The Consequences of Desire/Brontë Bodies
1. Emily encounters the healing herbs, circa 1830s
Hedge witch, I teased Tabby, less servant to us than patient mother, traipsing lane & moor in a whirl of eerie tales & local gossip. I’d say, Books hold secrets. She’d counter, The land holds charms. Botanize as you will, there’s more you’ll need to know.
Consider first, she said, the culinary herbs which animate a dish—some savory, some sweet. Know which ones (& when & why) a woman’s ill-advised to taste them. Consider medicinals, this for pain & this other for courses missed…
I saw what roots beneath the bracken, gathered bilberries in summer sun. What grows above reveals where soil’s luxuriant or scant—the pale pink of the cuckoo flower marks where ground is damp. We pulled back bindweed, looked for yarrow bloom where the soldier beetle rests. Next, I laughed, you’ll have me weave a nettle dress.
From her I learned what calms a heart, curbs a fever, brings on sleep. What acrid brew brings best results when a purge is greatly needed, what eases tension or restores the flow…
Other days she paused, as if she saw a revenant or living image of a mother wise with cures, on hand for labor & lyings-in. Tabby whispered, shawl pulled close as we neared the waterfall, Remember which to swap or gather, which to procure quietly. These are Eve’s herbs: she took no pay for her physics.
2. Imagining her exit, Anne prepares her resignation, 1845
My employer’s house is stuffed with sweetmeats & books no one but the tutor is allowed to touch. Sometimes a scone, thickly buttered, is the sum of my mistress’s largesse, though I’ve seen what she shares with the hired men. Meanwhile, her daughter—my charge till recently—moves beyond all influence, legs wrapped around a steed all the way to Gretna Green—a high-strung heroine in marital haste.
Dalliance is a girl’s undoing—she ends up penniless or marooned, left with child or seeking a hex & whatever handiwork brings it off…Every woman knows a birth might mean her own trip to the grave. Sometimes I think my sisters have spent their lives pretending they don’t mourn the mother we lost, the mother I miss but don’t remember…even as girls, they wrote & wrote of love & war & heroes they’d kill off then resurrect.
But what part did my own body’s passage play in my mother’s leaving, those months of protracted pain, her womb inflamed until the toxins clenched her heart? Surely the Divine holds out salvation for us all… I’m told a governess must swallow dreams like some ungarnished dish. I have a pen, a wish to tell the truth, duty beyond the hedge-lined rows of this tired estate. Most days I choose to dress myself with hope, my mother’s dying gift—that one small string of carnelian beads with its tiny lock.
3. Assigned to bedrest with undiagnosed hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), Charlotte posts a letter to a friend, 1855
Papa feared my marriage—& maybe he was right—to a cleric like himself. My mother seems a phantom—I recall only one or two fleeting scenes. I don’t want to leave behind an orphaned brood. I’ve loved my hours as a wife—let London & my work recede for the wild iron-bound Irish coast where we honeymooned, slow walks & raucous riding & now I’m keeping nothing down. Even weak tea tastes like fear.
Dear A., I try to imagine better days, now that I’ve renounced all medicine. Sometimes a woman is the conduit for a story, sometimes she’s a story of her own. I thought—once—I’d let out the seams of my best silk—this appears not to be the case—
Sometimes I think of Gaskell’s advice, her genius for secrets women ought to know & if you could send me something that will do good, please do.
For the sisters I never had
If you have no sisters, summon
the spectral & bid
banks, & Irish bars,
the flashing signage
of assorted freedoms, hotel
where you snoozed
through the loop of news,
or trawled dreams
where moonlight silvered
flagstone floor & if
the present is a singular room
with sheltered lamp-light
where fragments float
on a lined leather case,
a stay against time
& Emily’s lines stake
stiles in a snow-filled field—
You have no sisters, so summon
voices resurrected from volumes—
remembered from parties—one’s
counsel against slinky dresses,
painkillers & tea—
an exhortation, of course: courage!—
Time’s currents stall
then crest. As for the song
of ruby crowned kinglet,
the racoon shuffling over
dead leaves in the Ramble—
what color ink, Emily,
would you advise—Apocalypto,
Iron Girder, Cold Steel?
