Emily Brontë – iconic and elusive novelist

Earlier this month was the anniversary of the death of an author who only wrote one novel. Many critics hated it: one wrote “How a human being could have attempted such a book without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” When Emily Brontë died, aged only 30, she believed her novel to have been a failure. These days, Wuthering Heights is deemed to be one of the greatest works of literature of all time, and is one of my favourite novels. It’s hard to believe that this tale of passion and hatred was written by a woman who experienced so little in her short life.

Emily Bronte was born in 1818 in Yorkshire, the daughter of a clergyman and fifth of six children. After the death of her mother in 1821, the children were largely left to their own devices. For much of their childhood, Emily and younger sister Anne lived in an imaginary world of their own creation; they wrote a series of tiny books about a fantasy world called Gondal. This world seems to have dominated Emily’s life; she spent little time away from home. She was taken out of school after just six months aged five, following the death of her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Together with her two remaining sisters and brother Branwell, she was educated at home. At age seventeen, she left home to study but returned, homesick, after only a few months. At twenty, she left once more for the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, where, together with Charlotte, she learned French, German and music. The head of the academy, Constantin Heger, was impressed with Emily, saying ‘She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman.’ However, nine months later, following the death of her aunt, she was home once more. Emily later took a teaching position, only to quit after a few months due to stress, and spent the rest of her life at the Haworth parsonage.

In 1845, Emily was upset when Charlotte discovered her private collection of poems but, encouraged by her sister’s response, contributed 21 poems to an anthology co-written with Charlotte and Anne. They submitted it under male pseudonyms: Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, since female writers weren’t taken seriously at the time, and had to pay the substantial sum of £50 to get it published. Only 2 copies were sold.

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 to a mixed reception. Many didn’t believe that Emily could have imagined a love as powerful as Catherine and Heathcliff’s but there is no evidence that she ever had a relationship with a man. Apart from her family, her only loves appear to have been animals and the moors on which the story is set. But she never knew of the book’s success. In September 1848, her beloved Branwell died and, less than three months afterward, she died of tuberculosis. Her decline was rapid as she refused to rest, feeding her many animals even when she could barely walk.

Of the many rumours that circulate about the Brontës, the worst is the possibility that Charlotte burned Emily’s second novel. It seems likely that Charlotte destroyed much of Emily’s work; none her Gondal stories survived. Charlotte disapproved of Wuthering Heights and after Emily’s death, wrote a new preface for the novel, which reads more like an apology, stating, ‘Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know; I scarcely think it is.’ I think most people these days would disagree.