Recent Reading: Half-Life of a Stolen Sister by Rachel Cantor

The lives of the Brontës—that brilliant, doomed family whose members struggled with genteel poverty, unrequited love, frustrated ambitions, and (in the case of son Branwell) addiction before succumbing, one by one, to disease—have for some time exerted a pull on artists and audiences. It's a story that has, in some ways, begun to eclipse the novels and poetry they left behind—see, for example, Frances O'Connor's recent film Emily, in which the most mysterious of the Brontë sisters leaves herself only a bit of time to write Wuthering Heights in between tempestuous affairs and drug trips. Other artists, too, have been drawn to dramatizations of the Brontës' lives and deaths—Catherynne Valente's novel The Glass Town Game, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans's comic DIE, Sally Wainwright's TV movie To Walk Invisible

Rachel Cantor is therefore wading into a very crowded field with her third novel, but she almost immediately sets it apart by refusing to narrow its focus to the three most famous Brontë sisters, or the squandered promise of their brother. Half-Life of a Stolen Sister spans the years between two deaths—Brontë matriarch Maria (the beginning of the family's tragedies), and last surviving child Charlotte more than thirty years later (their sad conclusion). This means that Half-Life is one of the few Brontë dramatizations to consider the personality and inner lives of older sisters Maria and Elizabeth, whose early deaths in the charity school that inspired the Lowood chapters in Jane Eyre usually merit only a cursory mention. This is far from the only way in which the novel defies our expectations of its genre, and of the story it has chosen to tell.

In its early chapters, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister presents itself as a traditional historical novel—albeit one told in a dreamy narrative voice whose brief sentences, frequent flitting between points of view, and tight focus on the characters' sensations are sometimes more reminiscent of poetry than prose. Before long, however, incongruous details begin to intrude—things like bologna sandwiches, social workers, and buildings with doormen.

Within the walls of their home, the Brontës (or, as they're called here, the Bronteys) conduct themselves like a 19th century gentleman's family: father Patrick, distracted and absorbed by his own interests, but nevertheless secure in the expectation that his whims, especially where the family's finances and the children's education are concerned, will have the force of law; Aunt Branwell, who gives up her own life to look after her sister's widower and orphans; only son Branwell, laden with all the family's expectations but also showered with praise merely for existing; and surviving daughters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, forced to gather scraps of attention and education while also expected to attend to household work and support Branwell's professional ambitions by taking less glamorous, drudging work. 

Outside the home, however, the modern world continues apace. The children, when they venture outside, make their way on the subway, visiting museums, libraries and dollar stores. Their old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy attitudes and language leave the people they encounter slightly puzzled, but not for long—everyone is, after all, too busy to wonder too much about this seemingly unremarkable family. When the sisters get older, their plainness, lack of style, and modest career ambitions make them even easier to ignore.

This allows Cantor to work out some clever juxtapositions of period and contemporary details. Patrick worries about what will happen to his children after his death because their apartment is rent-controlled; Aunt Branwell, when she thinks about the life she left behind to look after her sister's family, laments in particular the loss of her book club; when Charlotte and Emily stay at the Pensionnat Heger they complain about the other girls resident there, who wear high heels and go out clubbing every night instead of attending to their studies. (These juxtapositions are also the source of much of the novel's humor, which frequently punctures the Brontës' sense of drama by situating them in thoroughly mundane settings.) Modern epistolary forms such as email exchanges or radio interviews are interspersed with more traditional ones. Some parts of the story, of course, remain the same across centuries, such as the anxiety the sisters feel over their poverty, over their father's indifference to it, and over the demanding, demeaning work they end up doing just to make ends meet.

For the most part, however, the business of Half-Life of a Stolen Sister is not to create a coherent, modern version of the Brontë family. That same dreamy, hazy voice and narrow emphasis on the main characters mean that the outside world never quite pulls into focus. It exists on the periphery of the characters' lives, intruding here and there—an email from Charlotte's editor, Anne's reminiscences of working as a live-in nanny in a McMansion—but never as important to the family as their relationships with each other. Rather than committing to a specific period, the novel seems to take place in a kind of no-time. 

(Another result of this choice is that Half-Life might work better for readers who already know the Brontë story reasonably well, since Cantor usually contents herself with subtle hints towards the major turning points of the historical Brontës' lives, trusting us to, for example, get the joke when she gives the sisters' novels titles like Plain Jane, The Heights, and Surely!)

That timelessness makes for a weird, slipstreamy novel (one that feels fantasy-adjacent even though there are no overt fantasy touches within it) that nevertheless manages to convey much of what we know about the Brontës in a compelling, immediate way. Charlotte is querulous and self-important, hungry for recognition. Branwell is joyously self-absorbed, capable of flitting acts of kindness but always returning to his selfish pleasures, secure in the belief that his promised greatness will materialize on its own. Emily is confident and self-contained, unwilling to compromise with the world or change herself to suit its demands. Anne is the observer, hanging back while amassing material for her work, the most aware, within her family, of specific injustices in the world around her. 

These personalities weave together—through diaries, letters, and narrative fragments—into a claustrophobic whole that admits almost no outside interference (when Charlotte makes friends at school, her siblings deride them, and when Patrick employs an assistant, he is treated with, at best, fond condescension). As children, the Brontës' are each others' whole world, and the people with whom they make up other worlds—the fantasy lands of Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria—in which they construct elaborate, never-ending stories. As they grow older and go out into the world, the siblings inevitably discover that no one understands them as well as each other. They clash and quarrel—Charlotte fumes over Anne and Emily's unwillingness to take jobs at the same office where she is a secretary, and all three sisters realize that Branwell's potential will remain forever unfulfilled and that they are pouring their hard-earned money into a bottomless pit of addiction and self-indulgence. But even in the heat of these arguments, or when the sisters' make their literary forays into the world, their point of reference remains each other—which, of course, becomes increasingly heartbreaking as they, one by one, fall away.

In the looseness with which it recreates the Brontës' lives, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister finds its way to the pain of their ongoing, lifelong experience of loss. Without changing the known facts of history, it avoids the sense of inevitability that attaches itself to other retellings of this story. With each death, the remaining Brontës pick themselves up and try to reform their family, to find things worth living for even as the weight of the past and of their ghosts pulls them back. All the way to the end of the novel, when Charlotte, now alone with just her aging father, tries to make a new life for herself through marriage and pregnancy, that sense of hope, that determination to keep going, shines through our knowledge that it will, once again, end in death. 

Other Brontë dramatizations have fallen back on the argument that their novels and literary fame make up for the sisters' truncated lives. Half-Life, without removing their work from its story—while, in fact, incorporating rich references and homages to some of the most famous parts of Brontëana, and spending a great deal of time on each sister's literary process—manages to decouple these women from the edifices that have built up around books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. It treats them, instead, as people, who are artists, but also daughters and sisters, and whose grief, and awareness that they are not going to experience as much of life as they would have liked, are not abated by fame or literary success. At the end of the novel, what you're left with is true sadness for these people, these sisters, this family.


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