Withering Heights

The Man Who Hated Emily Bronte

A review of The Man Who Hated Emily Bronte by Ray Smith

Published on October 1, 2004

The Man Who Hated Emily Bronte
Ray Smith

The Porcupine's Quill

Although no turf wars or settling of accounts have been reported so far, book clubs around the country are being ripped apart by bitter feuds. Deep divisions are forming between readers who love the romantic and mystical Emily Brontë and those who prefer the sensible and clear-headed Jane Austen. And anyone who wants in on the scrap better be ready to play for keeps.

The dispute, one assumes, has something to do with romanticism versus reason. I can’t say for sure where Ray Smith stands on the issue, but his two most recent novels are The Man Who Loved Jane Austen and The Man Who Hated Emily Brontë.

The earlier work has been called “a melancholic look at a Montreal where nationalism corrodes every event, every relationship, every soul.” The new novel, however, is billed as a companion, not a sequel. It is a lively, unpredictable satire on life in Quebec.

The narrator, Will Franklyn, is a Nova Scotian in his thirties who moves to Montreal to teach English at a junior college. He is completely unprepared for this topsy-turvy place where “…nothing, absolutely nothing, is too kooky.” For one thing, he is appalled that bureaucrats have decreed that “every writer we teach from Aeschylus to Zola was queer and/or of colour and/or a separatist.”

A colleague explains it this way: “In Quebec, the government knows what’s best for you. In Quebec, mass movements, democratic movements, are initiated from the top.” Straight-arrow Will can’t believe it: “That’s not democracy, it’s autocracy, aristocracy, bureaucracy, paternalism.” He eventually learns to relax and enjoy himself, thanks to the charms of his new city, and the assortment of topsy-turvy types around him.

His landlady and department chairperson, Heidi Felsen, is a busty flirt with body piercings and an interesting past. His office mate, Harrison Morgan, is a jaded, aging lady’s man who loves Icelandic folk tales and the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan. Will’s two love interests are a thong-wearing Calamity Jane named Gudrun, who considers herself a mythical Icelandic seer, and the beautiful and mysterious Margaret, nicknamed the Black Death because “she slays all men.”

Then there is Marie-Claire, the Quebec culture minister Harrison refers to as “Quebec Minister for the Purity of the Blood of the People of the Sacred Flame.” The first time Will meets her, at a Halloween party, Marie-Claire is dressed as Ilse, She-Wolf of the SS. Mistaking Will for a woman in drag, she fondles him with her swagger stick. She is disgusted when she realizes that he is a man and, even worse, “une maudite tête-carrée.”

While Will narrates the story, Harrison is the title character. He hates Emily Brontë (thereby loving Jane Austen) and sees parallels between Wuthering Heights and Quebec nationalism:

“Romanticism means feeling over intellect,” he says, “identification with nature, ersatz antiques, night, storm, sea, and when it gets political, a bogus history demanding identification with our ethnic brethren and sistren, and concomitant hatred of all who are not us.”

The book’s strength lies in Smith’s humour. Like the Quebec he satirizes, the world of The Man Who Hated Emily Brontë is a place where nothing is too kooky. But the satire works only to the degree that the reader shares Harrison’s obsessions. The ending, for example, is yet another dig at Brontë-style romanticism. And as for the frequent skewering of the (not currently in power) Parti Québécois, most anglophone Quebecers today seem more like Will than Harrison – they’ve learned to stop worrying and love the kookiness. mRb

William Brown is author of the Doug Harvey biography "Doug".



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