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Emily Bronte - the Female Victorian Writer Who Wrote Wuthering Heights

Updated on February 5, 2019
Dolores Monet profile image

Long time Bronte fan, Dolores shares information and insight into the lives and works of the famous literary sisters.

Experts have argued whether this portrait is of Emily or Anne.
Experts have argued whether this portrait is of Emily or Anne. | Source

Emily Jane Bronte

Emily Jane Bronte wrote the Gothic romance, Wuthering Heights, one of the greatest novels in the English language. What little is known about her personal life comes to us through Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte (Emily's sister) and Charlotte's own descriptions of Emily. Of her own papers, Emily leaves only 2 brief letters, 2 dairy entries, and the birthday papers of 1841 and 1845. Charlotte claims that her character Shirley, of the novel of the same name, is based on Emily.

Aside from a smattering of beautiful poetry, Emily Bronte's singular gift to literature is Wuthering Heights; the rich, multi-layered tale of the Earnshaw family and the famous characters, Cathy and Heathcliff.

Wuthering Heights, a mainstay of English literature classes, a complex novel of love and vengeance, is still controversial today. While it has been called one of the most carefully constructed novels in the English language, Charlotte referred to Emily as 'an unconscious artist who did not know what she had done;' in other words, a visionary genius.

Told by two possibly unreliable narrators - Mr. Lockwood, an accidental guest at Wuthering Heights, and the Earnshaw family servant, Nelly Dean, Wuthering Heights relates a multi-generational story of a dysfunctional Yorkshire family and deals with subject matter rarely presented in the literature of the day.

When Mr. Earnshaw brings home a waif, his daughter Cathy is delighted. The child, Heathcliff, is abused by his foster brother, Hindley, but grows to be loved by Cathy. A host of problems ensue, as Nelly Dean spins the heartbreaking story. At first, Nelly seems sympathetic, a loving and loyal servant. Or, is she a manipulating catalyst? As ghosts cry outside the windows, one can't help but wonder why Mr. Earnshaw chose that particular child on that particular trip. Was Heathcliff really a bastard son of the kindly Mr. Earnshaw? In that case, Nelly's manipulation may be evidence of her knowledge or suspicion of that secret.

Over 150 years later, Wuthering Heights presents a fascinating study in socio-economic class, the possibility of incest, a disturbing look at abuse, alcoholism, and psychological drama.

Who was Emily Bronte?

Emily Bronte haunts us over 150 years after her death. Picture Emily, striding across her beloved moors with her faithful mastiff, Keeper, wind tearing at her cloak. Or scrubbing the  floors of the Parsonage at Haworth in order to spare the aging servant. And Emily, thin as a rail, pale as a ghost, yet in the words of her sister Charlotte, stronger than a man.

Or the shy, reclusive Emily, marching into town to drag her brother Branwell out of the bars when he became a violent annoyance. And our beloved Emily, secretly writing and publishing Wuthering Heights under the pen name, Ellis Bell.

She was a recluse and a mystic, a lover of nature with no real friends and a reputation as being rude and socially awkward. Some sources claim that Emily dressed oddly, in purple dresses on which she embroidered lightning bolts.

Emily Bronte's Background

Born July 30, 1818, the fifth of 6 siblings, Emily's life was a chronicle of sadness and loss. Her mother died in 1821, leaving the children in the care of their odd and aloof father, Patrick Bronte.

Patrick Bronte, born Patrick Brunty (sometimes seen as Prunty) to a poor family in Ireland, was the brightest and most ambitious of 10 siblings. At 16, he left home to teach school and study until admitted to Cambridge. He changed his last name to Bronte, believing that the Frenchified name would give him social advantages.

After being ordained an Anglican minister, Patrick married Maria Branwell, a Methodist from Penzance and was appointed curate at Haworth in Yorkshire, England.

The eccentric Patrick Bronte kept to himself, leaving the children to tend to themselves and run wild. He took his dinner alone, yet set stringent rules for the children. Some sources claim that the children were not allowed to eat meat, had to dress in simple attire, and keep quiet. Rugs and curtains were banned from the house due to Patrick's fear of fire.

