Giardina does a masterful job of recreating the poverty-riddled, intensely emotional world of the Bronte sisters, three women who wrote classic novels about the female predicaments of their era, mid-19th-century England. Most particularly, Emily Bronte comes vividly to life, a non-conformist who treasures her freedom but is constrained by society.
As daughters of a poor curate in Haworth parish in bleak northern England, the childhoods of Emily and Charlotte are fairly punishing, the sisters sent to a rigid boarding school with two older siblings who die early of consumption. One striking image is of the four girls huddling together for warmth under an inadequate blanket, the heat of their bodies their only shield in a place devoid of compassion.
The deaths of the older girls presage the family’s vulnerability to consumption, a fatal disease of the lungs that will later claim the still youthful Emily and her younger sister, Anne. A brother, Branwell, also suffers an untimely death; but Branwell, who has opportunities never afforded his sisters, throws himself away on drink and opiates.
The years are not kind to the Brontes, their meager existence always threatened in a parish where the poor endure the indignities of their lot with little comfort save the sermons of a sympathetic pastor. While the remaining girls - Emily, Charlotte and Anne - find solace in reading and writing, their brother pursuing poetry, Patrick Bronte is blessed with the help of a new young minister, William Weightman.
Son of a well-to-do family, Weightman is an extraordinary man in Giardina’s telling - noble, self-sacrificing, and driven to assuage the burdens of the poor in spite of an opportunity for an advantageous marriage. William is drawn to those in need and to the remarkable Emily, who refuses to conform to society’s demands. Charlotte, flirtatious at first, loses interest when William fails to respond to her overtures, distrustful of the man Emily secretly loves.
The heart of Giardina’s novel is this compelling love story between Emily and William, unfulfilled yet heavy with a passionate attachment for one another, the couple soul mates destined to remain apart. The romance is beautiful, heartbreaking and tragic. But in Giardina’s interpretation, Emily, perhaps the most compelling Bronte sister, is revealed, an extraordinary talent born before her time: “I want my freedom. It is my most precious possession.”
Emily’s boon companions are the folk of her stories who inhabit her every waking moment, Cathy and Heathcliff, the people of her beloved English moors: “I have more in common with the fairies than with common folk.” Giardina has captured an iconic literary figure and her tragic, inspirational love affair of the heart.