A Chronology of the Brief Life of Emily Brontë

The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte

Who was Emily Brontë? This is a question not easily answered. This thoughtful chronology of her brief life by W. Robertson Nicoll was part of the introduction to the 1908 edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Brontë. It provides much insight into how she lived and worked.

Emily Brontë (1818 – 1848), the British author known for the novel Wuthering Heights, was also recognized as a brilliant poet. The sister of Charlotte and Anne Brontë, she is arguably the most enigmatic of the trio who produced some of the most widely read classics in English literature.

Emily lived only to age thirty and led a sheltered life at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, rarely encountering anyone outside her immediate family.

Yet she wrote one of the most iconic novels of passion and tragedy. Wuthering Heights is a rather dark study of desire and obsession, touching upon economic, social, and psychological issues. 

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Bronte sisters
Anne, Emily, and Charlotte as depicted by their brother, Branwell

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A woman of genius: A chronology of Emily Brontë’s Life

We now see the extraordinary conditions under which this woman of genius did her work. Outside her own circle she had not a single friend. She never had a lover or any one who came near to be her lover.

She was never outside of Yorkshire save during the Brussels experience, where she paid so dearly for the education which she hoped to turn into money. She had practically no acquaintances.

The only people in Haworth she talked to were the servants and the visitors forced upon the home by the brother. Yet she loved life and shrank from death. Between her sister Anne and herself there was a tie of peculiar tenderness and closeness.

She was passionately loved by Charlotte, who saw, nevertheless, something harsh in her temperament. There is no reason to suppose that she failed in affection to her father and her aunt, or to Branwell, though he may have wearied her out.

She did the work of a servant in the house apparently with the greatest cheerfulness and efficiency. In the exercise of her imagination and in her love of nature she found peace. She refused to complain, and turned a front now calm, now defiant, to the most threatening circumstances.

So very little is known of Emily Brontë, the greatest woman genius of the nineteenth century, that whatever throws light upon her thoughts is of high interest to her lovers. It is only for these that this book has been compiled and printed.

How small our knowledge of Emily Brontë’s life is may be best shown by a brief chronological account of her thirty years:

1818.—Emily Brontë born at Thornton.

1820.—Anne Brontë born at Thornton.

1820.—The family remove to Haworth.

1821 (September).—The mother, Mrs. Brontë, died.

1824.—The little Brontë girls went to school at Cowan’s Bridge. Emily, the prettiest of the sisters, was ‘a darling child, under five years of age, quite the pet nursling of the school.’ As a matter of fact, Emily was in her seventh year.

1826.—The children established their plays, each choosing representatives. Emily chose Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Lockhart, and Johnny Lockhart. Blackwood’s Magazine was the favourite reading of the children, and they had also Southey and Sir Walter Scott left by their Cornish mother, and ‘some mad Methodist magazines full of miracles and apparitions, and preternatural warnings.’

1831.—Charlotte Brontë went to school at Roe Head.

1832.—Charlotte returned to Haworth in order to teach Emily and Anne what she had learned. After lessons they walked on the moors. At home Emily was a quiet girl of fourteen, helping in the housework and learning her lessons regularly.

On the moors she was gay, frolicsome, almost wild. She would set the others laughing with her quaint sallies and genial ways. She is described as ‘a strange figure—tall, slim, angular, with a quantity of dark brown hair, deep, beautiful hazel eyes that could flash with passion, features somewhat strong and stern, the mouth prominent and resolute.’

1833.—Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Brontë’s friend, came to Haworth, and made acquaintance with Emily, then about fifteen. Miss Nussey describes her as not ugly, but with irregular features, and a pallid thick complexion, and ‘kind, kindling, liquid eyes.’

She had no grace or style in dress. She was a great walker, and very fond of animals. Only one dog was allowed to her, though two seemed to have got into the house. Emily was very happy on the moor and talked freely.

1835.—Emily, when close on seventeen, went to school at Roe Head with Charlotte. The change from her own home to a school, and from her secluded but free and simple life to discipline and companionship, she found intolerable. She became miserably ill, threatening consumption, and had to go home. This restored her health almost immediately.

In this year she found her brother Branwell beginning to go wrong, drinking in the public house and doing no work.

1836 (Midsummer).—Miss Nussey and Charlotte went to Haworth, and the girls had a taste of happiness and enjoyment.

They were beginning to feel conscious of their powers, they were rich in each other’s companionship; their health was good, their spirits were high, there was often joyousness and mirth; they commented on what they read; analysed articles and their writers also; the perfection of unrestrained talk and intelligence brightened the close of the days which were passing all too swiftly. Charlotte and Emily would dance in exuberant spirits.

1836 (September).—Emily went into a situation as teacher in Miss Patchet’s school at Law Hill, near Halifax, where there were some forty girls. She worked from six in the morning till eleven at night, with only half an hour of exercise between, and soon broke down. At Christmas she came home to Haworth for a brief rest, and then returned to Halifax.

