOD, MAKE IT END.
Wrap-up: There's an employment crisis, except for churchmen. Caroline is a mouse. Shirley is a saucy heiress who commits such gender code transgressions as whistling. The camaraderie between the two is one of the few moving elements of the book. Characters stroll around and debate politics: Whigs and Tories and Jacobins, oh my! Finally the laws causing the unemployment crisis are repealed, and Shirley and Caroline have a double wedding. I despise that cliché. 1,964 pages.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne)
Last night I felt a desperate need to reconnect with the 20th century, and ventured to the Crow's Nest. "God protects drunks and sailors," read the sign above the bar. I had hoped for a rough-and-tumble parley about sports, or meat, anything bereft of Brontësque frills. But when the bartender told me they were out of pickled eggs, what curse slipped past my lips? "Fiddlestick!" Back to the apartment I hastened, to a new novel.
The Brontës' and gothic novels I've always thought to be chick books--romances, portraits of emergent feminist role models--but Wildfell appears to be about masculine socialization, indulging those boys-who-will-be-boys, and perpetuating their privilege.
Wrap-up: A smart woman makes a stupid choice. She learns; her choice gets stupider and eventually kills himself. To keep men from turning into stupid choices, you should make them fags. 2,498 pages.
Pervy Brontë moment: Six-year-old girl fawns over a sexy 16-year-old redheaded boy; she lies on the floor and caresses his feet.
Protagonist takes job advice from the aurora borealis and goes to Belgium... a hunchbacked dwarf makes an appearance....
The recurrent spectral terror throughout this book is--a NUN. (Yes, Charlotte uses all caps.)
I sink into the couch, desperate to finish Villette. I must return to Seattle tomorrow. I have become inured to my eyestrain, my sore lower back. I fight the ad-vances of Sleep, tho my organs of Patience and Solicitude are near exhausted. I pray for more NUN sightings.
Wrap-up: Vixens and bimbos distract men from a noble schoolmarm who is, well, a bit dull--except there's one crazy Frenchman with inexplicable hots for her. She's too uptight to see his worth until just before he sets sail for three years abroad. She loves him in absence but, three years later, he dies on the return voyage. Life sucks then you die. Good girls usually don't finish far ahead.
* * *
I felt exhausted but glowing this morning. Sauntering downhill to the ferry terminal, I wanted to raise my hands in the air like Rocky, do a touchdown dance. I wanted an "I climbed Mt. Brontë" sweatshirt. I wanted to share a booth with other ferry passengers, drinking beer and swapping tales of literary conquests: sieges of Mt. Dickens, Mt. Austen, and Mt. James, dreams of scaling Stein's peaks, scars from a nasty fall on the Fitzgeralds. Alas, such companionship is alien to this world, but I take comfort in having been to a world few dare to know... and that world lives within me.