Alison Croggon's latest novel Black Spring is a dark, gothic tale inspired by Wuthering Heights. The author spoke to Amelia Vahtrick. Read Vahtrick's review of Black Spring here.
Obviously you're a big Wuthering Heights fan. Are you a fan of the Brontës in general? What age do you think people should read them for the first time?
I felt a strong kinship to the Brontës when I was a child. I lived in the country with my two sisters, and I suppose we were rather isolated, and like the Brontës we spent a lot of time in imagined worlds: stories, poems, pictures. I was a very romantic child! I read Emily Brontë's poems long before I tackled Wuthering Heights, and responded to their passion and urgency.
The earliest poem I acknowledge as part of my oevre is in fact a poem called ‘Emily Brontë', which I wrote when I was 17. It was in my first poetry collection, This is the Stone, which came out with Penguin in 1991. (See below).
I think I read Wuthering Heights in my 20s, and thought it one of the cruelest and strangest books I had ever read. I still think that. I’ve long wanted to write a gothic novel, but I think just as strong a desire was to write a love letter to Emily Brontë, which in a way this book is.
I don’t think there’s an ideal age to read books. You come to them when you’re ready. But I think the Brontës are quite good to encounter in your late teens.
Witches in the world of Black Spring aren't allowed to come into their powers. How would this law have come about? You would think that it would be hard to stamp out these extremely powerful women.
In Black Spring, I wanted to portray a world in which women are second-class citizens. Rather like some aspects of our world, in fact: strong and self-willed women are still persecuted and even killed in many parts of the world. In the northern society I describe in Black Spring, girls who are born as witches are exposed to die as babies, which is a good way of making sure they don’t come into their powers.
Lina is an exception because her father is a noble and considers himself above the common law. In the south, which is governed by a more urban and contemporary legal system, witches are not killed, but they are still considered inferior to wizards. Hammel, the southern writer who tells the story in the early part of the book, kind of typifies the southern attitude to women.
Do you see the relationship between Lina and Damek as romantic, destructive or a mix of the two?
I think the relationship between Damek and Lina is one of deep kinship gone wrong. They are both people who are outsiders, privileged but still isolated, who are drawn together because both of them have strong and passionate natures.
Also, both of them are incapable of compromising. They depend on each other in a deep and necessary way that contravenes the strict laws about men and women in their society. Neither of them can imagine what their relationship might be outside the conventions of their society, and so the result is destructive.
In another society, in which they were less restricted, they might have found a way to have a relationship that wasn’t destructive: in the society into which they are born, it is impossible. Lina knows that marriage in this society—especially if she marries someone as strong as Damek—means that she will be owned, and she doesn’t want to be owned.
The vendetta—where families must avenge the deaths of members of their family with more death—was such a destructive force. Was the chain of events based on anything in human history?
Yes. I drew loosely from the 19th-century customs of vendetta in Albania and, aside from the wizards, I hardly made anything up. (I should acknowledge here that Black Spring owes as big a debt to Ismail Kadare’s novella Broken April as it does to Wuthering Heights.) In fact, vendettas still occur in many parts of the world—Albania, Corisca, the Caucasus, Georgia, Chechnya, and so on. Blood feuds are an ancient means of justice—they predate most modern systems of law in every society.
Lina, for all her faults, is such a strong female. Who are some other literary heroines you love?
She is. She’s selfish, passionate, generous and impulsive. She’s seen through the eyes of Anna, who is both her servant and her milk-sister. Anna is, to my mind, as strong as Lina—perhaps she is actually stronger—but she is a survivor: unlike Lina, she can compromise. Lina’s story makes Anna realise how much her own life is confined. I suppose Lina and Anna derive from two particular types of literary heroines—Emma Bovary and Cathy Earnshaw on the one hand, and Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre on the other.
What was the last book you read and loved?
That’s surprisingly hard to answer, as I am usually reading several books at once. Most recently I’ve been reviewing a fair bit of poetry, and I really loved Kate Fagan’s new collection, First Light (Giramondo, 2012).
Emily Brontë by Alison Croggon
The bell of my loneliness
is a note so high and pure
it leaves you breathless.
These windy slopes are shorn
of the things that make life comfortable:
broad trees, broken bread, the swell
and supple curve of a lover's back.
These come only in dreams,
fade achingly before the besom dawn
sweeps away sleep's comfort. I
can sit here in my window, catch
the rough sweet scent of heather in my nostrils
and write of death and love entwined
like adders together. The poetry
lies wild in my veins, the poetry
of windy slopes stabbed by rocky outcrops,
the giving spring of turf, the taste
of solitude like aloes on my tongue,
the bare, unchanging moors, which take
my sisters and myself with mute indifference
and conquer under soil all our passion.