Emily Brontë

Emily Jane Brontë

The only undisputed portrait of Emily Brontë,[1] from a group portrait by her brother Branwell
Born (1818-07-30)30 July 1818
Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died 19 December 1848(1848-12-19) (aged 30)
Haworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Pen name Ellis Bell
  • Poet
  • novelist
  • governess
Nationality English
  • Fiction
  • poetry
Literary movement Romantic Period
Notable works Wuthering Heights
Relatives Brontë family

Emily Jane Brontë (/ˈbrɒnti/, commonly /ˈbrɒnt/;[2] 30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848)[3] was an English novelist and poet who is best known for her only 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

The three Brontë sisters, in an 1834 painting by their brother Branwell Brontë. From left to right: Anne, Emily and Charlotte. (Branwell used to be between Emily and Charlotte, but subsequently painted himself out.)

Emily Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in the village of Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, in Northern England, to Maria Branwell and an Irish father, Patrick Brontë. She was the younger sister of Charlotte Brontë and the fifth of six children. 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.[4]

After the death of their mother on 15 September 1821 from cancer, when Emily was three years old,[5] 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 on 25 November 1824, Emily joined her sisters at school for a brief period.[6] 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.[7]

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. 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.[8]

Emily's Gondal poems

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[9] and created a number of fantasy worlds (including 'Angria') which featured in stories they wrote – all "very strange ones" according to Charlotte[10] – 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.[11][12] 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 their Gondal poems and Anne's lists of Gondal's characters and place-names, the 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.[13]

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. Charlotte later stated that: "Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished. The change from her own home to a school and from her own very noiseless, very secluded but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring... I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall."[14] She returned home and Anne took her place.[15][lower-alpha 1] At this time, the girls' objective was to obtain sufficient education to open a small school of their own.


Constantin Héger, teacher of Charlotte and Emily during their stay in Brussels, on a daguerreotype dated c. 1865

Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax beginning in September 1838, when she was twenty.[16] Her health broke under the stress of the 17-hour work day and she returned home in April 1839.[17] Thereafter she became the stay-at-home daughter, doing most of the cooking, ironing, and cleaning. She taught herself German out of books and also practised the piano.[18]

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... 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.[19]

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 as she had by that time become a competent piano teacher.[20] However, the illness and death of their aunt meant that they returned 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.[21][22] 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 to Charlotte that she had been writing poems in secret as well. As co-authors of Gondal stories, Anne and Emily were accustomed to read their Gondal stories and poems to each other, while Charlotte was excluded from their privacy.[23] Around this time she had written one of her the most famous poems "No coward soul is mine", probably as an answer to the violation of her privacy and her own transformation into a published writer.[24] Despite Charlotte's later claim, it wasn't her last poem.[25]

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".[26] 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".[27] Charlotte contributed 19 poems, and Emily and Anne each contributed 21. Although the sisters were told several months after publication that only two copies had sold,[28] they were not discouraged (of their two readers, one was impressed enough to request their autographs).[29] 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",[30] and The Critic reviewer recognised "the presence of more genius than it was supposed this utilitarian age had devoted to the loftier exercises of the intellect."[31]

Personality and character

Disputed portrait made by Branwell Brontë about 1833; sources are in disagreement over whether this image is of Emily or Anne.[1]

Emily Brontë remains a mysterious figure and a challenge to biographers because information about her is sparse,[32] due to her solitary and reclusive nature.[33] She does not seem to have made any friends outside her family.[34] Her closest friend was her sister Anne. Together they shared their their own fantasy world, Gondal, and, according to Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey, in childhood they were "like twins", "inseparable companions" and "in the very closest sympathy which never had any interruption".[35][36] In 1845 Anne took Emily to visit some of the places she had come to know and love in the five years she spent as governess. A plan to visit Scarborough fell through and instead the sisters went to York where Anne showed her sister York Minster. During the trip Emily and Anne acted out some of their Gondal characters.[37]

