BORN: 1818, Yorkshire, England
DIED: 1848, Yorkshire, England
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
Wuthering Heights (1847)
Emily Brontë is considered one of the most important yet elusive figures in nineteenth-century English literature. Although she led a brief and sheltered life, she left behind some of the most passionate and inspired writing in Victorian literature. Today, her reputation rests primarily
on her only novel, Wuthering Heights, which has attracted generations of readers and critics and is a literary classic.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Tragedies Emily Jane Brontë was born on July 30, 1818, at the parsonage at Thorton in Yorkshire, England, the fifth child and fourth daughter of the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. She was raised by her father and maternal aunt at his new parson-age in Haworth following her mother's death in 1821. In 1825, she was sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, but she returned home when her sisters Maria and Elizabeth became ill at the institution and died.
Literary Life at Haworth In 1826, Patrick Brontë bought a set of wooden toy soldiers for his children, which opened up a rich fantasy world for Emily and her siblings Charlotte, Branwell, and Anne. Emily and Anne later invented a romantic legend centered upon the imaginary Pacific Ocean island of Gondal. The realm of Gondal became a lifelong interest for Brontë and, according to many scholars, was a major imaginative source for her writings. Beginning in 1826, Brontë also began making drawings and sketches of natural subjects such as birds to which she was drawn for the remainder of her life. Her close observations of birds, animals, plants, and the changing skies over Haworth formed a significant part of the poetry she began writing at an early age.
Although Brontë was intellectually precocious, she also was painfully shy. She briefly attended a school in East Yorkshire in 1835 and worked as an assistant teacher at a school around 1838, but living away from home was too difficult for her. She returned home, writing poetry and attending to household duties until 1842, when she and Charlotte, hoping to acquire the language skills needed to establish a school of their own, took positions at a school in Brussels. There were limited career opportunities for British women of this time period, with teaching being one of the few options. The death of Brontë's aunt later that year, however, forced Brontë to return to Haworth again, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Brontë's Poetry In 1845, Charlotte discovered one of Emily's private poetry notebooks. At Charlotte's urging, Emily reluctantly agreed to publish some of her poems in a volume that also included writings by her sisters. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, reflecting the pseudonyms adopted by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, was published in May 1846. While only two copies of the book were sold, at least one commentator, Sydney Dobell, praised Emily's poems, singling her out in the Athenaeum as a promising writer and the best poet among the “Bell” family.
Her poetry is difficult to evaluate and interpret, as it was not written for publication, though she did revise much of her early work in 1844. Some of what has been preserved can be discounted as immature early drafts. Much of it deals with the fantasy world of Gondal, which is a barrier to the proper appreciation of the poetry.
Completed Only Novel Wuthering Heights Brontë had been working on Wuthering Heights (1847), which was published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell in an edition that also included Anne's first novel, Agnes Grey. Brontë's masterpiece was poorly received by contemporary critics who, repelled by the vivid portrayal of malice and brutality in the book, objected to the “degrading” nature of her subject. In the nineteenth century, as women began writing and publishing more fiction, critics often gave negative assessments of their works based solely on the author's gender. Such critics believed women lacked the worldly experience, critical judgment, and rationality to write works of value despite a rapid rise in works written by women and for an expanding female audience.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Brontë's famous contemporaries include:
John Quincy Adams (1767–1848): Sixth president of the United States; established the Monroe Doctrine, stating that foreign governments were not allowed to interfere with U.S. affairs and that America in turn would stay neutral toward Europe, as long as no military actions were taken in the Americas.
George, Lord Byron (1788–1824): English Romantic poet with a famously scandalous life; his 1812–1816 poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage established the Byronic hero as romantic and tortured.
Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850): French novelist and playwright, considered one of the creators of realism in French literature; his characters are multidimensional and complex, rather than simply good or bad.
Mary Shelley (1797–1851): British writer, married to Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; her best-known work is the 1818 novel Frankenstein.
Nat Turner (1800–1831): American slave, who led a bloody rebellion in Virginia against white Southerners before being caught and hanged; in the aftermath, Virginia debated abolishing slavery but narrowly decided to continue it.
