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A Jew in Brontëland

By Tamar Yellin

Tamar Yellin  |  Winter 2007  -  Number 208

  
  
 

When I was a girl I wanted to be Emily Brontë, but this summer I am reading Kafka with all the new enthusiasm of an adolescent. I walk the moors with a book, utterly entranced. I have fallen in love with him. Sometimes I imagine that I am him.

These literary obsessions are hardly innocent. My urge to be Emily, for instance, has altered my entire life. That is why I am here, alone in Brontëland ... And now I have chosen to fall in love with Kafka. Kafka, child of the city. Kafka the outcast, Kafka the Jew. He wasn't inspired by spaces, he didn't belong in the hills. He didn't care for weather. He would have hated it here.

Kafka in Brontëland

Twenty-three years ago last summer I came to live in a small village one mile from Haworth in the heart of the Yorkshire moors. It was the fulfilment of a childhood dream to reside and write in the landscape of the Brontës.

I fell in love with the Brontës when I was ten years old. It was at the time of Christopher Fry's haunting and atmospheric TV series, The Brontës of Haworth; I found Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë lying on my mother's bedside cabinet and absconded with it. All that repressed ambition, unrequited love, miraculous literary success and early death was irresistible.

I wanted to be a Brontë. Part of this, undeniably, was a desire to sweep around in long dresses and walk the moors. As one of a family of three girls and a boy, I felt myself particularly well-situated. My brother went to the pub sometimes and this made him a good Branwell. As the youngest, unfortunately, I would have to be Anne. This didn't suit me so well; I wanted to be Emily.

All through my teens I was obsessed. I wrote copiously, but didn't read much apart from Brontë novels, poetry and biographies. This was both a good and a bad thing. My cod-Victorian fiction from back then is excruciating. On the other hand, the Brontës were my educators: in English vocabulary, in the poetic cadences of English prose; in general knowledge (I learned about Luddism, the advent of the railways, the condition of governesses, the Great Exhibition); and in literary knowledge, leading me on to other writers like Byron, Wordsworth, Gaskell, Eliot.

But my desire to be a Brontë was not as straightforward as I would have liked. Because I was in fact Jewish; and to be Jewish and to explore English literature is to stumble periodically into mantraps which recall to you that you are an outsider, and a despised outsider at that. It is to be reminded, by the casual insults and stereotypes that appear, that these books weren't really written for you to read.

Thus, while devouring Shirley as a tender 14-year-old, I came across the following passage:

‘You have no binding engagement at home perhaps, Caroline?’ (Robert Moore asks).

‘I never have: some children’s socks, which Mrs Ramsden has ordered, to knit for the Jews’ basket; but they will keep.’

‘Jew’s basket be — sold! Never was utensil better named. Anything more Jewish than it — its contents, and their prices — cannot be conceived: but I see something, a very tiny curl, at the corners of your lip, which tells me that you know its merits as well as I do.’

These moments sting, there’s no denying it, but as a devoted admirer what does one do? One tries to put them in perspective and not to be alienated; to think of them as little as possible and press on regardless.

Actually, though, one thinks of them a lot. As a matter of fact, one feels compelled to go looking for them. How does one fail to be alienated when one encounters the word ‘Jewish’ in the Brontë circle as a synonym for ‘mean’ or ‘extortionate’? As for example when Mary Taylor, Charlotte’s friend, writes to congratulate her on the publication of Jane Eyre: ‘As to the price you got, it was certainly Jewish.’ Or when Charlotte the governess describes her hated employers, ‘Proud as peacocks and wealthy as Jews’? (The trouble with letters is, they implicate not only the writer but the recipient.)

Then, too, there is Charlotte's portentous Pilate’s Wife’s Dream, which, significantly, was chosen to open the volume of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell:

And now, the envious Jewish priests have brought
Jesus — whom in mockery they call their king —
To have, by this grim power, their vengeance  wrought;
By this mean reptile, innocence to sting.

The image is a standard one: as a clergyman’s daughters, the Brontës would have learned how the Jews killed Christ (in Charlotte’s poem they actually erect the cross on which he is to be crucified) and invited down vengeance upon themselves through all subsequent generations, so that it was quite legitimate for them to be despised and persecuted.

