The Death of Emily Brontë
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Though Emily Brontë (1818 – 1848), the British only lived to age thirty she left the classic novel Wuthering Heights and a collection of stunning poems as her literary legacy. The novelist and poet, sister of Charlotte and Anne Brontë, was the fifth child of Maria Branwell Brontë and Reverend Patrick Brontë.
In many ways, Emily was a more enigmatic figure than her sisters. An 1885 article in the Chicago Tribune stated that “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.”
An 1883 biography, Emily Brontë, by Agnes Mary Frances Robinson paints a vivid portrait of Emily’s final illness and death from tuberculosis (then called consumption). Their brother Branwell had died just three months earlier (two other Brontë sisters had died in childhood), and Anne would succumb to tuberculosis about six months later, leaving Charlotte as the only surviving Brontë sibling. She too wasn’t destined for a long life.
Here’s a somewhat abbreviated portion of the chapter on the death of Emily Brontë following her illness. To read the chapter in its entirety, follow the link at the end.
An alarming cough
Already by the 29th of October of this melancholy year of 1848 Emily’s cough and cold had made such progress as to alarm her careful elder sister. Before Branwell’s death she had been, to all appearance, the one strong member of a delicate family. By the side of fragile Anne (already, did they but know it, advanced in tubercular consumption), of shattered Branwell, of Charlotte, ever nervous and ailing, this tall, muscular Emily had appeared a tower of strength.
Working early and late, seldom tired and never complaining, finding her best relaxation in long, rough walks on the moors, she seemed unlikely to give them any poignant anxiety. But the seeds of phthisis lay deep down beneath this fair show of life and strength; the shock of sorrow which she experienced for her brother’s death developed them with alarming rapidity.
The weariness of absence had always proved too much for Emily’s strength. Away from home we have seen how she pined and sickened. Exile made her thin and wan, menaced the very springs of life. And now she must endure an inevitable and unending absence, an exile from which there could be no return.
The strain was too tight, the wrench too sharp: Emily could not bear it and live. In such a loss as hers, bereaved of a helpless sufferer, the mourning of those who remain is embittered and quickened a hundred times a day when the blank minutes come round for which the customary duties are missing, when the unwelcome leisure hangs round the weary soul like a shapeless and encumbering garment.
It was Emily who had chiefly devoted herself to Branwell. He being dead, the motive of her life seemed gone.
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Emily thought herself hardy
Had she been stronger, had she been more careful of herself at the beginning of her illness, she would doubtless have recovered, and we shall never know the difference in our literature which a little precaution might have made. But Emily was accustomed to consider herself hardy; she was so used to wait upon others that to lie down and be waited on would have appeared to her ignominious and absurd. Both her independence and her unselfishness made her very chary of giving trouble.
It is, moreover, extremely probable that she never realized the extent of her own illness; consumption is seldom a malady that despairs; attacking the body it leaves the spirit free, the spirit which cannot realize a danger by which it is not injured.
A little later on when it was Anne’s turn to suffer, she is choosing her spring bonnet four days before her death. Which of us does not remember some such pathetic tale of the heart-wringing, vain confidence of those far gone in phthisis, who bear on their faces the marks of death for all eyes but their own to read?
Charlotte is worried
To those who look on, there is no worse agony than to watch the brave bearing of these others unconscious of the sudden grave at their feet. Charlotte and Anne looked on and trembled. On the 29th of October, Charlotte, still delicate from the bilious fever which had prostrated her on the day of Branwell’s death, writes these words already full of foreboding:
“I feel much more uneasy about my sister than myself just now. Emily’s cold and cough are very obstinate. I fear she has pain in her chest, and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing when she has moved at all quickly. She looks very thin and pale. Her reserved nature occasions me great uneasiness of mind. It is useless to question her; you get no answer. It is still more useless to recommend remedies; they are never adopted.”
It was, in fact, an acute inflammation of the lungs which this unfortunate sufferer was trying to subdue by force of courage. To persons of strong will it is difficult to realise that their disease is not in their own control. To be ill, is with them an act of acquiescence; they have consented to the demands of their feeble body.
When necessity demands the sacrifice, it seems to them so easy to deny themselves the rest, the indulgence. They set their will against their weakness and mean to conquer. They will not give up.
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Learn more about Emily Brontë‘s life
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A vain struggle
Emily would not give up. She felt herself doubly necessary to the household in this hour of trial. Charlotte was still very weak and ailing. Anne, her dear little sister, was unusually delicate and frail. Even her father had not quite escaped.
That she, Emily, who had always been relied upon for strength and courage and endurance, should show herself unworthy of the trust when she was most sorely needed; that she, so inclined to take all duties on herself, so necessary to the daily management of the house, should throw up her charge in this moment of trial, cast away her arms in the moment of battle, and give her fellow-sufferers the extra burden of her weakness; such a thing was impossible to her.
So the vain struggle went on. She would resign no one of her duties, and it was not till within the last weeks of her life that she would so much as suffer the servant to rise before her in the morning and take the early work. She would not endure to hear of remedies; declaring that she was not ill, that she would soon be well, in the pathetic self-delusion of high-spirited weakness.
And Charlotte and Anne, for whose sake she made this sacrifice, suffered terribly thereby. Willingly, thankfully would they have taken all her duties upon them; they burned to be up and doing. But—seeing how weak she was—they dare not cross her; they had to sit still and endure to see her labour for their comfort with faltering and death-cold hands …
“No poisoning doctor” should come near
… “No poisoning doctor” should come near her, Emily declared with the irritability of her disease. It was an insult to her will, her resolute endeavours. She was not, would not, be ill, and could therefore need no cure.