Brontë worked on revising her poetry after publishing Wuthering Heights, but her efforts were soon interrupted. Her brother Branwell died in September 1848, and Emily's own health began to decline shortly afterward. She was suffering from tuberculosis, an airborne infectious disease that attacks the lungs. The slow-killing
disease was common in the nineteenth century, especially in England and the United States, because of close quarters often created by intense industrialization and urbanization. In accordance with what Charlotte described as her sister's strong-willed and inflexible nature, Brontë apparently refused medical attention and died of the disease on December 19, 1848, at the age of thirty.
Works in Literary Context
In her writings, Brontë's exploration of the self, the imagination, and the visionary associate her more closely with Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth than with Victorian writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. She was a serious poet, who, like her peer Emily Dickinson, wrote dozens of poems with no intention of publishing or even showing them to her family.
Antiromance Many of Brontë's Gondal poems as well as her novel are viewed as being antiromantic. Unlike the Romantic poets William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Lord Bryon, Brontë's idea of love does not enforce eternity but ruthlessly refuses it. In Wuthering Heights, the setting is cold, dreary, and barren, and the protagonist Heathcliff is curiously mean and calculating, unlike John Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost or the heroes of Lord Byron's works.
Critic Helen Brown was one of the first to point out the influence of George Gordon, Lord Byron, on Brontë's Gondal characters and their isolation, passions, dark crimes, and darker thoughts. The influence of Sir Walter Scott and Percy Bysshe Shelley on Brontë's poetry is also clear.
Works in Critical Context
Even though Brontë is more distinguished as a novelist than as a poet, scholars regard her poetry as a significant part of her work. Critical assessment of Brontë is divided over the question of whether to assess her poems separately from the Gondal mythology or to retain the Gondal context in order to clarify obscure references and provide dramatic and thematic unity. While Wuthering Heights was met with general perplexity upon its original publication, by the early twentieth century Brontë was hailed as one of the most important women novelists of the nineteenth century. The novel was considered one of the most powerful and original works in Victorian literature, incorporating elements of the Gothic novel, the Romantic novel, and the social criticism found in a Victorian novel.
Importance of Poetry In particular, lacking firsthand information concerning Brontë's life and opinions, commentators have looked to the poems as a source of insight into Brontë's personality, philosophy, and imagination. Critics have attempted to reconstruct a coherent Gondal “epic” from Brontë's poems and journal entries. In addition, critics have consequently noted many similarities between the passionate characters and violent motifs of Gondal and Wuthering Heights, and today, a generous body of criticism exists supporting the contention that the Gondal poems served as a creative forerunner of the novel.
Wuthering Heights Initially, critics failed to appreciate Emily Brontë's literary significance. While commentators acknowledged the emotional power of Wuthering Heights, they also rejected the malignant and coarse side of life that it depicted. Charlotte Brontë responded to this latter objection in 1850, defending the rough language and manners in her sister's novel as realistic, but apologizing for the dark vision of life in the book, which she attributed to Emily's reclusive habits.
This focus on Brontë's aloofness, combined with the mystical aspects of her poetry and the supernatural overtones of Wuthering Heights, created an image of the writer as a reclusive mystic that dominated Brontë criticism into the twentieth century. Writing about the novel in 1900, William Dean Howells of Harper's Bazaar saw slightly more to the work, commenting that Brontë “bequeathed the world at her early death a single book of as singular power as any in fiction; and proved herself, in spite of its defective technique a great artist, of as realistic motive and ideal as any who have followed her.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Though Wuthering Heights is a story about love and passion, the theme of revenge is equally important, as Heathcliff returns to carry out a vengeful plan. Here are some other classic works that include the theme of revenge:
Elektra (c. 425 b.c.e.), a play by Sophocles. This play focuses on an extreme example of family misfortune. Electra convinces her brother Orestes to avenge their father's murder by killing their mother, Clytemnestra.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), a novel by Alexandre Dumas. The novel is a romantic tale of power, adventure, and revenge, as its protagonist, Edmond Dantès, seeks justice against those who betrayed him.