1837 (Spring).—Emily’s health broke down, and she came back to Haworth.

1837–38.—Emily alone at Haworth. Anne, Charlotte, and, for a time, Branwell were away.

1837 (Christmas) found Charlotte, Emily, and Anne at Haworth nursing their old servant, Tabby, who had fallen on the slippery street and broken her leg.

1839.—Charlotte writes: ‘I manage the ironing and keep the rooms clean; Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen.’

1840.—Emily, Branwell, and Charlotte were all at home together. Charlotte and Branwell had sent their writings to authors, Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, but Emily had not. Her manuscripts were in her locked desk. Emily, Anne, and Charlotte were hoping to enlarge the parsonage at Haworth and keep school.

Things were going fairly well, and Emily was, on the whole, happy. I have been told by Miss Nussey that the one man outside her home in whom Emily ever showed any interest was Mr. Brontë’s first curate, the Rev. William Weightman.

There was nothing like a love affair between them, but she was gracious to him and enjoyed his jests as they all walked together on the moors. But it is on record that Emily was trying to prevent the curate from pressing his attentions on Miss Nussey.

It would seem that in no man’s eyes was Emily passing fair. Emily’s countenance, said Miss Nussey, ‘glimmered,’ as it always did when she enjoyed herself.

1841.—In the early months she was as happy as other country girls in a congenial home. Later on Miss Wooler offered Charlotte the good-will of her school at Dewsbury Moor, but though the girls wished to accept, no arrangement was carried through.

In September Charlotte proposes to go with Emily to Brussels, in order that they might learn French and German, and fit themselves for keeping a school. She calculated that the journey would cost only five pounds for each, and that the living would be half as dear as in England.

‘I feel an absolute conviction that if this advantage could be allowed to us, it would be the making of us for life.’ Arrangements were made to decline the school at Dewsbury Moor. Bridlington was thought of. Emily assented, being anxious that the school should be started.

1842.—Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to the School of the Hégers. Héger thought that Emily knew no French at all. She was oddly dressed, and wore amazing leg-of-mutton sleeves, her pet whim in and out of fashion. She had a bitter sense of exile, but Charlotte enjoyed the change.

Emily did not like Héger, and was as indomitable and fierce as Charlotte was gentle and obedient. But Héger thought Emily had more genius than her sister. He was deeply impressed with her faculty of imagination and her argumentative powers, and said: ‘She should have been a man: a great navigator!’

But the two were never friends. Emily was ‘wild for home,’ and seldom spoke a word to any one. It was probably at this time that she composed the poem ‘at twilight in the schoolroom,’—’The house is old, the trees are bare.’

In the meantime, Charlotte was almost dangerously happy, but knew that Emily and her teacher did not draw well together. Emily, however, was working very hard, especially at German and music. She became an excellent musician, and her piano playing is described as singularly accurate and expressive.

The two studied French under Héger, whose method was to take an author and investigate his technique. Emily complained against this method, and said that it destroyed all originality of thought and expression. But in spite of this she wrote better exercises than Charlotte did.

All the while she was in revolt. She made no intimate companions, and suffered much, disliking intensely what she though the ‘gentle Jesuitry of the foreign and Romish system.’ Only her desire to be independent kept her in Brussels.

1842.—Madame Héger proposed that Charlotte should teach English, and that Emily should teach music to the younger pupils, so that they might stay on without paying for half a year. They were too poor to go home for their holidays in August and September, and remained in Brussels. But they were called back in the end of October by the death of their aunt.

1842 (Christmas).—They were invited by Héger to go back to Brussels. Emily would not consent. Branwell was at home, but the sisters had not seen him at his worst, and they were happy for three months.

1843 (January).—Charlotte went back to Brussels. Emily was left behind with Branwell for a short time. Branwell went away as tutor, and Emily was left alone with her father and old Tabby helping in the housework. She had Flossie, Anne’s favourite spaniel, and Keeper, the fierce bulldog, cats, and other animals. Charlotte was not happy at Brussels. Branwell was still drinking, and Anne was very anxious about him. Mr Brontë, the father, was in failing health and tempted by stimulants. In the end of this year Emily wrote to Charlotte urging her return.

1844 (January).—Charlotte arrived at Haworth very reluctantly. ‘Haworth seems such a lonely quiet spot.’

1844 (March).—Emily and Charlotte were together thinking over the future. Charlotte wrote: ‘Our poor little cat has been ill two days, and is just dead. It is piteous to see even an animal lying lifeless. Emily is sorry.’

The girls wrote for pupils, but failed to get them. Branwell got worse and worse, drinking heavily to excess. Emily had no friends. They gave up the idea of having pupils.

1844 (July).—Charlotte visited Miss Nussey. When she came back she found Branwell dismissed by his employer. Charlotte, writing of her sister Emily, afterwards said: ‘She had in the course of her life been called upon to contemplate near the end and for a long time the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw went very deeply into her mind: it did her harm.’

