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...


Anonymous said...

Great post Justine - I wonder too why she kept Merlin in a cage - especially as she was so huge on her own freedom...

I see small ones in the city occasionally, I always take them as a good omen

There is a great lot of hawk info in The Secret Language of Birds by Adele Nozedar - I always think of the Egyptian god of the sun and it rising on a new day...

kairu said...

It always seems to come back to feathers with you, Justine (except for peacock ones, which you consider unlucky, no?).

A rather timely post (as so often happens), since I have been thinking about Powell and Pressburger's glorious "I Know Where I'm Going!", possibly the best romantic comedy ever made, certainly one of the best films ever made. In the film, one of the residents of Mull busies himself training Torquil the Golden Eagle to hunt rabbits in those war-rationed times. What a magnificent creature this Torquil was...

Fall is upon us, time to reread the Brontes again...

Justine Picardie said...

Is Secret Language of Birds a novel, or non-fiction? Should I read it, do you think?
And yes, Kairu, you are right -- it does always seem to come back to feathers with me; and I do consider peacock feathers to be unlucky... as did Chanel, apparently.
I like the sound of the film. I think I should order it now, along with the Language of Birds book.

Anonymous said...

no, it is non-fiction, full of myths, symbols and augury. I think you would like it very much x

Justine Picardie said...

Seems to be out of print, but I will look for it on abe...

Itay said...

Dear Justine,


My Name is Mr. Itay Yaacov, Fashion Correspondent of "Signon" (From Hebrew: Style) , one of the major style magazine in Israel, Publish every wednesday by "Ma'ariv" ( , one of the biggest daily newspapers in Israel, with a circulation of 550,000 readers.

I would like to ask if its possible to make an interview with you, to promote our readers your new biography: "Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life". I will be oin London new week (October 19 - Octobe 21) and from November 08th - November 12th. if it's not possible, we can hope for a phone or email Interview.

During my work at Ma'ariv I did interviews with the most influence fashion designers and fashion Icons of our time: Azzedin Alaia, Alber Elbaz, Rei Kawakubo (Comme de Garcons), MMM - Maison Martin Margiela (by email), Hussein Chalayan, Oscar de la Renta, Bless, D-Squared2, Renzo Rosso, Karim Rashid, Daisy Lowe, Daphne Guinness, Dita Von Teese and more.

Kind Regards,
Itay Yaacov
Signon, Ma'ariv
Tel: + 972 - 52 - 433-5,

Anonymous said...

Beautiful bird I think it is the most beautiful among the birds I'd like to get more information related to this bird to share with my friend who works in safemeds because he likes so much eagles.