Perhaps she felt, deep in her heart, the conviction that her complaint was mortal; that a delay in the sentence was all that care and skill could give; for she had seen Maria and Elizabeth fade and die, and only lately the physicians had not saved her brother.
But Charlotte, naturally, did not feel the same. Unknown to Emily, she wrote to a great London doctor drawing up a statement of the case and symptoms as minute and careful as she could give. But either this diagnosis by guesswork was too imperfect, or the physician saw that there was no hope; for his opinion was expressed too obscurely to be of any use. He sent a bottle of medicine, but Emily would not take it.
A period of hope and fear
December came, and still the wondering, anxious sisters knew not what to think. By this time Mr. Brontë also had perceived the danger of Emily’s state, and he was very anxious. Yet she still denied that she was ill with anything more grave than a passing weakness; and the pain in her side and chest appeared to diminish.
Sometimes the little household was tempted to take her at her word, and believe that soon, with the spring, she would recover; and then, hearing her cough, listening to the gasping breath with which she climbed the short staircase, looking on the extreme emaciation of her form, the wasted hands, the hollow eyes, their hearts would suddenly fail. Life was a daily contradiction of hope and fear.
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Emily still doing for herself and others
The days drew on towards Christmas; it was already the middle of December, and still Emily was about the house, able to wait upon herself, to sew for the others, to take an active share in the duties of the day. She always fed the dogs herself.
One Monday evening, it must have been about the 14th of December, she rose as usual to give the creatures their supper. She got up, walking slowly, holding out in her thin hands an apronful of broken meat and bread.
But when she reached the flagged passage the cold took her; she staggered on the uneven pavement and fell against the wall. Her sisters, who had been sadly following her, unseen, came forwards much alarmed and begged her to desist; but, smiling wanly, she went on and gave Floss and Keeper their last supper from her hands.
A turn for the worse
The next morning she was worse. Before her waking, her watching sisters heard the low, unconscious moaning that tells of suffering continued even in sleep; and they feared for what the coming year might hold in store. Of the nearness of the end they did not dream.
Charlotte had been out over the moors, searching every glen and hollow for a sprig of heather, however pale and dry, to take to her moor-loving sister. But Emily looked on the flower laid on her pillow with indifferent eyes. She was already estranged and alienate from life.
Nevertheless she persisted in rising, dressing herself alone, and doing everything for herself. A fire had been lit in the room, and Emily sat on the hearth to comb her hair. She was thinner than ever now — the tall, loose-jointed “slinky” girl — her hair in its plenteous dark abundance was all of her that was not marked by the branding finger of death. She sat on the hearth combing her long brown hair. But soon the comb slipped from her feeble grasp into the cinders.
She, the intrepid, active Emily, watched it burn and smoulder, too weak to lift it, while the nauseous, hateful odour of burnt bone rose into her face. At last the servant came in: “Martha,” she said, “my comb’s down there; I was too weak to stoop and pick it up.”
I have seen that old, broken comb, with a large piece burned out of it; and have thought it, I own, more pathetic than the bones of the eleven thousand virgins at Cologne, or the time-blackened Holy Face of Lucca. Sad, chance confession of human weakness; mournful counterpart of that chainless soul which to the end maintained its fortitude and rebellion.
The flesh is weak. Since I saw that relic, the strenuous verse of Emily Brontë’s last poem has seemed to me far more heroic, far more moving; remembering in what clinging and prisoning garments that free spirit was confined.
The flesh was weak, but Emily would grant it no indulgence. She finished her dressing, and came very slowly, with dizzy head and tottering steps, downstairs into the little bare parlour where Anne was working and Charlotte writing a letter.
Emily took up some work and tried to sew. Her catching breath, her drawn and altered face were ominous of the end. But still a little hope flickered in those sisterly hearts. “She grows daily weaker,” wrote Charlotte, on that memorable Tuesday morning; seeing surely no portent that this—this! was to be the last of the days and the hours of her weakness.
The chord of life snapped
The morning drew on to noon, and Emily grew worse. She could no longer speak, but—gasping in a husky whisper—she said: “If you will send for a doctor. I will see him now!” Alas, it was too late. The shortness of breath and rending pain increased; even Emily could no longer conceal them.
Towards two o’clock her sisters begged her, in an agony, to let them put her to bed. “No, no,” she cried; tormented with the feverish restlessness that comes before the last, most quiet peace. She tried to rise, leaning with one hand upon the sofa. And thus the chord of life snapped. She was dead.
She was twenty-nine years old. They buried her, a few days after, under the church pavement; under the slab of stone where their mother lay, and Maria and Elizabeth and Branwell …
They followed her to her grave—her old father, Charlotte, the dying Anne; and as they left the doors, they were joined by another mourner, Keeper, Emily’s dog. He walked in front of all, first in the rank of mourners; and perhaps no other creature had known the dead woman quite so well.
“We feel she is at peace”
When they had lain her to sleep in the dark, airless vault under the church, and when they had crossed the bleak churchyard, and had entered the empty house again, Keeper went straight to the door of the room where his mistress used to sleep, and lay down across the threshold. There he howled piteously for many days; knowing not that no lamentations could wake her any more.
Over the little parlor below a great calm had settled.
“Why should we be otherwise than calm,” says Charlotte, writing to her friend on the 21st of December. “The anguish of seeing her suffer is over; the spectacle of the pains of death is gone by; the funeral day is past. We feel she is at peace. No need now to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind. Emily does not feel them.”
(This is an edited version of Chapter 18 of Emily Brontë by Agnes Mary Frances Robinson. Here is the chapter in full.)
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