*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Book club: Fifteen Wild Decembers by Karen Powell

by
07 June 2024

Michael Wheeler reads Fifteen Wild Decembers by Karen Powell, an imagining of the life of Emily Brontë

WUTHERING HEIGHTS, by Emily Brontë, is said to have been the 20th century’s favourite Victorian novel. Yet, in 1847, its sophisticated “Chinese box” narrative structure, its radical investigation of the primitive and the pagan, and its use of Yorkshire dialect baffled the reviewers, most of whom were metrocentric men.

Writing in our post-feminist culture, Karen Powell has her own version of Emily narrated in the first person, as in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Anne’s Agnes Grey. This gives a sharp focus to the events described, but also imposes a limit to their interpretation by the sole narrator.

Much scholarly ink has been spilt over the sources of Wuthering Heights, such as Scott, Byron, and the Gothic stories in Blackwood’s Magazine; and Powell reminds the reader of the importance to Emily of seminal works such as King Lear and Paradise Lost. But, for all its literary freight, which the theorists would call “neo-Victorian intertextuality”, Fifteen Wild Decembers succeeds as a free-standing narrative, casting its spell over the reader, whether or not she has read the Brontës’ novels and their sources, and having the creative audacity to offer a clue to the “true” source of Emily’s classic.

From start to finish, much of the energy generated by this narrative is related to movement — on board ships, in trains and coaches, and on foot, as we are taken briskly across the moors. Even in interior scenes, a sense of imprisonment leads to nervous pacing to and fro. The tension between movement and stasis, between the narrator’s longing for freedom and love of home, is expressed physically, in her selective mutism, for example, and her propensity for lying on the ground. She is blocked, thwarted, hemmed in, even by the siblings she loves the most.

Christian readers will notice that most of the clergy who populate Emily’s world are unprepossessing. The sisters “made a point of despising” Papa’s curates at Haworth, according to Emily, who is of the earth, earthy. In Chapter 8, the boy who throws something at her at Ponden Clough, cutting her cheek, is “bare-foot, goat-sure, dressed in rough, country clothes the colour of mushrooms”. Longing to retaliate, she haunts the place that spring and summer, but fails to see the boy “rising out of the heather again”.

Two chapters and five years later, she collapses on a walk beyond Top Withins, finding herself down on her stomach, her whole body “cleaving to the earth”. On her way home, she encounters a man dressed in “the muted colours of the moors, mudstone, bleached grass”. He pushes back his shirtsleeves as if they are an irritation, and she sees his forearms, “tanned from outdoor work”. She remembers the “milk-white arms” of a visiting clergyman at the parsonage: “The sight had revolted me, made me wonder how any woman could bear to marry and be subjected to that every day of her life.” The girl is now a woman (there is talk between the sisters of “monthlies”), and the boy is now a man, his eyes “peat-dark, uncivilised”.

The author, Karen Powell

When her sisters find employment away from home, Emily becomes mistress of her own kingdom, with her textbooks propped up in the kitchen. Walking her dog, Keeper, on the moors, she is increasingly drawn to Top Withens, scene of the narrative’s and its narrator’s moment of crisis, when she is aroused by witnessing a sex act between the farmer and a woman who, on departure, brings her riding whip hard across the man’s cheek. The circle is complete.

After a night of strange dreams, she announces to her sisters that she will write about a family “living up on our own moors. Something like the tales Tabby used to tell us when we were small.” No longer afraid of the future, she has firmer ground beneath her feet as she writes. She is always aware of her own body and those of others, including her brother Branwell’s, which she often has to clean up as he destroys himself with drink and drugs. When she is dying, she sees herself revisiting the swell of Penistone Hill. The moon is over Keighley. The feminine principle is in the ascendant. The goddess Diana reigns.

In her acknowledgments, Powell singles out Juliet Barker’s group biography of the Brontë family as a source of inspiration. Barker’s achievement was to separate the myth from the reality, achieved by long and painstaking archival work. Powell emulates Barker by covering the whole family in her chronological narrative, including the servants and the much misunderstood Papa, that redoubtable pastor and reformer.

She also stands in a line of women writers of neo-Victorian fiction, such as Sarah Perry in The Essex Serpent, who draw on the four elements in their exploration of the unconscious. Charlotte Brontë married one of Papa’s curates and ended Jane Eyre with the word “Jesus”. The last word of Wuthering Heights is “earth”.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton and author of
English Fiction of the Victorian Period, 1830-1890 (Longman, 1985).

Fifteen Wild Decembers by Karen Powell is published by Europa Editions at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78770-545-6.


Listen to Sarah Meyrick in conversation with the author, Karen Powell, in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


FIFTEEN WILD DECEMBERS — SOME QUESTIONS

  1. To what extent is a reading of this novel enhanced by knowing the Brontës’ books and biographies beforehand?

  2. How does the novel compare with other neo-Victorian fiction you may have read, such as John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or Antonia Byatt’s Possession: A romance?

  3. Could a man have written this novel?

  4. Realism versus romance: to what extent are these terms that are applied to Victorian novels helpful when thinking about this one?

  5. Do you consider the literary references in the novel to be enhancements or distractions?

  6. To what extent does the first-person narrator’s view of her siblings match your own?

 

IN OUR next Book Club page on 5 July, we will print extra information about our next book, Struggling with God: Mental health and Christian spirituality, by Christopher C. H. Cook, Isabelle Hamley, and John Swinton. It is published by SPCK at £14.99 (£13.49); 978-0-281-08641-2).

 

THE BOOK

Struggling with God focuses on the mental-health challenges facing Christians, and looks at how these issues relate to spirituality, prayer, and church life. This is an accessible book by three academics. The authors address the stigma attached to mental health in church communities, and look at the problems arising from some church settings in which mental health is connected with a lack of faith. Each of the six chapters ends with a biblical reflection with questions for individual or group study.

 

THE AUTHORS

The Revd Christopher C. H. Cook is Professor of Spirituality, Theology and Health at Durham University, and he worked as a psychiatrist in the NHS for more than 25 years. The Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley is Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and a theological adviser to the House of Bishops. The Revd John Swinton is a Scottish theologian, and holds the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, at the University of Aberdeen.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)