Patience & Fortitude,
time’s ruinous rain—
An archive summons
call slips for realia,
from Latin, the real things
the living once touched—
a writing slope
stained with ink,
in manuscript margins &
a lock of hair
secreted inside a desk box—
desk box like a heart
in good weather,
or tidied at night—a heart &
what it holds
or hides—open it:
out flies a wish—
Hunger Strike, Haworth, Yorkshire, ca. 1836
Emily Brontë presents an ultimatum to Aunt Branwell.
All day I’ve stoked the kitchen fires, plumbed
the healing texts, made tinctures, teas
while Tabby rests her wounded leg, a busted mess
of bone. Having slipped on ice, she worried most
about doing damage—the post she dropped,
our brother's outgoing letters scattered. And now
you want to send her packing, wageless, back
to her sister’s home because nursing an invalid
is costly, her backlog of labor now our own?
Dear Aunt, maternal sister who stepped in after
our mother died, Papa’s right hand all these years,
your lodestars are duty, generosity. You’ve shared
the gift of your purse and time, our days disciplined
by your edicts: long walks and lessons that schooled us
toward a more harmonious key.
It’s true you indulged us, too—sometimes
our childish games got wild—but more
than cake or currant buns, for more years than you care
to credit, Tabby’s stories fed our hunger—
local gossip, the fairy folk whose doings
occur just out of view. Have you left
the kingdom of the benevolent? Today, we sisters
stand agreed: this injury is a call to action.
Do you worry we can’t keep pace with Tabby's
rota of kitchen work? Aunt,
we have perfected pie, and the seams we’ve sewed
contain cartographies. What good are girls
who mince their words? Without Tabby among us,
no morsel will please. Let the table sway
with steaming broth, turnips, mutton,
rounds of bread: we’ll have none until/unless she stays,
set up and salubrious, queened in this motherless lair.
The Brothers Bell Plead Publishers Not to be Unmasked
The enigma of the Brothers Bell is not worth solving…
Certainly it injures no one else for us to remain quiet, to publish separately or together—rumors swirl around our identities—Who is Ellis? Who is Currer? Who is Acton? Are we brothers of the weaving order in some Lancashire town? A single voice peddling sordid tales? Are the novels that we pen mere patchwork—one chapter the work of a Miss or Missus; the next born of a husband’s guiding hand, an editor’s sure & manly vision? If women, then radical, surely unsexed…
Acton is neither Currer nor Ellis—we are distinct & unconnected…black-jacketed, fob-watched, purchasing our quires of paper, fair narrators suspected of schemes, of fictitious signatures. Few would dispute that novels are meant for both men & women to read. Strange that authoresses are looked on with prejudice, fancied as frivolous, faced with a crooked ratio of word to coin?
—& what of ambition throttled by purveyors of propriety? Authors upended by citizen critics, beset by a curate here, a pious and parochial merchant there?
Forget the notion of a unified firm! We are three, each resolved to preserve our incognito, our duty to speak unpalatable truths. We do not write with a view of celebrity, a love of sensation. Masked, we pace the village in peace, amble the far fields, feral in freedom…We know whose business literature is. Before the public we must be gentlemen. Imagine us bantering into the night & by the fireside, ferocious—Ellis in his easy chair drawing, Acton sewing—a rash act.
Jane Satterfield’s has published five poetry books, including The Badass Brontës, a winner of the Diode Editions Poetry Prize, Apocalypse Mix, Her Familiars, and Assignation at Vanishing Point. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, the 49th Parallel Award for Poetry from Bellingham Review, the Ledbury Poetry Festival Prize, and more. Her book Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond features selections that received the Florida Review Editors’ Prize and the Faulkner Society/Pirate’s Alley Essay Award. Recent poetry and essays appear in The Common, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Interim, Literary Matters, The Missouri Review, Orion, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore, where she is a professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland.