Emily Brontë – Ungodly, Unholy, Genius
Emily Brontë wrote only one novel during her short life. Wuthering Heights is a remarkable literary achievement and a classic of English literature. Despite gaining little popularity in her lifetime, the novel gained critical and public acclaim after the author's death. Emily Brontë is portrayed by Emma Mackey in the 2022 biographical drama, Emily.
Emily Brontë grew up in the parsonage of Haworth. Her father was the rector of Haworth, and he would outlive all six of his children. Emily, like her sisters, would publish her novel under a male pseudonym. They were aberrations to Victorian morals, and would have gained no traction as authors had they not done this.
Early Life – The Furnace of Creation
Emily Brontë was the second-youngest child of Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell. Her mother died of cancer when Emily was only three years old. None of the children were older than eight.
Patrick did his best to raise his flock of children while also caring for the people of Haworth. Maria Branwell's sister, Elizabeth Branwell, moved in with the family to help take care of the children she dearly loved.
Emily's three older sisters were sent to the Cowan Bridge School. She would join them when she was 6 years old, but wouldn't stay there for long. The school suffered a Typhoid outbreak and the two eldest Brontë sisters fell ill and died soon thereafter.
Patrick pulled Charlotte and Emily out of the Cowan Bridge School. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë would be homeschooled from then on. Those early deaths fused the four siblings together. They found solace and companionship among each other as they explored the bleak moorlands of Haworth.
Patrick bought a set of 12 toy soldiers for his children. These soldiers became the focus of elaborate fantasy stories that they would weave together. Each toy soldier had a name and became a prominent character in their paracosm, Angria. As time passed, they started writing down the stories that were set in their fantasy world. Angria became a place they all inhabited.
The Brontë children enjoyed uncensored access to books. Although the sisters would have been unable to enter the local library due to Victorian social rules. Branwell would often make trips to the library with a “shopping list” of books for his sisters. Some of their favorite writers were Byron, Mary Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott.
When Emily turned 13, she and Anne left the world of Angria to invent their own world, Gondal. Only poetry survives relating to Gondal, with themes of love, war, and romance.
Charlotte worked as a teacher at the Roe Head Girls' School for a time. Teaching, and being a Governess, were the only two acceptable occupations for a woman in Victorian England. When Emily was 17 she attended the Roe Head Girls' School for a few months, but found it too stifling. Charlotte wrote this about Emily after she left the school:
“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.”
Brussels – Foundational Experience
Emily worked as a teacher for 8 months when she was 20. The long hours didn't sit well with her, and she soon returned to Haworth. There she taught herself German and how to play the piano.
The Brontë sisters grew sick of working for other people. They longed to make their own money and earn the autonomy that they craved. Unfortunately their only option was to open a school of their own. First they would have to improve their French and German skills, before they could hope to attract enough students. Teaching has long been the refuge of the struggling writer.
Brussels, Belgium was a popular escape for the British seeking higher education. Emily and Charlotte Brontë attended the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels where they studied under Constantin Héger.
Charlotte was infatuated with Constantin, who seems to not have reciprocated her affection. Years after leaving his school, she would continue sending him letters declaring her undying love and admiration. Constantin rarely replied.
While Charlotte immersed herself in the culture and fashion of Brussels, Emily rejected them. She had no intention of changing herself for anyone. Preferring to remain true to herself and focus on her writing. Nine of her essays from this time have survived.
Despite not enjoying her time in Brussels, Emily Brontë managed to impress Constantin Héger. He wrote this about her:
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.
Emily and Charlotte were well-liked in Brussels. After finishing their course, they were asked to stay on and teach at the Héger Pensionnat. The unfortunate passing of their aunt drew them back to England.
Their plans to open a school in Haworth would ultimately fail. No one wanted to travel to the remote moors of Haworth to study.
Write, or Die
Life's pressure was turning up on the Brontë children. Soon they would find themselves at a turning point where a decision was to be made. Struggle on beneath the yolk of Victorian norms, or shirk the rules and seek recognition as writers.
Emily worked to compile all of her poetry into two notebooks in 1844. One would go untitled, but the other she named “Gondal Poems”. One year later Charlotte would discover and read Emily's poems. She confronted Emily about the poetry and demanded that they publish it. Emily was mortified and refused. Like all good writers, she was at first deeply ashamed of applying pen to parchment. Luckily she got over it.
The Brontë sisters published a collection of their poetry under male pseudonyms. Charlotte became Currer Bell. Emily chose Ellis Bell as her name, and Anne went by Acton Bell. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell didn't sell well, but it certainly made an impression on at least one reviewer. Writing for The Aethenaeum, the reviewer said this about Ellis Bell (Emily Brontë):
“Ellis possesses a fine, quaint spirit and an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted”
Emily Brontë finished her one and only novel by the summer of the following year, 1847. She wasn't alone either, Anne finished writing her own novel, Agnes Grey in the same year. Not to be outdone by her sister, Charlotte completed her novel, Jane Eyre shortly after her sisters.
Thomas Cautley Newby, the London-based publisher, accepted Emily and Anne's books for publication. They saw the light of day soon after Jane Eyre became an instant hit.
Wuthering Heights left critics unimpressed. They criticized the novel for its savagery, poor construction and regarded the writing as clumsy. Luckily the names of those critics have faded into obscurity. Wuthering Heights is now considered to be one of the best novels in English.
Once again proving herself to be one of the great authors, Emily wouldn't live to see her own success. The rebellious misfit writer was already struggling with illness when Wuthering Heights was published. She started struggling to breathe soon after publication.
Emily Brontë died of Tuberculosis 19 December 1848. Her reclusive nature would be captured by her sister, Charlotte, in the preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights:
"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."