Emily Brontë: A Biographical Sketch by Sara Selby
Emily Jane Brontë
A Biographical Sketch by Sara Selby
Emily Jane Brontë’s life, though short and tragic, had an overwhelming influence on her work. Marked by violent emotional upheavals, her childhood on the Yorkshire moors provided the folk background prevalent in Wuthering Heights. She was born the fifth of six children on July 30, 1818, at Thornton, near Bradford, Yorkshire. In April, 1820, the Brontë family, consisting of Reverend Patrick Brontë, his wife Maria, son Branwell, and daughters Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, moved to the parsonage at Haworth. Emily never knew her mother, for Mrs. Brontë contracted internal cancer at the age of thirty-eight and died in September of 1821, when Emily was just three years old. Patrick Brontë never remarried. In 1824, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily were enrolled at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, located less than twenty miles from Haworth. In 1825, Maria and Elizabeth fell ill from consumption and returned to Haworth, where they soon died. Charlotte and Emily left Cowan Bridge and returned to Haworth.
In the autumn of 1825, Tabitha Aykroyd was employed as cook and housekeeper at Haworth. Her influence on the Brontë children, particularly on Emily, was monumental. Tabby, as she was known, was a native of Haworth and brought to the children the folklore of the Yorkshire moors:
She told of fairies that danced by the bed-sides in the moonlight, and of those who had seen them. When the peat glowed red on the kitchen hearth and shadows stretched across the stone floor, Tabby made the warm air seem alive with creatures of the fern and heather. (Simpson, 27)
The imaginations of the Brontë children, fired by Tabby’s fascinating folktales, encountered the door, in 1826, to further development when the Reverend Mr. Brontë presented twelve wooden soldiers to Branwell. The four siblings created characters and islands around these toys and developed an oral literature that would later be transformed into poetry, constituting the well-known “Gondal” saga that Emily and Anne continued long after Branwell and Charlotte lost interest. Of special note is Emily’s choice of names for her special heroes: Sir Walter Scott and the Lockharts. The literary reference seems to indicate an acquaintance with literature, an idea reinforced by Charlotte’s “History of the Year 1829”:
We take two and see three newspapers a week. We take the Leeds Intelligencer, Tory, and the Leeds Mercury, Whig, edited by Mr. Baines, and his brother, son-in-law, and his two sons, Edward and Talbot. We see the John Bull; it is a high Tory, very violent. Mr. Driver lends us it, as likewise Blackwood’s Magazine, the most able periodical there is. The editor is Mr. Christopher North, an old man seventy-four years of age; the 1st of April is his birth-day; his company are Timothy Tickler, Morgan O’Doherty, Macrabin Mordecai, Mullion, Warnell, and James Hogg, a man of most extraordinary genius, a Scottish shepherd. Our plays were established; Young Men, June 1826; Our Fellows, July, 1827; Islanders, December, 1827. These are our three great plays, that are not kept secret. Emily’s and my best plays were established the 1st of December, 1827; the others March, 1828. Best plays mean secret plays; they are very nice ones. Their nature I need not write on paper, for I think I shall always remember them. The Young Men’s play took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had; Our Fellows from Aesop’s Fables; and the Islanders from several events which happened. (Qtd. in Lane, 63)
Thus, at the age of eleven, Emily Brontë exhibited familiarity with newspapers, Blackwood’s Magazine, Aesop’s Fables, and Sir Walter Scott. Other writings known to have been within reach of the Brontës include works by Milton, Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Pope, Scott, Byron, and Southey (Lane 93-95). This knowledge of literature combined with Tabby’s folklore must have enhanced Emily’s natural imaginative and creative impulses.
In 1831, Charlotte left Haworth to attend school at Roe Head, about twenty miles away. Her departure left Emily and Anne, who were very close, to establish their independent games and sagas. After eighteen months, Charlotte returned to Haworth to educate her sisters. During this time, Emily, Anne, and Branwell were instructed in music — given piano lessons by A. S. Sunderland, who was an organist at Keighley. Emily seemed to be rather proficient in music (Ankenbrandt, 111). In 1835, Emily was sent to school at Roe Head, where Charlotte was now teaching, but her separation from her beloved moorlands was more than she could bear. She so alarmed Charlotte with her physical decline that after three months she was sent home. Anne took her place at Roe Head School.