At breakfast, Patrick regaled his motherless children with wild tales of bloody Irish massacres. Occasional bouts of rage sent him to the back door where he stood, firing his pistols out over the lonely moors.

The inhospitable setting on top of a lovely hillside with a graveyard next door was brightened by the arrival of the deceased Mrs. Bronte's sister, Elizabeth Branwell. Aunt Branwell taught the children lessons; and sewing, cooking and housekeeping to the five girls.

In spring of 1824, the children became sick with measles and whooping cough. Patrick thought that a 'change of air' might aid their recovery. Perhaps, he longed for peace and quiet or hope to instill discipline when he sent them to Lowood, a boarding school for the children of clerics at Cowen's Bridge. In July, he sent the two eldest girls, Marie and Elizabeth, then Charlotte and Emily in September.

Six year old Emily was recalled by a teacher as a pet, the darling of the school. But,the Lowood School would be immortalized by Charlotte in Jane Eyre; a dismal place without the slightest touch of human warmth. Discipline was severe with an emphasis on humility. The damp environment, poor diet, and abuse took a severe toll on the little girls.

Marie, with unhealed sores, due to medical intervention of the day, sickened. Barely able to sit up in bed, she was dragged downstairs and forced to work. Finally, the poor child was sent home to Haworth to die. She was soon followed in death by sister, Elizabeth. Shortly after, the ailing Charlotte and Emily were removed. No one ever referred to Emily as a pet or darling again.

The Path to Top Withins, Probable Setting of Wuthering Heights

wikimedia commons ( by Gary Rogers)
wikimedia commons ( by Gary Rogers)

'My sister Emily Loved the Moors'

It must have been a grim life for young Emily, losing her mother and two sisters in the space of four years with little comfort from her stern father; a Gothic life in a formidable home by the lonely moors with gravestones looming just outside the window.

The parsonage stood on hill above the town which lay clouded in soot and smoke from industrial pollution; the wool factories belching sulphorous fumes. But, Emily found joy amongst the heather and the fresh air on the moors.

"My sister Emily...loved the moors...they were far more to her than a mere spectacle; they were where she lived in and by as much as the wild birds...She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights, not the least and best loved was liberty." - Charlotte Bronte

Patrick Bronte brought the children some toy soldiers and from this gift, the children created a rich fantasy. For hours and hours, they made a world come alive: Angria, teaming with heroes and battles, building a fictional narrative that lasted for years. Emily came to feel that Angria was dominated by Charlotte and Branwell, and objected to the patriarchal rule. She, along with her younger sister Anne, created an alternative nation : Gondal, an island in the South Pacific ruled by a queen.

Branwell, as the only boy of the family was loved and spoiled. He'd be their hero. Hopes were high that Branwell might become a successful artist renowned for his talents. He was their wonder boy!

The Bronte Sister - Anne, Emily, and Charlotte

Bramwell painted himself out of this painting. (wikimedia commons.; Mr. Absurd)
Bramwell painted himself out of this painting. (wikimedia commons.; Mr. Absurd)

Dull Servitude

In 1831, Charlotte was again sent off to school, this time to Miss Wooler of Roehead, a kind woman and a good teacher. Charlotte prospered at Miss Wooler's school despite her odd 'Irish' accent and the fact that she was shy and distinctly unattractive. But the tales she spun at night enthralled and thrilled the other girls. She became popular and made friends.

On her return to Haworth, Charlotte instructed her sisters, gave them lessons. She went back to Roehead as a teacher's assistant with Emily in tow as a student. But Emily became homesick and developed a deep, lingering depression. She refused nourishment in one of her bouts with what was to become, as some believe, a lifelong struggle with anorexia. Emily was sent home to Haworth to be replaced by Anne.

Emily was sent out into the world several times. As she got older, as a teacher instead of a student. At Halifax, she reportedly screamed at the children and deeply resented the drudgery and her lack of freedom.

All four Brontes attempted employment at teaching, tutoring, or being governesses. Branwell was thrown out of a home where he tutored for having an affair with his disabled employers wife.

The dull servitude and long hours were hard on all of them, Emily most of all. She missed her home and her lonely jaunts across the moors.

