Black Spring


The first word that comes to my mind when I try to describe Alison Croggon’s novel, Black Spring, is ‘ideology’. Some of the best lines I’ve come across to convey how I define ‘ideology’ are from William Blake’s poem, “London”:

In every cry of every Man.
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

The mind-forged manacles: these manacles are everywhere, including in the ways we repeat familiar ideas of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman. Ideas they are: not truths from above, not inevitable fate or destiny, simply ideas. And ideas can change, and ideas are usually shaped by those in power, by those who define, classify and distribute money, wealth, status, privilege, power. I once read an essay by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek in which he defines our relationship to ideology in our contemporary world as a process of ‘as if’. Despite knowing that the ideas we’ve received from the past can be changed and altered, despite questioning what we’ve inherited and critiquing the world we live in today, many of us still continue to act ‘as if’ those ideas we have come to question are absolute truth. Because, it’s just easier that way; it’s easier to pretend.

I’m aware I’m simplifying what he wrote, and I did read this essay a good few years ago, so I may be paraphrasing too much. But this is how I interpreted it, and the term ‘as if’ has stuck in my mind. It reminded me of a passage I once read by a cultural critic who wrote about his experiences under Soviet communist totalitarianism: Every day, he would watch his local shopkeeper put up a sign in his store about the virtues of his communist state and its ‘freedom’. The shopkeeper does not understand this sign. But he knows that if he doesn’t put it at his window, he cannot do business – he cannot live. And so, he pretends, he plays a game of ‘as if’; as if that sign actually represents freedom. We like to distance ourselves from the totalitarian mind-sets and claim that our western countries know what freedom looks like. But at the same time, we also play our own games of ‘as if’. To me, these games are strongly evident when it comes to what we tell and teach girls and women.

One of the things that I love about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is that it’s a novel that doesn’t play many games of ‘as if’. It is brutally honest. It treats women as pawns in a competition between men, as corpses and abused bodies to be possessed, as property that is violently and viciously passed around between men and domestic households. And not because Brontë has a cruel sadistic streak, or hates herself and other women. Rather, because she’s showing her own society what women are really ‘worth’ within its own mind-forged manacles of ideology: they are property. The book also provides us with Catherine: a character who refuses to play ‘as if’. She is punished for this, of course, because in Brontë’s nineteenth-century world, her refusal to bow down to domestic ideals of property and propriety makes her a dangerous subversive force. She does not belong, and so she becomes a restless ghost hovering at the margins of domestic households.

What does all this have to do with Alison Croggon’s Black Spring? Quite a lot actually. Although it’s classified as a Young Adult book, I feel its potential audience is much wider. This is the only book I’ve read that’s rewritten Wuthering Heights that actually gets what the original book was about, and what Catherine was about. If you’d like to know why I think so, read on (there will be a few plot spoilers from now on, for those who would prefer to read the book first).

Black Spring rewrites Wuthering Heights as a fantasy novel of witches and wizards, with the wizards’ power and authority being as oppressive as the power of the church and the royalty of the lands described in the book. I felt Croggon’s rewriting of Wuthering Heights through this fantasy storyline was a clever move, because fantasy often allows writers to highlight what is oppressive in reality. In light of this comment, it’s probably worthwhile to make note of the book’s dedication: “For Ismail Kadare”. Black Spring’s Catherine, who is called Lina, also has the surname of Kadar. This tells the reader already what kind of book they will be reading.

Kadare wrote a book I studied and loved called The Palace of Dreams. The book was banned immediately after it was published in Albania in 1981. I would compare it I suppose with George Orwell’s 1984, but each book is its own world. The Palace of Dreams critiques totalitarianism through its plot: Mark-Alem, the protagonist, works in the bureau of sleep where he analyses, classifies and spies on people’s dreams for ‘the good of the state’. That is, he literally polices people’s minds in the name of power and maintaining the status quo. The mind-forged manacles again. This is of course an allegory for how totalitarian countries police the actions and lives of their citizens.

