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Emily Jane Brontë; 30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848) was an English novelist and poet, best remembered for her solitary novel, Wuthering Heights, now considered a classic of English literature. Emily was the third eldest of the four surviving Brontë siblings, between the youngest Anne and her brother Branwell. She wrote under the pen name Ellis Bell.
Early life and education
Emily Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in the village of Thornton, Yorkshire, in the North of England, to Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë. She was the younger sister of Charlotte Brontë and the fifth of six children, though the two oldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, died in childhood. In 1820, shortly after the birth of Emily's younger sister Anne, the family moved eight miles away to Haworth, where Patrick was employed as perpetual curate; here the children developed their literary talents.
After the death of their mother in September 1821 from cancer, when Emily was three years old, the older sisters Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, where they encountered abuse and privations later described by Charlotte in Jane Eyre. At the age of six, Emily joined her sisters at school for a brief period. When a typhoid epidemic swept the school, Maria and Elizabeth caught it. Maria, who may actually have had tuberculosis, was sent home, where she died. Emily was subsequently removed from the school, in June 1825, along with Charlotte and Elizabeth. Elizabeth died soon after their return home.
The three remaining sisters and their brother Patrick Branwell were thereafter educated at home by their father and aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother's sister. Their father, an Irish Anglican clergyman, was very strict, and during the day he would work in his office, while the children were to remain silent in a room together. Despite the lack of formal education, Emily and her siblings had access to a wide range of published material; favourites included Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Blackwood's Magazine.
In their leisure time the children began to write fiction at home, inspired by a box of toy soldiers Branwell had received as a gift, and created a number of fantasy worlds, which were featured in stories they wrote — all 'very strange ones' according to Charlotte — and enacted about the imaginary adventures of their toy soldiers along with the Duke of Wellington and his sons, Charles and Arthur Wellesley. Little of Emily's work from this period survives, except for poems spoken by characters. When Emily was 13, she and Anne withdrew from participation in the Angria story and began a new one about Gondal, a fictional island whose myths and legends were to preoccupy the two sisters throughout their lives. With the exception of Emily's Gondal poems and Anne's lists of Gondal's characters and place-names, their writings on Gondal were not preserved. Some "diary papers" of Emily's have survived in which she describes current events in Gondal, some of which were written, others enacted with Anne. One dates from 1841, when Emily was twenty-three: another from 1845, when she was twenty-seven.
At seventeen, Emily attended the Roe Head girls' school, where Charlotte was a teacher, but managed to stay only a few months before being overcome by extreme homesickness. She returned home and Anne took her place. At this time, the girls' objective was to obtain sufficient education to open a small school of their own.
Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax beginning in September 1838, when she was twenty. Her health broke under the stress of the 17-hour work day and she returned home in April 1839. Thereafter she became the stay-at-home daughter, doing most of the cooking, ironing, and cleaning and teaching Sunday school. She taught herself German out of books and practised piano.
In 1842, Emily accompanied Charlotte to the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels, Belgium, where they attended the girls' academy run by Constantin Héger. They planned to perfect their French and German in anticipation of opening their school. Nine of Emily's French essays survive from this period. Héger seems to have been impressed with the strength of Emily's character, and made the following assertion:
She should have been a man—a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have given way but with life. She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman... [but] impairing this gift was her stubborn tenacity of will which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned.
The two sisters were committed to their studies and by the end of the term had attained such competence in French that Madame Héger made a proposal for both to stay another half-year, even offering to dismiss the English master, according to Charlotte, so that she could take his place, while Emily was to teach music. However, the illness and death of their aunt meant that they had to return to Haworth, and though they did try to open a school at their home, they were unable to attract students to the remote area.
In 1844, Emily began going through all the poems she had written, recopying them neatly into two notebooks. One was labelled "Gondal Poems"; the other was unlabelled. Scholars such as Fannie Ratchford and Derek Roper have attempted to piece together a Gondal storyline and chronology from these poems. In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte discovered the notebooks and insisted that the poems be published. Emily, furious at the invasion of her privacy, at first refused, but relented when Anne brought out her own manuscripts and revealed she had been writing poems in secret as well.