As Branwell attempted to become an artist, the girls decided to establish their own boarding school there at the parsonage. In order to learn German and French, Charlotte and Emily travelled to Brussels to teach at the school of M. and Madame Hegar. This school was a cheerful place. the children were rosy cheeked, well fed, and active. M. Hegar found Emily to be brilliant but Emily, once again, returned home to her beloved Haworth.

Eventually, the idea for a school was scrapped. Despite their attempts to publicize the school with pamphlets and through friends and acquaintances, no students signed up. Perhaps the place was too isolated and the howl of wind blown down from the moors to intimidating.

Failure too, met Branwell's attempts to paint. The famous portrait of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne is one of his few works that remain. In it we see a lack of skill, talent, and ambition. It's the work of a child done by a man.

Branwell turned to alcohol and opium. The sisters turned to poetry. Together, they created a slim volume of poems ostensibly written by three brothers - Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book of poetry was published to lackluster reviews but the names went one.

Charlotte, as Currer, Emily, as Ellis, and Anne, as Acton, decided to write novels. They worked in secret, often together, work spread across the dining room table - charts, maps, lists. The sisters paced, brainstorming around the table. But they were used to it. Their worlds of Gondal and Angria still with them. Patrick and Branwell paid them no mind.

Anne and Emily Bronte - Emily's sketch 1837

(wikimedia commons)
(wikimedia commons)

The Novels

In time, each wrote a novel. Charlotte wrote The Professor, Anne wrote Agnes Grey, and Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. They packaged the manuscripts and sent them off, wrapped in brown paper. When the novels were returned, they shipped them off again, crossing off the origianl address and using the same packaging in their habit of thrift.

Eventually, publishers acceped their novels. But the books were set aside, held back. However, the publishers, Smith and Elder wrote encouraging letters to Charlotte.

In 1846, Charlotte accompanied her father to Manchester for cataract sugury. As he recovered in a boarding house, Charlotte penned Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre was well received. It was a success! So, Smith and Elder decided to publish Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights.

A Remarkable Character

Meanwhile, life at Haworth went on. The sisters helped cook and clean the parsonage and Emily was an excellent and enthusiastic cook and baker. The aging servant Tabby, was losing her eyesight and needed more assistance than ever.

Bramwell fell more heavily under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He terrified Anne. Charlotte avoided him when possible. His violent outbursts, childish tantrums, and suicidal threats made life difficult at Haworth. It was up to Emily to control him. He lost jobs. His art career never got off the ground. Emily often trudged into town to haul him out of local pubs where he made a nuisance of himself.

One evening, the sisters spotted bright, flickering light emanating from Bramwell's bedroom. The smell of smoke crept out from under the door. Emily ran downstairs and came running with two pails of water;burst into the room to extinguish the flames, and half dragged her brother to safety. The incident was recalled in Jane Eyre when Rochester's crazed wife set his bed on fire and Jane saves him.

Charlotte said that Emily was a unique and remarkable character. "I've never seen her parallel in anybody. Stronger than a man; simpler than a child. Her nature stood alone."

It has been said that Emily experienced mystical states where she would disappear into a trance. Perhaps she focused on her private world of Gondal and Angria. Some think she was anorexic. In Wuthering Heights, both Cathy and Heathcliff give up food in their frustration and misery. Emily was thin and pale; her trances may have been the result of self induced starvation.

Today, Emily would probably be diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder or agoraphobia. It has been suggested that she was on the autism spectrum. Aside from her sisters, her dearest friend was her dog, Keeper, a huge mastiff that came as a gift.

Emily and her Dog, Keeper

The gift came with a warning. Keeper was capable of love and loyalty to a select few but vicious toward others. When Keeper fought another large dog, the local men stood around to watch the spectacle. Emily dove into the fight. She grabbed Keeper by the neck and dashed pepper into the faces of the furious beasts.

Haworth was a clean and orderly home. Tabby, the elderly servant made sure of that. When Keeper decided to take his naps on the counterpane of one of the beds, Tabby demanded that Emily intervene. The mastiff was warned.