“The Cask of Amontillado” (1946), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. This well-known short story features a protagonist who is verbally insulted and avenges his honor by killing a man in a macabre way.
Hamlet (1601 or 1602), a play by William Shakespeare. In this revenge play, the readers wait for Hamlet to gather enough evidence before he avenges his father's murder.
Charles Percy Sanger's 1926 monograph was one of the first modern studies to bring Brontë's craftsmanship to light. As a result, scholars discovered the sophistication and complexity of her images, characterizations, themes,
and techniques in Wuthering Heights. Psychological aspects also gained attention in the late twentieth century as Brontë continued to be regarded as an influential novelist.
Responses to Literature
- After reading Wuthering Heights, hold a discussion about Heathcliff and his actions. How does his social class influence his actions?
- Little is known about Emily Brontë's life, and some scholars try to get hints from her poetry. Read several of Brontë's poems and discuss what you think the poems reveal about her.
- Create a chart that lists examples of both Romantic and Gothic elements in Wuthering Heights.
- Using the Internet and/or your library's resources, conduct research on Emily's sisters Charlotte and Anne. Review their main works and compare them with Emily's Wuthering Heights.
- Emily Brontë created an imaginary world—the island of Gondal—a world she used in her writing. With a partner, create an original story about Gondal. Who lives there? What do they do? What does the island look like?
Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Cecil, David. Early Victorian Novelists. London:Constable, 1934.
Eagleton, Terry. Myths of Power. London: Macmillan, 1975.
Gérin, Winifred. Emily Brontë. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Lectures in America. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.
Sanger, C. P. The Structure of “Wuthering Heights”. London: Hogarth Press, 1926.
Smith, Anne, ed. The Art of Emily Brontë. London: Vision Press, 1976.
Allott, Miriam. “Wuthering Heights. The Rejection of Heathcliff?” Essays in Criticism 8 (1958): 27–47.
Brown, Helen. “The Influence of Byron on Emily Brontë.” Modern Language Review 34 (July 1939): 374–81.
Howells, William Dean. “Heroines of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: The Two Catherines of Emily Brontë.” Harper's Bazaar. (December 29, 1900).
Bronte Parsonage Museum. The Brontë Parsonage Museum and Brontë Society. Retrieved April 11, 2008, from http://www.bronte.info/
Born: August 20, 1818
Thornton, Yorkshire, England
Died: December 19, 1848
Haworth, Yorkshire, England
Emily Brontë was one of three English sisters who had books published in the mid-1800s. Her only major work, Wuthering Heights, is considered one of the greatest novels in the history of literature.
Early years and imaginary worlds
Emily Brontë was born in Thornton in Yorkshire, England, on August 20, 1818, the daughter of Patrick and Maria Branwell Brontë. Her father had been a schoolteacher and tutor before becoming an Anglican minister. She grew up in Haworth in the bleak West Riding area of Yorkshire. Except for an unhappy year at a religious school (described by her sister Charlotte as the Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre ), Emily's education was provided at home by her father, who let his children read freely and treated them as intellectual equals. The early death of their mother and two older sisters drew the remaining children close together.
Living in an isolated village, separated socially and intellectually from the local people, the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) and their brother Patrick Branwell spent the majority of their time in made-up worlds. They described these imaginary worlds in poems and tales and in "magazines" written in miniature script on tiny pieces of paper. As the children grew older, their personalities changed. Emily and Anne created the realm of Gondal. Located somewhere in the north, it was, like West Riding, a land of wild moors (open, grassy areas unsuitable for farming). Unlike Charlotte and Patrick's dream world called Angria, Gondal's laws reflected those of the real world. But this did not mean that Emily found it any easier than her sister to live happily as a governess or schoolteacher, which seemed to be their only options for the future.
