- Born: July 30, 1818, Thornton, England
- Died: December 19, 1848 (aged 30), Haworth, England
- Years Active: 1845—1848
- Notable Works: Wuthering Heights (1847)
Emily Jane Brontë (30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848) was an English novelist and poet and one of the most famous women writers from the 19th century. She is best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, which is now considered a classic of English literature. She also published a book of poetry with her sisters Charlotte and Anne, under the name of Ellis Bell.
Emily is the second youngest of the four surviving Brontë siblings. She died in 1848, a year after Wuthering Heights was published, from tuberculosis.
Early Life and Family
Emily Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in Market Street, Thornton, west of Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was the fifth of the six children of Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë, who was an Irish Anglican clergyman. Patrick was appointed perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels Church in the village of Haworth in 1820.
Emily’s five siblings, three elder sisters Maria, Charlotte, Elizabeth, younger sister Anne and brother Branwell, were left to the care of her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, when their mother died of cancer on 15 September 1821. Elizabeth Branwell stayed with the family until her death in 1842, because Patrick’s attempts to remarry after his wife’s death were unsuccessful.
In August 1824, when Emily was six years old, her father sent her with Charlotte, Maria, and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire for a brief period. The school was unsanitary and in poor condition, which most likely hastened the deaths of both Maria and Elizabeth, who died of tuberculosis in June 1825. Charlotte Brontë used the school as the basis for Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
After the deaths of his older daughters, Patrick removed Charlotte and Emily from the school. The four youngest Brontë children, all under ten years of age, had suffered the loss of the three eldest females in their immediate family, and this was hard on them all.
Patrick, along with their Aunt Branwell, tutored his remaining children at home, all of which thrived in the environment. Emily was shy yet very close to her siblings and known for being a great animal lover. The children had access to a wide range of published material, including Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Blackwood’s Magazine, even though they did not have a formal education.
Between 1826 and 1829, Emily began music lessons and enjoyed drawing and sketching. The children were inspired by a box of toy soldiers Branwell had received as a gift and began writing about an imaginary world called Angria.
When Emily was thirteen, she and Anne began writing articles and poems about Gondal, which was a fictional island. Charlotte and Branwell continued to write Byronic stories about their imagined country, Angria, and Emily and Anne wrote more about Gondal, particularly when Charlotte left for Roe Head School in 1931.
With the exception of their Gondal poems and Anne’s lists of Gondal’s characters and place-names, Emily and Anne’s Gondal writings were largely not preserved. Among those that did survive are some “diary papers,” written by Emily in her twenties, which describe current events in Gondal.
At seventeen, Emily joined her sister Charlotte at the Roe Head Girls’ School, where Charlotte was a teacher. Emily was very homesick, having to conform to a routine for the first time since she was six years old. Her schooling also gave her no time to write her Gondal stories and she was no longer living with Anne, her partner in the fantasy.
Adulthood and Work
Emily returned home to Haworth and Anne took her place at Roe Head School. She spent the next three years at home, where she had to take on much of the responsibility now Anne had gone. However, she did still find time to write and and continued the Gondal saga.
Her first poems are from 1836 and display some of the treatments of nature and death she continued to concentrate on for the remainder of her life. She continued writing into 1838, from which only twenty one poems have survived.
In September 1838, when she was twenty, Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax. She did not enjoy her time there and the seventeen hour days were too much for her. Emily did also not have much time to write while she was in Halifax, so she returned home in April 1839. However, even at home, she continued to do the cooking, ironing, and cleaning at Haworth rather than write.
In 1941, Charlotte Brontë began negotiations for a loan from her Aunt Branwell to set up a school that she and her sisters might operate.
In 1942, Emily and Charlotte Brontë left England in February 1842 to enrol as the oldest students in a school run by Madame Claire Zoë Heger and her husband, Constantin, in Brussels. It was a school of Roman Catholic Belgians and so, being both English and Protestant, the Brontë’s were isolated and didn’t feel comfortable there, although they made considerable academic progress. Nine of Emily’s French essays survive from this period.
By the end of the term, the two sisters had become so competent in French that Madame Héger proposed that they both stay another half-year, even, according to Charlotte, offering to dismiss the English master so that she could take his place. Emily had also become a competent pianist and teacher and it was suggested that she might stay on to teach music.
However, they returned to Haworth in November 1842, following the death of Aunt Branwell caused by internal obstruction in October 1842. Emily did not want to return to Brussels after, so Charlotte returned on her own.
By November 1844, the Brontë sisters had abandoned their plan for opening a school in Haworth since not one prospective applicant had responded to their advertisements.