In 1836, Emily spent her time at Haworth with Branwell, who had returned disappointed from futilely seeking artistic fame and fortune in London. During this year, Emily produced her first poetry of ascertainable date. In 1837, she took a teaching post at Miss Patchett’s school at Law Hill, Southowram, near Halifax, where she remained for at least six months. By June 1838, Emily was back at Haworth, nursing Tabby, who had broken her leg just before Christmas, and Anne, who had become ill at school and returned to Haworth. Branwell had an artist’s studio in Leeds. Emily spent the years from 1838 to 1842 at Haworth writing poetry and performing household duties. She was joined occasionally by one or more of her siblings, but her most constant companions were her dog, Keeper, and her tame hawk, Hero. The three girls seriously considered starting a school, but their own need for more education was an obstacle to be overcome.
In February 1842, Charlotte and Emily left Haworth to study in Brussels, Belgium, at the Pensionnat Heger. Emily was dissatisfied and difficult in Brussels, but during her eight-month stay she studied foreign languages and improved her musical skills so that by the summer she was giving piano lessons. During this time, Emily wrote some essays in French, seven of which survive. In November 1842, the girls were called home by the death of their aunt, and, though Charlotte afterward returned to Brussels for another year of study, Emily remained at Haworth. Alone with her father, Emily drew much comfort from the moors and from music (Simpson, 107-109). Charlotte came home in 1844, and she and Emily planned to set up a school at the parsonage, as much as a benefit to Anne, who for three years had unhappily served as governess at Thorp Green, as anything. Plans collapsed, however, and Anne remained at Thorp Green another year. Emily’s peaceful environment was now disturbed, for Charlotte was apparently distracted by worrying about her eyesight and possibly recovering from a thwarted love affair with Heger. Branwell, who sought solace in alcohol and opium, lost his job, perhaps because of an affair with his employer’s wife.
Anne returned home in 1845, and Branwell went to Liverpool. In the autumn, Charlotte discovered a manuscript volume of Emily’s verse and recognized its literary value. Emily, initially extremely angered at Charlotte’s intrusion into her private world, was finally persuaded to join her sisters in the compilation of a book of poetry for publication. The sisters adopted the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and toward the end of the year they all began working on novels.
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published by Aylott and Jones in May of 1846. By July 1846, Wuthering Heights was completed, and it was published by Newby in December of 1847. The novel garnered much harsh, negative criticism, sending the already introverted author more deeply into withdrawal. On a visit to Smith and Elder, Currer Bell’s publishers, Charlotte let slip that the Bells were three sisters. She had cause to regret the indiscretion, for Emily was livid that her true identity had been betrayed.
In the year 1848, Haworth parsonage was besieged by an epidemic of influenza that attacked all members of the family. Branwell was a source of constant worry, for both his mental and physical conditions were rapidly deteriorating. On September 24, 1848, Branwell Brontë died of consumption. Emily attended his funeral on October 1 and developed a severe cold that quickly turned into inflammation of the lungs. Her illness was marked by her stoic refusal of sympathy and help, either from a doctor or her sisters. She died on December 19, 1848. Anne followed her to the grave on May 28, 1849. Charlotte was crushed by Emily’s death, as she wrote to her friend, Ellen Nussey:
Emily suffers no more from pain or weakness now. She will never suffer more in this world. She is gone, after a hard, short conflict. She died on Tuesday, the very day I wrote to you. I thought it very possible she might be with us still for weeks; and a few hours afterwards she was in eternity. Yes; there is no Emily in time or on earth now. Yesterday we put her poor, wasted, mortal frame quietly under the church pavement. We are very calm at present. Why should we be otherwise? 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. (Spark, 156-157)
That such an environment as Haworth could produce a talent as enormous as Emily Brontë’s is remarkable; that it could produce an entire family of artists is mind-boggling. All the Brontës were writers. Patrick Brontë, an Anglican minister of Irish descent who entertained his children with Celtic legends, published four works between 1811 and 1818 (Cottage Poems: A Miscellany of Descriptive Poems, 1811; The Rural Minstrel: A Miscellany of Descriptive Poems, 1813; The Cottage in the Wood, 1815; and The Maid of Killarney, 1818). Branwell Brontë wrote a fragment of a novel (And the Weary Are at Rest, privately printed in a limited edition) and some poems (Hatfield, 71). Anne Brontë wrote poetry and two novels (Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and Charlotte Brontë wrote poetry, four novels (Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and The Professor), five novelettes (Passing Events, Julia, Mina Laury, Captain Henry Hastings, and Caroline Vernon), and several tales and fragments (“The Secret,” “Lily Hart,” “The Story of Willie Ellin” [also called “The Moores”], “Emma,” “The Adventures of Ernest Alembert, A Fairy Tale,” Napoleon and the Spectre, and The Four Wishes). Thus, Emily’s home seems to have been a hotbed of literary inspiration.
