I don’t like Emily Brontë’s Nelly Dean, forever getting in the way of the action with her pert moralising. But I do like Alison Case’s Nelly Dean. In this dazzlingly subversive perspective-flip, the put-upon housekeeper tells her own story, “a homespun grey yarn woven in among the bright-dyed and glossy dark threads of the Earnshaws and Lintons”. Nelly is being modest; I thought Wuthering Heights was chthonic and churning but at times, Nelly Dean makes it seem bloodless. Nelly explains that she didn’t tell this story before because she couldn’t, because sometimes things happen so fast, so hard, that “there are no stories, because there is no past and no future, only now”. So, breathlessly, she begins.
She first came to live at Wuthering Heights after her father beat her up when she was four. The same age as Hindley, and twice as clever, she has none of his privileges. Just as the housemaid heroine of Jo Baker’s Longbourn has to launder Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy petticoats, so Nelly churns butter, makes cheese, sews pinafores, makes tea, keeps household accounts, nurses consumptives, bakes bread and peels onions. A professor of Victorian literature, Case also knows her onions. And she knows her Brontës. This audacious novel talks to all three sisters’ books – even Anne’s neglected Agnes Grey gets a nod – and to really enjoy it, you do need to have read Wuthering Heights. But there’s nothing mustily lit-critical about it. It’s a page-turner, about the things we do to people we love and the secrets and lies that corrode us, told in sinewy, visceral prose.
It also has the makings of a feminist classic. Case writes more frankly about breastfeeding than any novelist I have ever read. But also, just as Wide Sargasso Sea takes Bertha Mason out of the attic, Case has made me feel deeply unsisterly for dismissing Nelly in the first place. Her Nelly is as passionate as Cathy or Heathcliff. She just can’t show it. Because while ladies and gentleman can stamp their feet and bash their heads against trees and pull feathers out of pillows, servants can’t, or they get fired, and they starve. Heartbreakingly, Case’s heroine (and she truly is a heroine) grieves for the feelings she hasn’t been able to express.
Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine is published by Vintage. She is also writing a book about Anne Brontë
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