When, at the age of seventeen, Emily attempted formal schooling for the second time, she suffered a breakdown after three months. She began a teaching position the following year but had to give that up as well. In 1842 she accompanied her sister Charlotte to Brussels, Belgium, for a year to study languages. During this time she impressed the professor as having a finer, more powerful mind than her sister. In October of that year, however, the death of an aunt brought the sisters back home to Haworth. Emily would spend the rest of her life there.
Back home and writing
Emily Brontë did not mind the isolation of Haworth, as being outdoors in the moors gave her a feeling of freedom. Here she experienced the world in terms of forces of nature that cannot be considered good or evil. She believed in the presence of supernatural powers (such as ghosts or spirits) and began to express her feelings in poems such as "To Imagination," "The Prisoner," "The Visionary," "The Old Stoic," and "No Coward Soul."
After Emily Brontë and her sisters discovered that they had all been writing poetry, the three of them put together a collection of poems written under pseudonyms (fake names) that was published in 1846. It did not attract any attention. The sisters then decided to each write a novel and submit all three jointly to publishers. Emily's Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. Set in the moors, it is a story of love and revenge involving a character named Heathcliff, who was abandoned by his parents as an infant, and his effect on two neighboring families. Critical reaction was negative, at least partly due to the many errors in the first printing. Later Wuthering Heights came to be considered one of the great novels of all time.
Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis at Haworth on December 19, 1848. Refusing all medical attention, she struggled to perform her household tasks until the end.
For More Information
Chitham, Edward. A Life of Emily Brontë. New York: B. Blackwell, 1987.
Frank, Katherine. A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë. Boston: Houghton Mufflin, 1990.
The English novelist Emily Brontë (1818-1848) wrote only one novel, "Wuthering Heights." A unique achievement in its time, this work dramatizes a vision of life controlled by elemental forces which transcend conventional categories of good and evil.
Emily Brontë was born in Thornton on Aug. 20, 1818, the daughter of an Anglican minister. She grew up in Haworth in the bleak West Riding of Yorkshire. Except for an unhappy year at a charity school (described by her sister Charlotte as the Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre), her education was directed at home by her father, who let his children read freely and treated them as intellectual equals. The early death of their mother and two older sisters drove the remaining children into an intense and private intimacy.
Living in an isolated village, separated socially and intellectually from the local people, the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) and their brother Branwell gave themselves wholly to fantasy worlds, which they chronicled in poems and tales and in "magazines" written in miniature script on tiny pieces of paper. As the children matured, their personalities diverged. She and Anne created the realm of Gondal. Located somewhere in the north, it was, like the West Riding, a land of wild moors. Unlike Charlotte and Branwell's emotional dreamworld Angria, Gondal's psychological and moral laws reflected those of the real world. But this did not mean that she found it any easier than her sister to submit herself to the confined life of a governess or schoolmistress to which she seemed inevitably bound. When at the age of 17 she attempted formal schooling for the second time, she broke down after 3 months, and a position as a teacher the following year proved equally insupportable despite a sincere struggle. In 1842 she accompanied Charlotte to Brussels for a year at school. During this time she impressed the master as having the finer, more powerful mind of the two.
The isolation of Haworth meant for Brontë not frustration as for her sister, but the freedom of the open moors. Here she experienced the world in terms of elemental forces outside of conventional categories of good and evil. Her vision was essentially mystical, rooted in the experience of a supernatural power, which she expressed in poems such as "To Imagination," "The Prisoner," "The Visionary," "The Old Stoic," and "No Coward Soul."
Brontë's first publication consisted of poems contributed under the pseudonym Ellis Bell to a volume of verses (1846) in which she collaborated with Anne and Charlotte. These remained unnoticed, and Wuthering Heights (1847) was unfavorably received. Set in the moors, it is the story of the effect of a foundling named Heathcliff on two neighboring families. Loving and hating with elemental intensity, he impinges on the conventions of civilization with demonic power.
Brontë died of consumption on Dec. 19, 1848. Refusing all medical attention, she struggled to perform her household tasks until the end.
Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (2 vols., 1857), is a basic source. Charles W. Simpson, Emily Brontë (1929), is reliable and incorporates subsequently revealed material. See also Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford, Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work (1953). □