Though her life was brief and relatively uneventful, Emily Brontë and her work have proved interesting subjects for critical study. At least a half dozen full length biographies of Emily have been published, the earliest being A. Mary F. Robinson’s imaginative effort for the Eminent Women Series entitled The Life of Emily Brontë (1883). Charles Walter Simpson wrote a very good, perhaps the best, biography simply called Emily Brontë (1929). Other sound biographical studies include Winifred Gerin’s Emily Brontë (1971) and Richard Benvenuto’s Emily Brontë in the Twayne English Authors Series (1982). The problem confronting all biographers is that little documented evidence of Emily’s life exists and that ultimately the source of information is Charlotte Brontë.
Many editions of Wuthering Heights have appeared since T. C. Newby’s first edition. Smith and Elder’s second edition, published in 1850, was revised and prefaced by Charlotte Brontë. This edition also contained the “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” written by Charlotte. The Life and Works of the Brontë Sisters with an introduction by Mrs. Humphry Ward (1903) contained the most reliable text of Wuthering Heights until the publication of the Clarendon Edition. Clement Shorter edited the Complete Works of Emily Brontë (1911), and T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington edited the Shakespeare Head Brontë (1931). A Norton Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights appeared in paperback edited by William M. Sale, Jr. (1963) and is now in its third edition with Richard J. Dunn contributing to its editing. The most reliable text is the Clarendon Edition of Wuthering Heights, edited by Hilda Marsden and Ian Jack (1976). In addition to these basic editions, there are many others from scholarly and popular presses, abridged and unabridged.
Wuthering Heights has been a target of criticism and scholarship since its publication in 1847. Early critics naturally concerned themselves with the identity of the author, suggesting that all the Bell novels (i.e., Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) were written by the same hand. Wuthering Heights received no warm welcome from its reviewers, who considered it too shocking, too coarse, too brutal, too disturbing, and too passionate. This is not to say that early reviewers saw no merit in Emily’s work; some admitted that the novel was skillfully written, but the content was so opposed to the bonds of civilized good taste that favorable reception of the novel seemed impossible. Once readers and reviewers overcame their shock and began to move out of the Victorian period (which certainly had its share of decadence but preferred not to publicize it), Wuthering Heights began to receive serious attention from scholars concerned with the work itself and not necessarily with its public reception. Criticism has run the gamut from plot, character, and theme studies to source, structure, and dialect studies. Scholars have concerned themselves with such aspects as publication history, psychoanalytical readings, autobiographical elements, literary classification, and authorship.
Ankenbrandt, Katherine W. “Songs in Wuthering Heights.” Southern Folklore Quarterly 33 (1969): 92-115.
Hatfield, C. W., ed. “Unpublished Poems.” Brontë Society Transactions 7 (1927): 71.
Lane, Margaret. The Brontë Story. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1953; rpt. 1964.
Simpson, Charles Walter. Emily Brontë. London: Country Life Ltd., 1929.
Spark, Muriel, ed. The Letters of the Brontës, A Selection. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.
This essay was written by Sara E. Selby as part of an introductory chapter to a thesis entitled EMILY BRONTË AND FOLK TRADITION submitted to the faculty of the University of Mississippi in partial fulfillment for the degree of Master of Arts in the Department of English in May, 1985.
Many thanks to Sara Selby, Professor of English at Waycross College (GA), for graciously granting permission to reproduce this biography of Emily Brontë, which was originally posted on her website.
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.
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