All this dawned on me rather slowly, but I think my moment of truth came with the vivid dream I had of taking tea with the Brontës at the parsonage – I seem to recall a particularly luscious Dundee cake – and of trying rather pathetically to win them over to the fact that I was Jewish. I woke with a bleak realisation that true sisterhood with them was most likely an impossibility. Maybe they would have been nice to me. In fact, I imagine that, if I were to have come into the Brontë household, I might have found myself in the position of Mirah among the Meyricks in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and been treated kindly, as a ripe candidate for conversion.

By the age of twenty-one, when I finally came to live in Brontëland, my interest in the Brontës themselves had waned. I had moved on to other authors: to Kundera, Levi, Marquez, Borges and Kafka. I sat in my weavers' cottage and wrote about Jerusalem. I walked the moors with The Castle in my hand.

I had become a teacher, and working with the immigrant communities of Keighley and Bradford (who never had any chance of ‘passing’ as I did) brought me to a new awareness of my own difference. In empathising with the predicament of those children, speaking Urdu and wearing their salwar kameez in the sooty streets of the ex-mill towns, my own identities as Yorkshirewoman, Jew and writer began to coalesce.

A true incident described in my novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, sums up the paradox against which I struggled. On a visit to Brontëland one summer during my teens I sat gazing at the moors and, turning to my mother, cried: ‘Isn’t it beautiful!’ And my mother, the Zionist, mournfully replied: ‘Aval zeh lo shelanu. But it isn’t ours.’

Her words ran me through the heart. It was intensely painful to be denied a sense of belonging in the countryside I loved. At worst I was a traitor; at best an oddity. In that moment I realised that to be a Jew in the English landscape was no less anomalous than to be a Jewish writer in the landscape of English literature. Yet it was at that moment that I began to find myself.

To be a writer is to be an outsider. And to be an outsider is to be ripe for writing. This was no less true for the Brontës than it was for me. They, of course, were no more ‘insiders’ than I was when they first came to Haworth, as Irish-Cornish incomers, with their mixed Catholic-Protestant ancestry. (Patrick Brontë was the product of a mixed marriage.) Their background made them outsiders and their writers’ sensibility made them outsiders.

But to be an outsider is not, after all, entirely a negative thing. On the contrary, it sets up what I like to call a creative tension. For to be on the outside lends you perspective on the world around you; it can give you insight; it enables empathy and observation. All these things are great gifts to the novelist.

Nor, in the last analysis, is identity ever simple. Root and branch, it evolves. Sometimes, in spite of our monolithic allegiances, we are taken by surprise. I recently discovered that my own great-grandmother was an Irish Catholic.

Perhaps, after all, the Brontës and I are not so far apart. They, like me, were steeped in the Old Testament: there is hardly a page of Charlotte’s that isn’t tapestried with biblical references. They, like me, were second-generation immigrants. Was it any coincidence that Emily Brontë chose as the subject of her masterpiece the corrosive effects of prejudice and exclusion? What is Heathcliff if not a sort of Irish, gypsy, Black and Asian Everyman — a symbolic amalgamation of racial otherness? Couldn't Heathcliff be, in fact, a Jew?

Ultimately, of course, we are all writers; and to write fiction is to liberate oneself. One remembers then, that it was to the moors that Heathcliff and Cathy ran away to find freedom: to throw off the shackles of imposed identity and be their essential selves. A Romantic notion, perhaps; but maybe in those wild spaces there is room for everyone. Even Kafka, child of the city, felt their lure:

I’d really quite like to make an excursion — and why not — with a party of just Nobodies. Into the mountains, of course, where else? How these Nobodies crowd together, all these manifold arms, stretched out crosswise and linked together, all these manifold feet with tiny paces between them! ... Our throats become clear in the mountains. It’s a wonder we don't start singing.

Extract from ‘Meditation’ in The Transformation and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, translated by Malcolm Pasley, Penguin, 1992.

Tamar Yellin is a novelist. Her novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press), received the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Ribalow Prize. Her collection, Kafka in Bronteland and Other Stories, also from Toby, was awarded the Reform Judaism Prize. She has a website at www.tamaryellin.com.

  
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