Charlotte Brontë remains the primary source of information about Emily, although as an elder sister, writing publicly about her shortly after her death, she is not a neutral witness. Stevie Davies believes that there is what might be called Charlotte's smoke-screen and argues that Emily evidently shocked her, to the point where she may even have doubted her sister's sanity. After Emily's death, Charlotte rewrote her character, history and even poems on a more acceptable (to her and the bourgeois reading public) model.[38] According to Lucasta Miller, in her analysis of Brontë biographies, "Charlotte took on the role of Emily's first mythographer."[39] 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 knew 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.[40]

Emily's unsociability and extremely shy nature have subsequently been reported many times.[41][42][43] According to Norma Crandall, her "warm, human aspect" was "usually revealed only in her love of nature and of animals".[44] In a similar description, Literary news (1883) states: "[Emily] loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things",[45] and critics attest that her love of the moors is manifest in Wuthering Heights.[46] Over the years, Emily's love of nature has been the subject of many anecdotes. A newspaper dated 31 December 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".[47] 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.[47]

In Queens of Literature of the Victorian Era (1886), Eva Hope summarises Emily's character as "a peculiar mixture of timidity and Spartan-like courage", and goes on to say, "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."[48]

Title page of the original edition of Wuthering Heights (1847)

Wuthering Heights

Main article: Wuthering Heights

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 did not appear until 1850, when it was printed on the title page of an edited commercial edition.[49] 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.[50] According to Juliet Gardiner, "the vivid sexual passion and power of its language and imagery impressed, bewildered and appalled reviewers."[51] 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.[52]

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.[53]


Emily's health probably was weakened by the harsh local climate and by unsanitary conditions at home,[54] the source of water being contaminated, by runoff, from the church's graveyard.[lower-alpha 2] Branwell died suddenly, on Sunday, September 24, 1848. At his funeral service, a week later, Brontë caught a severe cold which quickly developed into inflammation of the lungs and led to tuberculosis.[55][lower-alpha 3] Though her condition worsened steadily, she rejected medical help and all offered remedies, saying that she would have "no poisoning doctor" near her.[57] On the morning of 19 December 1848, Charlotte, fearing for her sister, wrote this:

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.[58]

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"[59] but it was too late. She died that same day at about two in the afternoon. According to Mary Robinson, an early Emily's biographer, it happened while she was sitting on the sofa.[60] However, Charlotte's letter to William Smith Williams where she mentions Emily's dog lying at the side of her dying-bed, makes this statement unlikely.[61]

It was less than three months since Branwell's death, which led Martha Brown, a housemaid, to declare that "Miss Emily died of a broken heart for love of her brother".[62] 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.[63] She was interred in the Church of St Michael and All Angels family capsule, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. Emily Brontë never knew the extent of fame she achieved with her one and only novel, Wuthering Heights, as she died a year after its publication, aged 30.

See also



  1. At Roe Head and Blake Hall with pictures of the school then and now, and descriptions of Anne's time there.
  2. A letter from Charlotte Brontë, to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte refers to the winter of 1833/4 which was unusually wet and there were a large number of deaths in the village — thought to be caused by water running down from the churchyard.
  3. It should be noted by the modern reader, though many of her contemporaries believed otherwise, "consumption", or tuberculosis does not originate from "catching a cold". Tuberculosis is a communicable disease, transmitted through the inhalation of airborne droplets of mucus or saliva carrying Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and anyone living in close proximity with an infected person would be in an increased risk of contracting it. However, it is also a disease that can remain asymptomatic for long periods of time after initial infection, and developing only later on when the immune system becomes weak.[56]


