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The fifth child born to Maria Branwell Brontë and Reverend Patrick Brontë, Emily was, like her sisters, born in the West Yorkshire village of Thornton in England. They moved to the quiet Haworth setting where they grew up, along with their brother Branwell. Their mother died while the children were still young.
Though she only lived to age thirty, Emily produced one of the most iconic novels of passion and tragedy in the English language. Wuthering Heights remains an enduring classic. A rather dark study of desire and obsession, it also touches upon economic, social, and psychological issues and is often cited as the ideal “romantic novel.”
An imaginative introvert
The Brontë children all had vivid imaginations and together told stories and acted out tales. Emily was the ringleader in the creation of Gondal, an imaginary world that included at four kingdoms. Like her siblings, she read extensively, but had only an intermittent formal education, always cut short by economic uncertainty and family deaths.
Emily was by far the most introverted of the Brontës; it pained her to be away from home for any length of time. In Elizabeth Gaskell‘s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Emily is described as:
“… a tall, long-armed girl, more fully grown than her elder sister; extremely reserved in manner. I distinguish reserve from shyness, because I imagine shyness would please, if it knew how; whereas, reserve is indifferent whether it pleases or not. Anne, like her eldest sister, was shy; Emily was reserved.”
An avowed homebody
Charlotte herself offered this explanation of why Emily couldn’t survive at school, away from home:
“My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in a livid hill-side, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was—liberty.
Liberty was the breath of Emily’s nostrils; without it she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude.
Every morning, when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me. I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength, threatened rapid decline.
I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall. She had only been three months at school; and it was some years before the experiment of sending her from home was again ventured on.”
Emily loved staying near home and heart and was the family baker. Once again, Mrs. Gaskell:
“It was Emily who made all the bread for the family; and anyone passing by the kitchen-door, might have seen her studying German out of an open cook, proper up before her, as she kneaded the dough; but no study, however interesting, interfered with the goodness of the bread, which was always light and excellent.”
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Keeper: Emily Brontë’s Fiercely Devoted Dog
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First publishing venture, a standout poet
In the mid-1840s, Charlotte discovered a stash of Emily’s poems and recognized the genius in them. Charlotte spearheaded an attempt to publish a collection the three sisters’ poems. They used male pen names for their collection, and, unable to secure a publisher, printed it themselves. Published in 1846, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell sold but few copies — two, to be exact, and faded away quickly.
Some 35 years after her death, the genius in her poetry was already starting to be recognized, as in this 19th-century appraisal by critic and biographer Mary Robinson.
With her poetry, Emily focused on descriptions of feeling and mood. Angus Ross, a professor of literature at the University of Sussex wrote that Emily’s poems were by far the best by the Brontë sisters in their 1846 volume of poetry, though she lacked the craftsmanship of a skilled poet. He added, “Her poems are personal and passionate, even mystical. Her imagination resembles that of Blake in power and freedom.”
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You might also like: No Coward Soul is Mine: 5 Poems by Emily Brontë
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Publication of Wuthering Heights
The following year, still writing as Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights was published in December 1847. The brooding and complex story follows the intersection of two families — the Earnshaws and the Lintons.
Heathcliff and Catherine have ever since sparked romantic imaginations as star-crossed lovers whose dramas reverberate into the next generation. With its ultimate ending shrouded in mystery, Brontë leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion. As described by Janet Bukovinsky Teacher in Women of Words (2002):
“Recalling carefree days, before she realized that her beloved, Heathcliff, belonged to an inappropriate social class, the heroine Cathy swears, ‘I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free.’
Brontë paints Heathcliff as brooding and lovelorn, but modern critics point out that today his behavior would be considered violent. The book is a complex, breathtaking saga of cruelty, cemeteries, ghosts, mysterious orphans, and revenge … Heathcliff, madly ardent but mildly sadistic, is described by Brontë as wolfish, a mad dog.”
Reviewers of the time were rather perplexed by the novel. Charlotte felt that her sister Emily’s magnum opus was poorly understood and supplied her own preface to a later edition of Wuthering Heights. Needless to say, its reputation and staying power grew over the years. It was first made into a film in 1939, and has had several screen adaptations since.
