Friday, 8 October 2010
Emily Bronte's hawk
For reasons that I do not quite understand, I've been dreaming about birds of prey for the last two nights -- startling, unsettling, but not quite nightmares -- and perhaps as a consequence, Emily Bronte is very much on my mind tonight; in particular, her picture of a merlin hawk (see above). As it happens, I wrote about the Brontes and feathers in a previous book, My Mother's Wedding Dress; and have just found myself leafing through the relevant chapter (very rare for me to ever return like this; once written, a book seems to fly out of my reach); and to the episode in Wuthering Heights where Cathy tears open her pillow with her teeth, and identifies the feathers within:
"And here is a moorcock's; and this -- I should know it among a thousand -- it's a lapwing's... This feather was picked up from the heath, the bird was not shot -- we saw its nest in the winter, full of little skeletons. Heathcliff set a trap over it, and the old ones dare not come."
It's impossible to ignore Heathcliff's cruelty -- a boy/man who hangs puppies, kills lapwings, beats children and his wife -- although many accounts of him as a great romantic hero seem untroubled by his macabre tendencies (as with Mr Rochester in 'Jane Eyre' and, for that matter, Max de Winter in 'Rebecca'; both of them murderous toward their first wives).
Emily Bronte herself remains as enigmatic and intriguing as ever; impossible to interpret (at least in biographical terms), but the clues she left still seem tantalizing, slipping through my fingers, light as feathers in the wind. I very much recommend Juliet Barker's meticulous new edition of The Brontes, and Christine Alexander's book, The Art of the Brontes. The latter contains the following information on Emily's hawk:
"Study of a merlin, a bird of prey, facing right and perched on one claw... Although she does not title the painting, her pet merlin 'Nero', which she had rescued from an abandoned nest on the moors, would have provided ample opportunity for the close observation of plumage and colouring evident in her work. This hawk has been referred to as 'Hero' in many publications, but... this is a mis-transcription of the name in Emily's diary papers."
Emily mentions Nero 'in his cage' in her diary paper of 30 July 1841. Christine Alexander suggests that the bird was probably acquired early in 1841, based on Emily's reference to a bird pining for the liberty of 'Earth's breezy hills and heaven's blue sea' in a poem dated 27 February 1841, 'The Caged Bird'. The bird of the poem, however, is not in a cage but on a chain; Alexander believes that Emily identifies wholly with its 'cold captivity':
Ah could my hand unlock its chain
How gladly would I watch it soar
And ne'er regret and ne'er complain
To see its shining eyes no more
But even so... I wonder why Emily kept her hawk in a cage (not a Hero, but Nero, the Roman tyrant...)? By the time she had returned from Brussels in November 1842, Emily's hawk had gone. She writes in a subsequent diary paper: 'lost the hawk Nero, which, with the geese, was given away, and is doubtless dead, for when I came back from Brussels, I inquired on all hands and could hear nothing of him...'
Dreaming aside, I want to know more...