Emily began going through all the poems she had written, recopying them neatly into two notebooks, in 1844. One was labelled “Gondal Poems”; the other was unlabelled. In 1845, Charlotte stumbled upon the notebooks of Emily’s poems and urged her sister to publish her poems with a selection of her own verse, to which were added poems contributed by Anne. They self-published the joint collection of poems under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
The pseudonyms veiled the sisters’ sex while preserving their initials — Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell and Anne was Acton Bell. “Bell” was the middle name of Haworth’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls whom Charlotte later married, and “Currer” was the surname of Frances Mary Richardson Currer who had funded their school.
The works were published in Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), which the small London firm of Aylott & Jones agreed to print at the authors’ expense, a common practice for unknown writers.
Emily choose to publish poems largely written in 1844 and 1845 and was careful to delete any references to the private Gondal.
Because Charlotte’s poems are longer than those of her sisters, she contributed only 19 to their 21 each, so that each writer is given approximately the same amount of space in the book. Each poem is clearly credited to either “Currer,” “Ellis,” or “Acton,” and the contributions by the three are presented alternately, so that they are equally spread throughout the volume. This invites comparison between the three writers and makes Emily’s superiority as a poet noticeable.
Though Charlotte made every effort to publicise Poems, the volume sold poorly — only two copies in the first year — and received only three reviews, which were, however, favourable. Originally priced at four shillings, the volume was republished by the publishers of Jane Eyre in 1848, and received more insightful critical attention after the publication of Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857.
Following the publishing of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Emily devoted little of her remaining life to poetry, instead choosing the focus on writing Wuthering Heights.
In a letter dated 6 April 1846, Charlotte wrote to Aylott & Jones that “C., E., and A. Bell are now preparing for the press a work of fiction, consisting of three distinct and unconnected tales”: Charlotte’s The Professor (1857), Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey. Thomas Newby eventually consented to publish the latter two novels.
Wuthering Heights was first published in London in 1847 by Thomas Newby, appearing as the first two volumes of a three-volume set that included Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. The authors were printed as being Ellis and Acton Bell — Emily’s real name did not appear until 1850, when it was printed on the title page of an edited commercial edition.
Readers of Wuthering Heights were first puzzled by the strangeness and savagery of the novel, as well as the innovative structure. The novel is influenced by Romanticism and Gothic fiction and follows two families of the landed gentry living on the West Yorkshire moors, the Earnshaws and the Lintons, and their turbulent relationships with Earnshaw’s adopted son, Heathcliff.
The violence and passion in the book led the Victorian public and many early reviewers to think that it had been written by a man and, even though it received mixed reviews when it first came out, it has since become a literary classic. Emily never knew the extent of fame she achieved with her only novel, as she died a year after its publication, aged 30.
Little is known about Emily’s personality as she was a shy and reclusive person with very few friends. Her closest friend was her sister Anne, although she did befriend Ellen Nussey, who was also a close friend of her sister Charlotte.
Charlotte herself remains the primary source of information about Emily, although as an elder sister, writing publicly about her only shortly after her death, she is considered by certain scholars not to be a neutral witness. Some believe Emily evidently shocked Charlotte, to the point where she may even have doubted her sister’s sanity.
Emily’s health was possibly weakened by the harsh local climate and by unsanitary conditions at home. In September 1848, Branwell Brontë died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus, aggravated by heavy drinking, although Charlotte believed that his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell may also have been an opioid addict.
Emily became seriously ill with a cold shortly after his funeral which later turned into tuberculosis, but refused medical attention. On the morning of 19 December 1848, her last audible words she said to Charlotte were “If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now”, but it was too late and she died of pulmonary tuberculosis at around 2pm that afternoon at the age of 30.
Emily had grown so thin that her coffin measured only 16 inches wide. The carpenter said he had never made a narrower one for an adult. Her mortal remains were interred in the family vault in St Michael and All Angels’ Church, Haworth.
A letter from her publisher indicates that Emily had begun wiring a second novel at the time of her death, but this has never been found. Emily, or even a member of her family, may have destroyed the manuscript.
While Emily Brontë only had one novel published in her lifetime, she has remained of huge historical significance since her death. Wuthering Heights is now considered a classic of English literature and has been read and enjoyed all over the world. Its honest and accurate portrayal of life during an early era provides readers with a glimpse of history in a real way, while the mixture of this realism with dark, macabre themes allows it to be considered a pioneering text of the Gothic genre.
- Wuthering Heights (1847)
- Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846)
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