Little notice upon publication
It’s odd to consider that when it was first published, the novel attracted little attention, and what it got was often negative, considered morbid and dark. But modern views have reappraised it as superior even to Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, which, along with Shirley and Villette, were more famous in their time. Once again, professor Angus Ross comments:
If Wuthering Heights is not approached as a ‘morbid romance’ it can be seen to have a very skillful arrangement. She deals with evil and good, not right and wrong, and the wildness and fierceness of her vision gives her one long work a kind of elemental power not matched in any other novel.
The brilliant shifts in focus in the narration, by employing narrators who are themselves engaged in the events, add to the impact of the book. While the reader is involved in the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of the story, their attention is securely gripped. There is a powerful allegorical possibility in the work.
Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw often seem drawn to each other in some non-earthly way. Lockwood is an outsider in some dynamic, occult world. The grim and ever-present Yorkshire moors are a perfect theatre for the action.”
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Emily Brontë page on Amazon
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A 19th-century tribute to Emily Brontë
An extensive article in the Chicago Tribune (June 28, 1885) went into great depths about the Brontë family some 30 years after the death of Charlotte, who had survived all of her siblings.
“Emily Brontë was perhaps the most original of the Brontë children in character; and it is thought by many that she was possessed of an even more striking genius than Charlotte. She was of a peculiarly reserved nature, and never during her life made any friend outside her family.
Emily’s poems are by far the best, and show poetical genius of a high order, though crude and imperfect … The is one called ‘Remembrance,’ which sets us wondering if even the strange and shrinking Emily, whose life was so secluded as to give almost no opportunity for even an acquaintance with those of the opposite sex, had a romance in her life.”
Of a sternly independent disposition, she would receive no favor or consideration at the hands of any but her own kindred, and very little from them.”
The article goes on to say that Keeper, “a great savage bulldog, was her greatest friend.” And on Wuthering Heights: “There is something weird, uncanny, gruesome about that book that is hardly human.”
An incomparable imagination
In truth, the qualities that distinguish Emily Brontë are not those which are of the first necessity to a novelist. She is without experience; her range of character is narrow and local; she has no atmosphere of broad humanity like George Eliot; she has not Jane Austen‘s happy gift of making us love in a book what we have overlooked in life; we do not recognize in her the human truth and passion, the never-failing serene bitterness of humor, that have made for Charlotte Brontë a place between Cervantes and Victor Hugo.
Emily Brontë is of a different class. Her imagination is narrower, but more intense; she sees less, but what she sees is absolutely present: no writer has described the moors, the wind, the skies, with her passionate fidelity, but this is all of Nature that she describes … to a certain class of mind, there is nothing in fiction so moving as the spectacle of Heathcliff dying of joy—an unnatural, unreal joy—his panther nature paralyzed, anéanti, in a delirium of visionary bliss.
Only an imagination of the rarest power could conceive such a dénouement, requiting a life of black ingratitude by no mere common horrors, no vulgar Bedlam frenzy; but by the torturing apprehension of a happiness never quite grasped, always just beyond the verge of realization. Only an imagination of the finest and rarest touch, absolutely certain of tread on that path of a single hair which alone connects this world with the land of dreams.
Few have trod that perilous bridge with the fearlessness of Emily Brontë: that is her own ground and there she wins our highest praise; but place her on the earth, ask her to interpret for us the common lives of the surrounding people, she can give no answer. The swift and certain spirit moves with the clumsy hesitating gait of a bird accustomed to soar.
Emily’s untimely death
Emily Brontë was thirty when she died of tuberculosis in 1848, so close on the heels of Wuthering Heights’ publication that it remained her first and last novel.
She died not long after her brother Branwell drank and drugged himself to death; Anne would follow her to the grave about a half year later, also not quite thirty. Charlotte would survive several more years. Read more about her last days in The Death of Emily Brontë.
More about Emily Brontë
On this site
- Quotes from Wuthering Heights
- Charlotte Brontë’s preface to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
- No Coward Soul is Mine: 5 Poems by Emily Brontë
- Emily Brontë’s Poetry: A 19th-Century Analysis
- The Death of Emily Brontë
- The Night of Storms Has Passed: A Ghostly Poem by Emily Brontë
- Keeper: Emily Brontë’s Fiercely Devoted Dog
Read and listen online
- Wuthering Heights on Project Gutenberg
- Audio recordings of Brontë’s poetry and Wuthering Heights on Librivox
Biographies about Emily Brontë (and the Brontë sisters)
- A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë by Katherine Frank
- The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by Catherine Reef
- The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors by Juliet Baker
Film and television adaptations
- Brontë Parsonage Museum – Haworth, UK
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