Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Guest Post: Most Memorable Moment: Lena Coakley's Bronte Summer

Today Lena Coakley, author of Witchlanders is here! And she is sharing with us her most memorable moment of 2011.

My Brontë Summer
by Lena Coakley

It’s probably odd to write a post about the highlight of my year that is not about Witchlanders.  After all, it was my very first novel, the culmination of ten years of hard work.  There’s no doubt that when I’m a little-old-lady looking back on my life, completing and publishing Witchlanders will be one of the accomplishments that I am most proud of.  And yet… I’ve noticed that by the time a book comes out, many authors have already set their sights on their next book, and this was certainly true of me.  To promote Witchlanders I wrote guest post after guest post about Ryder and Falpian and their frosty, wintery world, but my mind was often on a very different setting and on four very different characters: Charlotte, Emily, Branwell and Anne.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, painted by Branwell Bronte

Yes, THAT Charlotte, Emily, Branwell and Anne. The novel I’m writing now is a historical fantasy that takes place in 1834 in which the young Brontës appear as characters.  Selling Witchlanders gave me a great opportunity to go to England and study these famous siblings.

For those who don’t know, the Brontës were the brilliant children of a poor but well-educated Yorkshire parson. The three sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily, all became published authors. Only Branwell, the brother, failed to live up to his potential.  He died of drug addiction and tuberculosis in his early thirties, and Emily and Anne died soon after, also of tuberculosis.  Charlotte was the only one who lived long enough to enjoy her fame—her novel Jane Eyre was the most popular book of its day—but she, too, died young, at thirty nine.

I’m a great fan of Charlotte and Emily’s writings in particular, though for very different reasons.  Charlotte is wry and witty, and her books always have a great narrative voice.  She writes with searing honesty about depression in her novel, Villette—a book I couldn’t get through in my twenties, but which is now one of my favourites.  And Jane Eyre, the poor and plain governess who wins the love of her employer, the mysterious Mr. Rochester, is a heroine I loved when my grandmother read the book out loud to me as a kid and who I still love today.

Still, I think it’s Emily Brontë I love the best.  Emily is a bit of a cipher to her biographers.  Because she seems to have never made a friend (other than her sisters) she has left behind very little correspondence.  Critics are left to get a sense of her character from Charlotte—who has been accused of creating a distorted picture of her—and from her works: a collection of excellent poetry and one novel. 

And what a perplexing novel Wuthering Heights is.  Since reading it as a teenager, I’ve been wondering about this strange book and about this strange woman who roamed the Yorkshire moors, and I think it’s this wondering more than anything else that has inspired my own work. 

The first stop on my Brontë journey was the university city of Oxford, where I had signed up for a literature course I hoped would shed some light on Wuthering Heights and some other novels of the Brontës.

Christ Church College , Oxford University

The course was offered through The Oxford Experience, a program that allows students to live and study in Christ Church, one of the university’s most impressive and beautiful colleges.  Participants came from all over the world to study subjects as diverse as Alice in Wonderland to King Alfred and the Vikings.  Needless to say, our dinners—held in the huge dining hall used in the Harry Potter films—were alive with interesting conversation.

Lena at the entrance to the Christ Church dining hall

My course, The Brontës, focused on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë.  Every morning about ten students and I met to praise, criticise, and argue about these novels, discussions that often continued through lunch and into the afternoon.  I’m happy to say that this deepened the mystery of Emily and Wuthering Heights rather than explaining it.

As one student pointed out, when reading Villette or Jane Eyre, no one is ever left to wonder if Charlotte approves or disapproves of her characters.  She judges them all, and leaves their motivations splayed out on a table for the reader to approve or disapprove along with her.  Emily never judges and never explains.  Is the abusive kidnapper and hanger of dogs, Heathcliff, meant to be a romantic hero or a villain?  Is he truly haunted by the ghost of his lover Catherine or is he delusional?  Is the narrator Nelly Dean reliable or not?  Emily will never tell. 

The village of Haworth

My next stop was Haworth itself, the Yorkshire village where the Brontës grew up.  Because two of his elder daughters had contracted tuberculosis at school, Mr. Brontë decided to educate his four remaining children at home for their early years.  The little parsonage at the edge of the moors became a hothouse for the active imaginations of four brilliant children.  Together they acted plays, invented imaginary worlds, wrote tiny newspapers and magazines and developed their creativity.

The Bronte parsonage
I was very lucky to have been granted permission to study in the archives of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, so on the days I wasn’t traipsing over the moors I could be found hunched over scholarly texts on the Brontës that aren’t available to me in Toronto.

But Emily’s elusiveness was in evidence her too.  Although the museum houses voluminous amounts of juvenilia written by Charlotte and Branwell, almost all of Emily’s early writings have been destroyed.  We only get tantalizing hints and snatches of the imaginary world of Gondal that she and her sister Anne created in childhood.

The ruins of Top Withins, the farmhouse that inspired Wuthering Heights

Finally I ended my trip in London at the British Library where I viewed the original handwritten manuscript of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  It was open to the page where Jane announces, “Reader, I married him.”  Seeing it made me a little verklempt I have to say—what a Brontë nerd I am!  But as for the original manuscript of Wuthering Heights…it has been lost.  The reclusive Emily remained mysterious to the end.

About Witchlanders

High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.

It’s all a fake.

At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?

But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—

Are about him.

Author Bio:

Lena Coakley was born in Milford , Connecticut and grew up on Long Island . In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College . She got interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto , Canada , and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director.  She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto .  Witchlanders, her first novel, has received three starred reviews and was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews.  It is a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABC new voices selection.

Related Posts:
Captioned!: "Falpian's Magic" (excerpt from Witchlanders)
Book in Review: Witchlanders by Lena Coakley

This post was part of my New Year's Signature Collection event.
Watch out for more guest posts,  lists, reviews of January releases, author interviews, and more throughout January.

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