Browse Reading Guides

Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageEmily's Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters

    Denise Giardina

    "Denise Giardina’s extraordinary gift for conjuring voices of the past has never been more bewitchingly deployed than here in Emily’s Ghost—a romance so tormentedly devoted to its struggle toward truth that Brontë herself would be proud of it." —Madison Smartt Bell

Denise Giardina on Emily’s Ghost

The story of the Bronte family has been Charlotte's story. Charlotte's story, because she survived her sisters and brother. Charlotte's story because her juvenile writings were preserved where her sisters’ were not, because only Charlotte's correspondence was saved.

Charlotte's story because she managed her sisters' literary inheritance. Charlotte's story because she burst the bounds of Haworth and became acquainted with London society and the literary elite of England. Charlotte's story because she was befriended by Mrs. Gaskell, soon to be her biographer.

The people around Charlotte were first seen through Charlotte's eyes as interpreted by Mrs. Gaskell. The uncivilized villagers of Haworth. (As one who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, I am well acquainted with the way outsiders can condescend and misinterpret.) The eccentric, remote father and odd aunt. Branwell the depraved drunkard. Weak and insignificant Anne. Emily, unmanageable, solitary and unfathomable. The fickle young curate who receives a few snide mentions, in Mrs. Gaskell's account, as "Mr. W." and whose death is not mentioned at all.

And Charlotte, the patient and dutiful daughter.

Both Branwell and Patrick Bronte deserve rehabilitation. We now understand alcoholism as a disease, rather than a question of will power and moral character. Branwell deserves a second chance to be known. Charlotte's relationship with her father was often problematic as well. Patrick opposed the marriage to his curate Arthur Bell Nichols, in part because he feared a pregnancy would kill the diminutive Charlotte. (It did.) Charlotte resented her situation in Haworth and blamed her father. The portrait of Patrick drawn by Mrs. Gaskell has endured, and yet what we know from other sources discounts much of it entirely. I have tried to portray the Patrick Bronte who raised three strong, independent, inquiring daughters and allowed them their freedom at a time when women were expected to be hothouse plants in a parlor.

And I have tried to free Emily from Charlotte's portrayal. Most of what we know of Emily comes from Charlotte. But now and then we get glimpses from elsewhere. For example, Charlotte's friend Mary Taylor wrote after trying to imagine Emily socializing with English families during her stay in Brussels, "Imagine Emily turning over prints or ‘Taking wine' with any stupid fop and preserving her temper and politeness." Mary Taylor also tells us that Emily "never took [Charlotte's] opinion but always had one to offer."

And Charlotte's words can be closely parsed. She wrote to her publisher of Emily that it was best "not to advocate the side you wish her to favour; if you do she is sure to lean in the opposite direction ... " One might notice first that Charlotte assumes Emily's positions are taken in automatic opposition to her own, rather than being assumed after serious consideration and for good reason. Then one might consider that Charlotte was a politically conservative, conventionally Victorian young woman who avidly sought to be married and to escape Haworth to something like gentility.

One might then imagine Emily to be the opposite.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. When Anne wonders why it is so difficult to meet “the right man,” Emily responds, “Perhaps…God prefers tormented love. It is more interesting than contentment.” Do you agree? What makes a good love story?

  2. 2. Young Emily rejects the Reverend William Carus Wilson’s story of a young girl damned to eternal punishment because she doesn’t believe the girl is “real.” Later, Emily thinks Mr. Wilson is also not “real.” What does Emily mean and why does she respond this way?

  3. 3. Is Charlotte right when she says that William Weightman is a flirt? Discuss the ways in which his sociability is both a positive and negative quality.

  4. 4. Emily’s conception of a heaven close to earth is seen by the Reverend Dury as radical, even heretical. Why does Emily believe that the distance—far or near—between heaven and earth is significant?

  5. 5. When the sisters claim front row seats at Weightman’s lecture, Giardina writes, “Charlotte wanted knowledge more than she wanted a man, as did her sisters.” Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

  6. 6. From Emily’s solitary walks along the moors to the lively return from Weightman’s lecture, much of the drama in this novel takes place while the characters are walking somewhere. Why do you think these walks set the stage for conflict and connection between characters?

  7. 7. Why do you think Denise Giardina chose to focus on Emily Brontë? Imagine how the novel might have played out if it centered on Anne instead.

  8. 8. Emily’s Ghost depicts a time when the British government forbade churches to engage in charitable work. How should churches respond when their calls to mission conflict with government policy?

  9. 9. Do you think Emily and Weightman’s love could have existed more easily today, considering how drastically women’s roles in society have changed?

  10. 10. How did Giardina’s portrayal of the Brontës compare with your previous understanding?

  11. 11. Consider the Brontë sisters’ strong familial relationships. In their case and in general, do you think familial love is stronger than romantic love? Explain.

  12. 12. It is fascinating to listen in on the sisters’ late night literary discussions. How do you suppose Emily, Charlotte, and Anne both helped and hindered each other creatively?

  13. 13. Was Charlotte right to burn Emily’s second novel? Is such posthumous censorship justified?

About Denise Giardina

Denise Giardina is the author of Storming Heaven, Emily's Ghost, and Saints and Villains, which won the Boston Book Review Prize. She is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

Books by Denise Giardina

  1. Book CoverEmily's Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters

    "Denise Giardina’s extraordinary gift for conjuring voices of the past has never been more bewitchingly deployed than here in Emily’s Ghost—a romance so tormentedly devoted to its struggle toward truth that Brontë herself would be proud of it." —Madison Smartt BellMore

  2. Book CoverFallam's Secret: A Novel

    A master storyteller delivers an historical novel with a twist-what will become of a modern American woman in Cromwell's England?More

  3. Book CoverThe Unquiet Earth: A Novel

    Dillon Freeman returns from World War II to Blackberry Creek, West Virginia, where he confronts the coal mining industry as a union organizer and falls in love with his conventional cousin, Rachel. By the author of Storming Heaven.More