  1. 1 2 The "Profile Portrait" - Emily or Anne?
  2. As given by Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature (Merriam-Webster, incorporated, Publishers: Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995), p. viii: "When our research shows that an author's pronunciation of his or her name differs from common usage, the author's pronunciation is listed first, and the descriptor commonly precedes the more familiar pronunciation." See also entries on Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, pp. 175–176.
  3. The New Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1992. p. 546.
  4. Fraser, The Brontës, p. 16
  5. Fraser, The Brontës, p. 28
  6. Fraser, The Brontës, p. 35
  7. Fraser, The Brontës, p. 31
  8. Fraser, The Brontës, pp. 44–45
  9. Richard E. Mezo, A Student's Guide to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (2002), p. 1
  10. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 91
  11. The Brontës' Web of Childhood, by Fannie Ratchford, 1941
  12. An analysis of Emily's use of paracosm play as a response to the deaths of her sisters is found in Delmont C. Morrison's Memories of Loss and Dreams of Perfection (Baywood, 2005), ISBN 0-89503-309-7.
  13. "Emily Brontë's Letters and Diary Papers", City University of New York
  14. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p. 149
  15. Fraser, The Brontës, p. 84
  16. Vine, Emily Brontë (1998), p. 11
  17. Christine L. Krueger, Encyclopedia of British writers, 19th century (2009), p. 41
  18. Robert K. Wallace (2008). Emily Brontë and Beethoven: Romantic Equilibrium in Fiction and Music. University of Georgia Press. p. 223.
  19. Constantin Héger, 1842, referring to Emily Brontë, as quoted in The Oxford History of the Novel in English (2011), Volume 3, p. 208
  20. Norma Crandall (1957). Emily Brontë, a Psychological Portrait. R. R. Smith Publisher. p. 85.
  21. Fannie Ratchford, ed., Gondal's Queen. University of Texas Press, 1955. ISBN 0-292-72711-9.
  22. Derek Roper, ed., The Poems of Emily Brontë. Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-19-812641-7.
  23. Harrison, David W (2003). The Brontes of Haworth. Trafford Publishing. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-55369-809-8.
  24. Meredith L. McGill (2008). The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange. Rutgers University Press. p. 240.
  25. Brontë, Emily Jane (1938). Helen Brown and Joan Mott, ed. Gondal Poems. Oxford: The Shakespeare Head Press. pp. 5–8.
  26. Encyclopedia of British writers, 19th century (2009), p. 41
  27. Gaskell, The life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), p. 335
  28. Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë: the evolution of genius (1969), p. 322
  29. Margot Peters, Unquiet Soul: A Biography of Charlotte Brontë (1976), p. 219
  30. In the footsteps of the Brontës (1895), p. 306
  31. The poems of Emily Jane Brontë and Anne Brontë (1932), p. 102
  32. Lorna Sage The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English (1999), p. 90
  33. U. C. Knoepflmacher, Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (1989), p. 112
  34. Grace Moore, Wuthering Heights (2012), 'About the author'
  35. Fraser, A Life of Anne Brontë, p. 39
  36. Barker, The Brontës, p. 195
  37. Barker, The Brontës, p. 451
  38. Stevie Davies (1994). Emily Brontë: Heretic. Women's Press. p. 16.
  39. Lucasta Miller (2002). The Brontë Myth. Vintage. pp. 171–174. ISBN 0 09 928714 5.
  40. Editor's Preface to the Second Edition of Wuthering Heights, by Charlotte Brontë, 1850.
  41. The Ladies' Repository, February, 1861.
  42. Alexander, Sellars, The Art of the Brontës (1995), p. 100
  43. Gérin, Emily Brontë: a biography, p. 196
  44. Norma Crandall, Emily Brontë: a psychological portrait (1957), p. 81
  45. Pylodet, Leypoldt, Literary news (1883) Volume 4, p. 152
  46. Brontë Society, The Brontës Then and Now (1947), p. 31
  47. 1 2 The Record-Union, "Sacramento", 31 December 1899.
  48. Eva Hope, Queens of Literature of the Victorian Era (1886), p. 168
  49. Richard E. Mezo, A Student's Guide to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (2002), p. 2
  50. Carter, McRae, The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland (2001), p. 240
  51. Juliet Gardiner, The History today who's who in British history (2000), p. 109
  52. Wuthering Heights, Mobi Classics (2009)
  53. The letters of Charlotte Brontë (1995), edited by Margaret Smith, Volume Two 1848–1851, p. 27
  54. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 47-48
  55. Benvenuto, Emily Brontë, p. 24
  56. "Chapter 2, Transmission and Pathogenesis of Tuberculosis (TB)" (PDF). CDC. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  57. Fraser, "Charlotte Brontë: A Writer's Life", 316
  58. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 67
  59. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 68
  60. Robinson, Emily Brontë, p. 308
  61. Barker, The Brontës, p. 576
  62. Gérin, Emily Brontë: a biography, p. 242
  63. Vine, Emily Brontë (1998), p. 20


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