Alison Case, Nelly Dean (2016)
Upon rereading Wuthering Heights last year, I finally realized what a major role Nelly Dean — the servant who tells most of the story-within-a-story to hapless outsider Mr. Lockwood — plays in that novel. Far from being a passive observer of events, she lies, withholds information, and manipulates situations to suit her own idea of what is right. Is her version of what happened at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange even true? What other facts might she be keeping back from us? What would we learn if she were asked to tell her own story?
In Nelly Dean, first-time novelist Alison Case gives Nelly another chance to speak, this time focusing on her own life and experiences. Her narrative overlaps mainly with the first quarter of Emily Bronte’s novel, up until Nelly is forced to move from the Heights to Thrushcross Grange. She fleshes out several scenes that only take up a sentence or two in the original, and fills in much of the background story that was barely hinted at or not present at all. She also rearranges events and casts characters in a different light, but since we already know Nelly is an unreliable narrator, this does not come as a complete surprise. What emerges is a moving portrait of a woman caught between conflicting loyalties, trying to find the meaning of love and family within a setting that has distorted both almost beyond recognition.
But how does it measure up to the towering classic that inspired it? While in its writing style it successfully evokes the period without slavishly imitating the original, the tone overall is much gentler and softer. It even includes some humorous passages, which some readers may find a welcome change from the bleakness of Bronte’s novel, but which brings in quite a different mood. Heathcliff in particular, who stays on the periphery of the story, does not appear as the psychopath Bronte created, and Nelly has a more sympathetic attitude toward him than in the story she originally told Mr. Lockwood. Indeed all the characters, including Nelly herself, are more likeable, more easily comprehensible than Bronte’s people, who often seem more like forces of nature than human beings.
For these reasons, even though I very much enjoyed Nelly’s story as a novel in itself, I didn’t find it quite worked as a convincing extension of Wuthering Heights, which remains an astonishing singularity in fiction. At the same time, I’m not sure it would work as a standalone either, as it frequently refers to the plot of the earlier novel, without going into detail. The drawback is that readers who are looking for a repeat of the passion and drama of Wuthering Heights will not find it here, and may be disappointed.
If you can accept it on its own terms, though, you might be absorbed by this version of Nelly’s story as I was. The characters touched my heart, the story drew me in, and the language was unobtrusively artful. I’m very much looking forward to whatever Alison Case writes next, and I hope it’s going to be a true original this time. She has some wonderful tales to tell.Nelly Dean by Alison Case
Published by Pegasus in February, 2016 (original UK publication 2015)
Format: ARC from Publisher
A copy was received for review purposes from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.