Found again on the bed, Keeper took a stand. Emily hauled the reluctant dog off the bed. If you've ever seen a bull mastiff, that was a feat in itself. The insulted, infuriated dog turned on his mistress. He growled menacingly as she dragged him down the stairs. But Keeper met with worse fury than he probably imagined. Emily clenched her fists and pummelled the angry dog into submission.

Nursing Keeper's swollen eye, Emily let him know there were no hard feelings. The ever obedient animal followed her everywhere. Emily often sat on a rug and used Keeper as a back rest. She sketched pictures of him. And her attachment to Keeper was illustrated in Charlotte's portrayal of Shirley in the book of the same name about a character based on Emily.

Publication of Wuthering Heights

Upon the publication and success of Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Smith and Elder dusted off Wuthering Heights and after some revision by Emily, offered it up to the public in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Hostile reviewers decried the protagonists as unnatural. One reviewer wondered how a writer could have penned such horrors without committing suicide. Unlike most novels of the day, Wuthering Heights is morally ambiguous. Emily did not pass judgement on the behavior of her characters but allowed the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.

Back at Haworth, Bramwell sunk deeper into the clutches of his own demons and perished in September of 1848. Emily took sick at his funeral and developed tuberculosis. The quick sweep of her illness suggests that she had been ill for some time and masked her symptoms. Some time earlier, she had been bitten by a dog on one of her solitary walks. She rushed home and cauterized the wound herself with a hot poker, telling no one of her trouble until the danger of a possible infection was past.

Refusing medical treatment, though growing steadily weaker and coughing pitiously, Emily ploded on, performing her domestic routine. On the morning of December 19th, she took up her sewing by the drawing room fire. She dropped a comb, and unable to bend to pick it up, called for help when the bone comb began to singe.

She suggested to her worried sisters that perhaps they should fetch the doctor. Charlotte and Anne attempted to assist Emily to her bed, but she collapsed onto a sofa where she died at two in the afternoon.

Keeper attended the funeral, silent and well behaved in church. Afterwards, he sprawled at the threshold of her bedroom door, whining, and erupted into howls when Charlotte tried to move him away.

Little is really known to us today and few artifacts are left. Charlotte is said to have burned much of Emily's work - her notebooks and lists and charts, and a draft of another novel. Charlotte called her sister a visionary genius and claimed that she did not know what she had done. But the volumes of lists and charts suggest that Wuthering Heights was created with great organization and dedication. Unfortunately, there is so much we will never know about Emily Bronte and the creation of her masterpiece novel, due to the destruction of her papers. It was left to Charlotte to create the legacy of her sister.

They say that Charlotte still worked in that dining room after the death of Emily and later, Anne. She paced around the table, long into the night, alone, unable to sleep without the ritual of creative camaraderie with her sisters.

Anne died in spring of 1849, of tuberculosis at age 29.

Charlotte married Patrick Bronte's assistant Arthur Bell Nichols on June 24, 1854 and died in the spring of 1855, pregnant at 38.

Patrick Bronte outlived them all, and died at age 84 in 1869.

The Moors Near Haworth, Yorkshire photo taken by Richard White photo taken by Richard White

Emily Bronte - Riches I Hold in Light Esteem

 Riches I Hold in Light Esteem (March 1, 1841)

Riches I hold in light esteem
And Love I laugh to scorn
And lust of Fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn–

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is–"Leave the heart that now I bear
And give me liberty."

Yes, as my swift days near their goal
'Tis all that I implore
Through life and death, a chainless soul
With courage to endure!

The Bronte Parsonage at Haworth, Yorkshire

wikimedia commons (photo by Space Monkey)
wikimedia commons (photo by Space Monkey)

Haworth Today

Haworth Parsonage still stands atop its hill in Yorkshire maintained as the Bronte Museum, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The town's main street lies little unchanged below it. Behind Haworth, a path winds through the moors, the heather still undulating in the wind. It leads to the ruins of Top Withins, the probable setting for Wuthering Heights where the winds still howl, and the clouds paints shadows, flickering like ghosts among the beautiful, lonely hills.

Haworth Today - Main Street

wikimedia commons(photo by Space Monkey)
wikimedia commons(photo by Space Monkey)


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