Madame Duclaux (Miss A. Mary F. Robinson) in her truly sympathetic book on Emily Brontë, argues that Emily never wearied in her kindness for her unhappy brother, and always hoped to win him back by love when the other sisters had despaired.  In March 1846, Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen:

“I went into the room where Branwell was to speak to him, about an hour after I got home; it was very forced work to address him. I might have spared myself the trouble, as he took no notice and made no reply; he was stupefied.

My fears were not in vain. I hear that he got a sovereign while I have been away, under pretence of paying a pressing debt; he went immediately and changed it at a public house, and has employed it as was to be expected. Emily concluded her account by saying that he was a hopeless being. It is too true. In his present state it is scarcely possible to stay in the room where he is.”

Madame Duclaux has also a very graphic account of a fire in which a drunken Branwell must have been burned to death had it not been that Emily entered the blazing room, and half carried in her arms, half dragged out, her besotted brother.

This is no doubt part of the extremely questionable Brontë tradition. The legend is almost certainly based on a similar episode in Jane Eyre. Mr Swinburne had a special delight in the belief that Emily was kinder than her sisters, but, as Mr. Shorter has shown, there is no clear evidence for the fact. It is quite plain that she did less in the way of remonstrance than the others.

1845.—In autumn Charlotte accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verses in her sister’s handwriting. She saw the value of the poems, and caught their new note. It was resolved that the sisters should publish a little volume together.

1846 (May).—Poems of the sisters Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were published by Messrs. Aylott and Jones. The book cost the authors thirty guineas, and two copies supplied the public demand.

1846.—The three sisters were each busy on a novel, Emily was writing Wuthering Heights, Charlotte The Professor, and Anne Agnes Grey. It was a heavy and dreary time. Branwell became more and more the oppression of the family.

Out of very scanty means they had to pay his debts. The father was growing blind with cataract, and was deeply depressed, but the indomitable sisters completed their work, and Charlotte began Jane Eyre.

1846 (August).—Charlotte Brontë went to Manchester with her father, and Mr. Brontë went through an operation for cataract, which was successful. In the end of the year Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were accepted by Newby, a third-rate publisher of the time, who issued many worthless novels on commission.

1847.—The Professor was declined, but Jane Eyre was accepted and published by Smith and Elder.

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
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1847 (14th December).—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published by Newby, who was encouraged by the success of Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë writes:

Wuthering Heights is, I suppose, at length published, at least Mr. Newby has sent the authors their six copies. I wonder how it will be received. I should say it merits the epithets of vigorous and original much more decidedly than Jane Eyre did. Agnes Grey should please such critics as Mr. Lewes, for it is true and “unexaggerated” enough. The books are not well got up; they abound in errors of the press.”

1848 (September).—Patrick Branwell Brontë died. Charlotte Brontë wrote: ‘I myself, with painful, mournful joy, heard him praying softly in his dying moments; and to the last prayer which my father offered up at his bedside, he added, “Amen.” How unusual that word appeared from his lips, of course you, who did not know him, cannot conceive.’ He was in the village just before his death. “The removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than as a chastisement.”

1848 (29th October).—Charlotte Brontë writes:

“Emily’s cold and cough are very obstinate. I fear she has a pain in the chest, and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing, when she has moved at all quickly. She looks very, very thin and pale. Her reserved nature occasions me great uneasiness of mind. It is useless to question her; you get no answers. It is still more useless to recommend remedies; they are never adopted.”

On 2nd November she writes again:

“My sister Emily has something like a slow inflammation of the lungs. . . . She is a real stoic in illness: she neither seeks nor will accept sympathy. . . . When she is ill there seems to be no sunshine in the world for me. The tie of sister is near and dear indeed, and I think a certain harshness in her powerful and peculiar character only makes me cling to her more.”

1848 (22nd November).—We have a glimpse of Emily in her last days. Charlotte Brontë writes to W. S. Williams:

“The North American Review is worth reading. There is no mincing the matter there. What a bad set the Bells must be! What appalling books they write! To-day, as Emily appeared a little easier, I thought the Review would amuse her, so I read it aloud to her and Anne.

As I sat between them at our quiet but now melancholy fireside, I studied the two ferocious authors. Ellis, the ‘man of uncommon talents, but dogged, brutal, and morose,’ sat leaning back in his easy chair, drawing his impeded breath as he best could, and looking, alas! piteously pale and wasted; it is not his wont to laugh, but he smiled, half amused and half in scorn as he listened.

Acton was sewing, no emotion ever stirs him to loquacity, so he only smiled too, dropping at the same time a single word of calm amazement to hear his character so darkly portrayed. I wonder what the reviewer would have thought of his own sagacity could he have beheld the pair as I did.” …

1848 (19th December).—Emily Brontë died, ‘conscious, panting, reluctant.’

(As thorough as this chronology of Emily Brontë is, it gives very short shrift to her demise. Here’s more about The Death of Emily Brontë.)


More about Emily Brontë

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