Everyone has a favourite Bronte book, right?
Well maybe not, but there’s no denying the impact that the famous Bronte family had upon the world of British literature with the works of three family members – Charlotte, Anne, and Emily – quickly entering the canon of classic literature. Just as intriguing are their personal lives – all the siblings save Charlotte didn’t live past their early thirties and media such as Sally Wainwright’s To Walk Invisible has attempted to examine the inner lives of the siblings. Enter Karen Powell’s Fifteen Wild Decembers, the latest attempt to give voice to the siblings and consider what their lived experiences might have been in nineteenth-century North Yorkshire.
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Although she does allow for grace from each of the siblings, Powell’s real focus here is on the interiority of Emily Bronte’s life, blending a mixture of recorded history and speculative thought into a narrative that is mesmerising, confusing, contradictory, and all too human. Emily is a raw, unbridled talent, tied to her deep connection with her sisters but also seeking freedom under endless skies, the chance to create without boundaries, and to write about the messy, complicated, unglamorous parts of humanity.
That isn’t to say that the other sisters or key players in Emily’s life go without due attention. Charlotte, progenitor of Jane Eyre, Villette, and a handful of other works, is more mercurial than her sisters, compassionate and belligerent at equal measure, while Anne, the youngest of the sisters, is a quiet, brooding force, and Bramwell, a self-corroding addict, is the black hole around which the family orbits, to sympathetic pathos from the reader.
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Powell’s writing is poetic and sparse, growing bolder and more evocative to reflect Emily’s growing journey from a childhood at a chilly boarding school to her first steps into young adulthood and all that entails. The ending itself is sublime, particularly for those familiar with the history of the Brontes, building towards a finale that feels bittersweet yet cathartic in equal measure.
Fifteen Wild Decembers is a challenging, complicated examination of one of the most talented writers of her generation and a real feather in Powell’s cap. Fifteen Wild Decembers may not be to everyone’s taste, and purists of the Brontes’ lives may find fault in the depictions of the Bronte family, but it is ultimately an engaging, incisive exploration of talent, creativity, longing, and family ties.
Fifteen Wild Decembers is out on 21st September from Europa Editions.