In 1846, the sisters' poems were published in one volume as Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The Brontë sisters had adopted pseudonyms for publication, preserving their initials: Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell and Anne was Acton Bell. Charlotte wrote in the 'Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell' that their "ambiguous choice" was "dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because... we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice". Charlotte contributed 20 poems, and Emily and Anne each contributed 21. Although the sisters were told several months after publication that only two copies had sold, they were not discouraged (of their two readers, one was impressed enough to request their autographs). The Athenaeum reviewer praised Ellis Bell's work for its music and power, singling out his poems as the best: "Ellis possesses a fine, quaint spirit and an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted", and The Critic reviewer recognized "the presence of more genius than it was supposed this utilitarian age had devoted to the loftier exercises of the intellect."
Personality and character
Emily Brontë remains a mysterious figure and a challenge to biographers because information about her is sparse, due to her solitary and reclusive nature. She does not seem to have made any friends outside her family. Her sister Charlotte remains the primary source of information about her, although as Emily's elder sister, writing publicly about her shortly after her death, Charlotte is not a neutral witness. According to Lucasta Miller in her analysis of Brontë biographies, "Charlotte took on the role of Emily's first mythographer." In the Preface to the Second Edition of Wuthering Heights, in 1850, Charlotte wrote:
My sister's disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she know them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but WITH them, she rarely exchanged a word.
Emily's unsociability and extremely shy nature has subsequently been reported many times. According to Norma Crandall, her "warm, human aspect" was "usually revealed only in her love of nature and of animals". In a similar description, Literary news (1883) states: "Emily loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things", and critics attest that her love of the moors is manifest in Wuthering Heights. Over the years, Emily's love of nature has been the subject of many anecdotes. A newspaper dated December 31, 1899, gives the folksy account that "with bird and beast [Emily] had the most intimate relations, and from her walks she often came with fledgling or young rabbit in hand, talking softly to it, quite sure, too, that it understood". The following anecdote is also related:
Once she was bitten by a dog that she saw running by in great distress, and to which she offered water. The dog was mad. She said no word to any one, but herself burned the lacerated flesh to the bone with the red hot poker, and no one knew of it until the red scar was accidentally discovered some weeks after, and sympathetic questioning brought out this story.
In Queens of literature of the Victorian era (1886), Eva Hope summarizes Emily's character as "a peculiar mixture of timidity and Spartan-like courage", and goes on to say that "She was painfully shy, but physically she was brave to a surprising degree. She loved few persons, but those few with a passion of self-sacrificing tenderness and devotion. To other people's failings she was understanding and forgiving, but over herself she kept a continual and most austere watch, never allowing herself to deviate for one instant from what she considered her duty."
Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights was first published in London in 1847, 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 didn't appear until 1850, when it was printed on the title page of an edited commercial edition. The novel's innovative structure somewhat puzzled critics.
Wuthering Heights's violence and passion led the Victorian public and many early reviewers to think that it had been written by a man. According to Juliet Gardiner, "the vivid sexual passion and power of its language and imagery impressed, bewildered and appalled reviewers." Even though it received mixed reviews when it first came out, and was often condemned for its portrayal of amoral passion, the book subsequently became an English literary classic.
Although a letter from her publisher indicates that Emily had begun to write a second novel, the manuscript has never been found. Perhaps Emily, or a member of her family, eventually destroyed the manuscript, if it existed, when she was prevented by illness from completing it. It has also been suggested that, though less likely, the letter could have been intended for Anne Brontë, who was already writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, her second novel. In any case, no manuscript of a second novel by Emily has survived.
Emily believed that her health, like her sisters', had been weakened by the harsh local climate and by unsanitary conditions at home, the source of water being contaminated by runoff from the church's graveyard. She caught a severe cold during the funeral of her brother Branwell in September 1848 which led to tuberculosis. Though her condition worsened steadily, she rejected medical help and all proffered remedies, saying that she would have "no poisoning doctor" near her. In the morning of 19 December 1848, Charlotte — in the presence of her dying sister — wrote thus:
She grows daily weaker. The physician's opinion was expressed too obscurely to be of use — he sent some medicine which she would not take. Moments so dark as these I have never known — I pray for God's support to us all.
At noon, Emily was worse; she could only whisper in gasps. With her last audible words she said to Charlotte, 'If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now', but it was too late. She died that same day, at about two in the afternoon, while sitting on the sofa at Haworth Parsonage. It was less than three months since Branwell's death, which led a housemaid to declare that 'Miss Emily died of a broken heart for love of her brother'. 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. She was interred in the Church of St. Michael and All Angels family capsule, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. Emily Brontë would never know the extent of fame she achieved with her one and only novel, Wuthering Heights, as she died a year after its publication. She was 30 years old.