Harp of wild and dream-like strain,

Dear Emily,

Gondal – an imaginary island in the North Pacific, created by you and Anne and peopled with flawed, implacable characters often driven into epic battles – is considered by critic Nina Auerbach the secret room in your imagination. Gondal’s Queen: A Novel in Verse (1955) is Fannie E. Ratchford’s attempt to enter your secret room, piecing together your poems to reconstruct the Gondal universe as a novel in verse. If it feels like a violation is because it is – but a well-intentioned one.

Your Gondal has its origins in the Glass Town Confederacy, an earlier imaginary universe created by you and your siblings. It all started on June 5th, 1826, when your father brought a box of twelve wooden toy soldiers to your brother Branwell. Each of you claimed a soldier for yourself, named them, and the soldiers became characters in your imaginary world, making their way into your childhood games, stories, and eventually your juvenilia.

Tired of the second role you played at Charlotte and Branwell’s kingdom of Andria, you and Anne broke away and established an imaginary world of your own: The Gondal Chronicles, prose pieces you wrote in miniscule print in tiny booklets (so as to be held by the soldiers, as if they were its authors, perhaps?). The prose pieces are mostly lost now, but, through the Gondal poems and the allusions to Gondal in diary entries, scraps of lists, and in the notes you and Anne wrote to each other, we can have an outline of the lost world you shared.

You must have been eight when you were given the soldiers, and thirteen when you invented Gondal, in 1831. You would continue to write stories and poems about it well into adulthood, and you would remain writing it even after your novel Wuthering Heights was completed. As you wrote in a diary entry from 1845, “we intend sticking firm by the rascals as long as they delight us.” As late as 1848, seven months before your death, at the age of thirty, you were working on a Gondal civil war poem: you never abandoned your imaginary world.

In a diary entry from November 24th 1834, we have your first mention of Gondal: after a brief description of everyday events with your family in the kitchen, you seamlessly inserted a commentary on your invented kingdom – “The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine” –, as though the real and the imaginary were one and the same thing, flowing from one another. You were sixteen years old.

On the notes you and Anne exchanged on your birthdays, where you related the events on your lives, you always inserted a description of the events in Gondal. In a diary entry from June 26th 1837, you recorded Anne’s writing of a poem, your work on a volume of Augusta Almeda’s life, Queen Victoria’s coronation, and your corresponding interest in the coronation of the Gondal’s Queen: such as Queen Victoria, Queen Augusta Geraldine Almeda ascends to Gondal’s throne in 1837.

In February 1844, you copied your poems into two notebooks, one containing Gondal poetry (the Gondal Notebook) and one containing non-Gondal poetry (the E.J.B. Notebook).

In the first poem copied in the Gondal Notebook, dated from March 6th 1837 and headed A. G. A., the speaker, Augusta Geraldine Almeda (A. G. A. or the Gondal’s Queen) is in prison, imagining her return to the grave of one of her lovers, Lord of Elbe, to morn his death: “There shines the moon, at noon of night”.

An earlier poem, however, dated from December 13th 1836 and found on a single leaf, is considered by some scholars, such as Christine Alexander, as the first Gondal poem: “High waving heather, ‘neath stormy blasts bending, / Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars; / Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending, / Earth rising to heaven and heaven descending, / Man’s spirit away from its drear dongeon sending, / Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars. (…)

In this poem, we can already have a sense of what your kingdom looked like: a realm of darkness, wildness, and stormy blasts – “All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending / One mighty voice to the life-giving wind”.

The two poems mentioned above introduce us to many of your recurring topics (which would later be transposed to Wuthering Heights): the night-time setting; the onslaught of natural forces, breaking the peace in the name of beauty, and reflecting the character’s attempt at breaking free from some kind of imprisonment; the ruthless vitality of wind as a symbol both for freedom and for destruction, an agent of tumult, reflecting the character’s inner struggle against some form of confinement; the isolation of the setting, mirroring the character’s own isolation, exile, or loneliness; the stormy sea, as a symbol of transience.

Ratchford’s collection, however, does not start with any of those two poems, but with a poem found on one side of a single sheet, without date of composition nor heading: “Cold, clear, and blue, the morning heaven / Expands its arch on high”. Ratchford claims that this poem refers to A. G. A.’s birthday, and supports this claim by saying that: (I) other poems in this same sheet are dated, respectively, July 1836 and June 1838; (II) the poem coincided with the beginning of the Gondal’s Queen story, based on a diary entry from July 1837, in which you said that you started writing A.G.A’s life; (III) the poem would be a key to the Queen’s character.

This poem is followed by another one, written on the same sheet as “Cold, clear, and blue”  but with no heading, and dated July 12th 1836: “Will the day be bright or cloudy?”, which she interprets as the day A. G. A.’s mother inquired of the soothsayer about the course of the child’s life.

Ratchford supports her claim that this poem belongs to Gondal by referring to its position immediately after the one she identified as relating to A.G.A’s birth. None of those poems make any reference to Gondal, nor were copied in the Gondal Notebook. From this, you can already have a taste of the creative inferences of which Ratchford makes frequent use to arrange the story.

