On the Shelf: Nelly Dean by Alison Case

Of the many things for which Downton Abbey is perhaps catalyst is our frenzied interest and excitement over lives lived below stairs, and how they affect the drama of many a stately home. Recent contemporary novels have hopped on those coattails, opening the airing cupboard on some of classic literature’s stately homes: Jo Baker, on Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Longbourn; Jane Stubbs, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall.

Alison Case takes up the story of Emily Brontë’s much-maligned Nelly Dean in her eponymous epistolary novel that gives us another view into the world of Wuthering Heights. In Case’s book, Nelly promises to tell, “a homespun grey yarn woven in among the bright-dyed and glossy dark threads of the Earnshaws and Lintons,” and she doesn’t disappoint. We learn that Nelly arrived at Wuthering Heights after her father became abusive: she was sent first as companion to the Earnshaw children and then became servant when Heathcliff arrives. If Wuthering Heights was scandalous in its day for its stark depiction of mental and physical brutality, Nelly Dean shows us how equally cruel we can be to people we love via secrets and lies.

What may surprise modern readers is how much the novel engages in discussions on breastfeeding, or wet nursing. It’s hardly ahistorical—Victorians were obsessed with bodies, circulation, and commodities, among other things—and likely will delight modern readers interested in recent sociopolitical discussions and feminist discourse. Case, herself a noted Victorian scholar and professor of English at Williams College, does very well to highlight Victorian anxieties surrounding the female body, embodied and disembodied motherhood, and domestic economies in ways that will appeal to modern readers.

Nelly Dean is best enjoyed if you’re an informed reader. I’m not saying you need to become an amateur Victorianist, but I do think you’re best served having refreshed yourself with a reading of Wuthering Heights prior to beginning. While Nelly unburdens herself of quite a lot, she expects you, as you the reader are her Mr. Lockwood, to know the original plot. Fans of the superior Brontë sister, by which I mean Emily (sorry, Charlotte enthusiasts), will delight over a new look into Wuthering Heights.

Nelly Dean is available in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia now, published by The Borough Press. In the US, readers can look forward to its publication in early February 2016 by Pegasus Books.

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