Shortlisted for the inaugural Nero Book Award, Fifteen Wild Decembers is a wonderfully written book reimagining the life of Emily Brontë. We have the honour of chatting with Karen Powell about why she decided upon writing about Emily Brontë and how she imagined the sisterhood.
Out of the Brontë sisters, why did you pick Emily to focus on? Is it because you like her work the most out of the Brontë sisters? Or is it because you connect with her the most?
Wuthering Heights, Emily’s only novel, was the first adult book I ever read. Perhaps I was expecting something dreary, a polite Victorian drama. Instead, I found myself immersed in a savage landscape inhabited by wild people who spit at one other, dig up the dead, threaten each other with knives, and lock family members in rooms. Everyone does exactly as they please, with no regard for the consequences, a storm of unregulated emotion that was both enthralling and familiar to my teenage self. I’d never read anything like it. Decades later, with a lot more novel reading under my belt, I still haven’t, so although I find all the Brontë siblings fascinating, it was always going to be Emily.
In fact, when you started depicting the personalities of the sisters, did you try to extrapolate their personalities from their works? Or did you think the Brontë sisters’ personalities and their works would be independent of each other?
When I first started to research Fifteen Wild Decembers it quickly became clear how little first-hand information we have about Emily. She wrote a few diary entries with her younger sister, Anne – charming, unpunctuated jumbles which skip from domestic life at their parsonage home, to the imaginary worlds they created together – and the odd terse letter.
Information often comes to us through the prism of Emily’s elder sister, Charlotte. A prolific letter writer, Charlotte was also the only one of the sisters to move in literary circles. Her friendship with Mrs Gaskell resulted in a somewhat sensational biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which muddied the waters around Emily still more. I wanted to strip other voices away, return to the bare bones of Emily’s life, to her one novel and her dazzling poetry, to listen to that wild, imperious, uncompromising voice without any other chatter in the room.
When writing Fifteen Wild Decembers, you must have consulted many references. Was it then difficult to make sure the book reads like a story instead of an autobiography?
The research period was quite intense, with many notebooks, and a vast spreadsheet mapping who was where at any given time, and what was happening in the wider world. I am a novelist though, write for a reader who cares only for a compelling, emotionally authentic narrative. It took a few attempts to jettison any unnecessary weight from the manuscript, to find a line through Emily’s life that might be interesting to someone unfamiliar with, or even disinterested in, the Brontë story. I wanted to retain the known facts, while at the same time allowing my imagination to work its way into any intriguing spaces.
The complicated relationship between the sisters is written so well. How did you manage to capture sisterhood so well?!
I’ve never known siblings who don’t clash. And here were four adult siblings, each strong-willed in their own way, all living under one roof, at least some of the time. Anyone who has visited what is now the Parsonage Museum will know that it’s a small house. There’s no remote wing to storm off to in high dudgeon, no attic room in which to conceal uncomfortable truths. Throw into the mix the debilitating strain of poverty, unrequited love, thwarted ambitions, a failed love affair, laudanum addiction, an ageing parent with failing eyesight, and you have a recipe for conflict.
But there was intense attachment too, forged in childhood through their extraordinary imaginations. Long after the untimely deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne, a servant reported hearing Charlotte walk around the dining room table at night, just as she and her sisters once did while reading aloud their work to one another. The thought of her utter aloneness in that echoing room is devastating to me.
The descriptions of the landscape are gorgeous. When writing these descriptions, did you have to go to a similar setting to write them well?
I’ve lived in Yorkshire for over twenty years now, was already familiar with much of the countryside, but the landscape around Emily’s home at Haworth, the famous setting for Wuthering Heights, is quite different from the Dales, say, or the Wolds. Bleakly beautiful, it’s a land of heather and peat and sucking bog, with ‘no life higher than the grasstops/or the hearts of sheep’ (Sylvia Plath). I walked in Emily’s footsteps in all weathers and seasons, learning the landscape she loved so passionately that she suffered physical and mental breakdowns on the few occasions she was persuaded to leave it. Aside from the reservoirs in the Worth valley, and the signposts in both English and Japanese to sights associated with the Brontës, little can have changed.
But much of the book was written during the pandemic. With restrictions on movement likely to be imposed at any moment, my visits to Haworth became even more precious. I took endless photos, became vigilant about noting which wildflowers were in bloom, identifying that bird call I’d heard while my boots got stuck in the peat for the umpteenth time. Back at home, the Ordnance Survey map which helped me ‘plan’ Emily’s own walks across the moors began to fall apart along the folds. Travel to Brussels, where Emily and Charlotte spent some time, was impossible though. The city had to be conjured from reference books and my own imagination.
And finally, can you share with us something you learned about the Brontë sisters but could not fit in the book?
A classmate of Charlotte’s reported that she had a strong Irish accent, though she’d lived in Yorkshire all her life. This one-off remark seemed too flimsy a piece of evidence to include. Still, it’s fascinating to me that the children might have inherited their father’s Northern Irish accent, a clear indication of how little they mixed outside of their immediate family.