The Gondal Notebook comprised 44 poems. To these, Ratchford adds 40 of your other poems, and tries to arrange them in narrative sequence, by inserting non-Gondal poems through inferences, as well as by using her own imagination to supply the gaps in the story. From the E.J.B. Notebook, for instance, she adds the poem “No coward soul is mine”, which she reads as being related to the republican-royalist conflict in Gondal. She also adds the poem “Harp of wild and dream-like strain,” with no explanation, to refer to a period when A. G. A. has grown old and is feeling melancholy about the past.

Some scholars also argue that Ratchford assumed that A. G. A. was the same person as two other characters, Rosina Alcona and Geraldine Sidonia – a highly debatable topic. In Ratchford’s version, Julius Brenzaida was A. G. A.’s lover, Angelica was A. G. A.’s stepdaughter, Amedeus was Angelica’s foster brother, and Alexandria was A. G. A.’s daughter (whom she kills). In other versions, Angelica is A. G. A.’s childhood friend and Amadeus’ lover; Rosina Alcona is a member of the Gondal aristocracy; and A. G. A. is Julius Brenzaida’s daughter with Geraldine Sidonia.

If you ever read Ratchford’s version, I imagine you would be as furious as when Charlotte found your poems for the first time: “One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, —a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating. My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. I knew, however, that a mind like hers could not be without some latent spark of honourable ambition, and refused to be discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame”, wrote Charlotte about the incident.

All in all, Ratchford’s is an interesting but far-fetched attempt to recreate your Gondal narrative by inserting most of your poetic output into it. Most interesting, to me, however, in this collection, was the Appendix II, where Ratchford collected the diary entries and notes in which you and Anne mention Gondal.

Also interesting is the connection between your imaginary kingdom and Wuthering Heights: as it seems, the novel’s train wreck of cruelty, revenge, violence, despair, and obsession can also be found in your childhood writings. The Gondal poems are full of intrigue, thwarted loves, and a pervading sense of confinement: much like in WH, your Gondal characters are trapped by overpowering emotions and troubled by a constant yearning for escape. They are as wild as the landscape they inhabit, their passions as powerful as the howling wind.

Fascinating to me is that your Gondal universe is led by a woman, A. G. A., a ruthless warrior queen who takes many lovers, only to drive them to exile, imprisonment, death by broken heart, or suicide. She is the speaker of at least 14 of your 44 Gondal poems. A passionate, dark-haired beauty, your Gondal’s Queen is the female version of a Byronic hero: a tempestuous figure who inspired both hate and devotion, and brought “all men to her feet” and tragedy “to all who loved her”.

Contrary to the archetypical ideal of femininity of your time, A. G. A. is no ‘angel in the house’ and no poor ‘fallen woman’ either. She is a mercurial queen, unconstrained by conventional morality; she can be both tender and cruel, capable of love and betrayal – “In life and death a chainless soul”, as you would write in one of your non-Gondal poems.

Virginia Woolf would write, in 1931, in a paper called Professions for Women, that “killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer“. Well, my dear, at eighteen you had already killed your angel – if only in the wild moorland of your imagination.

Yours truly,

J.


Sappho, by Alexandre Isailoff

“Harp of wild and dream-like strain,
When I touch thy strings,
Why dost thou repeat again
Long-forgotten things?

Harp, in other, earlier days,
I could sing to thee;
And not one of all my lays
Vexed my memory.

But now, if I awake a note
That gave me joy before,
Sounds of sorrow from thee float,
Changing evermore.

Yet, still steeped in memory’s dyes,
They come sailing on,
Darkening all my summer skies,
Shutting out my sun.”

*

“I’ll come when thou art saddest,
Laid alone in the darkened room;
When the mad day’s mirth has vanished,
And the smile of joy is banished
From evening’s chilly gloom.

I’ll come when the heart’s real feeling
Has entire, unbiassed sway,
And my influence o’er thee stealing,
Grief deepening, joy congealing,
Shall bear thy soul away.

Listen, ’tis just the hour,
The awful time for thee;
Dost thou not feel upon thy soul
A flood of strange sensations roll,
Forerunners of a sterner power,
Heralds of me?”

*

“To Imagination

When weary with the long day’s care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost, and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again:
Oh, my true friend! I am not lone,
While then canst speak with such a tone!

So hopeless is the world without;
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world, where guile, and hate, and doubt,
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou, and I, and Liberty,
Have undisputed sovereignty.

What matters it, that all around
Danger, and guilt, and darkness lie,
If but within our bosom’s bound
We hold a bright, untroubled sky,
Warm with ten thousand mingled rays
Of suns that know no winter days?

Reason, indeed, may oft complain
For Nature’s sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain
Its cherished dreams must always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down
The flowers of Fancy, newly-blown:

But thou art ever there, to bring
The hovering vision back, and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring,
And call a lovelier Life from Death.
And whisper, with a voice divine,
Of real worlds, as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet, still, in evening’s quiet hour,
With never-failing thankfulness,
I welcome thee, Benignant Power;
Sure solacer of human cares,
And sweeter hope, when hope despairs!”


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