So when I read Croggon’s dedication in Black Spring, I knew I was going to be presented with a similar fantasy-that-is-actually-reality world. And I also knew she would be tackling those mind-forged manacles in her own writing. She touches upon many issues in the book, but the sharpest and most obvious issue is that of gender. One of the cleverest things Croggon does in Black Spring is rewrite Wuthering Heights’s original female narrator, Nelly Dean, as a sympathetic force. In Brontë’s novel, Nelly is an antagonistic force to Catherine: she tries to curtail, police and place Catherine in her ‘proper’ place as a woman. She is the servant who protects the boundaries of nineteenth-century domestic propriety and property. In Croggon’s Black Spring, Nelly is rewritten as Anna. Anna is similarly ‘proper’ in some ways, but unlike Nelly, she develops an awareness about her own lot in life, and that of the woman she calls her ‘sister’, Lina. This awareness is an awareness of the injustices surrounding their roles as women. Lina is a witch whose life is in danger from birth. Witches are usually killed in her world, while wizards who have the same powers rule along with the royalty, as both wizard clans and the royalty compete for power and profit from the fear of the general population. After Lina has used her own powers against a powerful wizard who seeks to kill her for not acting like a docile woman, Anna tells the reader that:

Lina’s only real crime was to be born a woman, with powers and instincts that were thought proper to belong only to a man. She was not the first, and certainly not the last, in her situation. ... Why should any of us be deemed monstrous for heeding the simple bidding of our hearts? Why do we bow before the chains that bind us, spilling our blood into the coffers of the king and strangling the longings in our breasts? Is that the real reason why someone like Lina must not be suffered to live, because her mere existence reveals our private, unadmitted shame, our poverty of spirit?

These questions burst on me that day with the force of a revelation. It was as if a veil was removed from my sight: I perceived everything afresh, like one newly born. I had always felt for Lina the compassion and love of a sister; now I felt too the loyalty and indignation of our common sex. She ignited an anger within me which has never been quenched, at the rank injustices of this world.

It doesn’t get clearer than that. Croggon has taken Brontë’s brutal honesty and shows us what it represents through her own novel: the rank injustices of being a woman. Lina is a witch the way most women who don’t bow down to traditional ideology are witches, bitches and sluts (need I remind my Australian readers of the way our first female Prime Minister was called a ‘witch’, among other things?). And she is dangerous the way many women who don’t act ‘as if’ inherited gender ideals are absolute truth are dangerous: they reveal that ideas are simply ideas, that ideology is the function of power. In the book, Lina must be killed for not acting ‘as if’; in real life, women who don’t act ‘as if’ are also killed in many countries around the world where even the small act of walking in a street alone is punished. And they are also policed by public opinion concerning every aspect of their lives. How different is that from Kadare’s imaginary Palace of Dreams where dreams are policed for the maintenance of the status quo? And how different is that from the shopkeeper living in a totalitarian state who hangs a sign in his store about an untrue ‘freedom’ because he knows that if he doesn’t, he will have to pay in some other way? These are questions that Black Spring brings to the forefront.

But it’s also just a very good book. The thing about Black Spring is that it makes you think critically, while at the same time being accessible, easy to read and interesting. There is a stark beauty to the world that Croggon creates that is similar to the stark beauty of Wuthering Heights. You can enjoy Black Spring both intellectually and aesthetically. In its descriptions of landscapes and seasons, I visualised a whole world in my head. So even if you’re not really interested in those mind-forged manacles, Black Spring works as simply a good story that is enjoyable to read, with strong characters who are themselves interesting and well-developed.

I’ll conclude by saying that Alison knew I would be reviewing this book and asked me to provide an honest review since we sort of ‘know’ each other online. So Alison, this is my honest review. Black Spring is not a perfect book – but I can’t think of any books that really are ‘perfect’. What is perfect about if for me though is its ability to understand Brontë’s Catherine and rewrite her for a new audience. After reading far too many rewritings of Wuthering Heights and watching just about every screen adaptation made from the book, I can say with confidence that Black Spring captures what the book is about for me, and does something more: it creates its own clever world through this understanding.

Image credit: One of Clare Leighton’s wood engraving illustrations for a 1931 edition of Wuthering Heights, published by Random House. I’ve always loved this particular illustration of Catherine, and it reminded me of Lina too.