Emily Jane Brontë
The author of Wuthering Heights was Emily Jane Brontë, the middle of the world-famous Brontë sisters (pronounced BRON-tee, not bron-TAY, see Pronunciations). An isolated, painfully shy woman, she produced one of the most distinctive novels in literature and some of the greatest poetry. Her character and life are as singular as her book.
Emily had an unusual character, extremely unsocial and reserved, with few friends outside her family. She preferred the company of animals to people and rarely travelled, forever yearning for the freedom of Haworth and the moors. She had a will of iron – a well known story about her is that she was bitten by a (possibly) rabid dog which resulted in her walking calmly into the kitchen and cauterising the wound herself with a hot iron.1
She had unconventional religious beliefs, rarely attending church services and, unlike the other children, never teaching in the Sunday School.
In appearance, she was lithesome and graceful, the tallest of the Brontë children (her coffin measured five feet seven inches – 1.7 metres) but ate sparingly and would starve herself when unhappy or unable to get her own way. As her literary works suggest, she was highly intelligent, teaching herself German while working in the kitchen (her favourite place outside of the moors) and playing the piano well enough to teach it in Brussels. Her stubbornness lasted to the end where she refused to see a doctor or rest while she was dying of tuberculosis.
In 1871, Ellen Nussey, a lifelong friend of the Brontës, wrote of her first impressions of the fifteen-year-old Emily in Reminiscences of Charlotte Brontë2:
Emily Brontë had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte's, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes – kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you; she was too reserved. Their colour might be said to be dark grey, at other times dark blue, they varied so. She talked very little. She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.
Charlotte famously said of her sister:
Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.3Link to page of portraits (genuine and otherwise) of Emily Brontë
Link to a larger, more detailed version of this chart Link to a printable version of the tree
Right hand column shows Emily's age at the time of the event.
|30 July, 1818||Emily Jane born at Thornton|
|April 1820||The family moves to Haworth||20m|
|15 September 1821||Maria, Emily's mother, dies||3|
|25 November 1824||Emily joins her sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, at Cowan Bridge School||6|
|1 June 1825||Emily and Charlotte return from Cowan Bridge School after typhoid strikes and the death of their two older sisters.||6|
|5 June 1826||Mr Brontë brings home 12 wooden soldiers for Branwell and the children begin creating imaginary worlds||7|
|Before July 1831||Creates the imaginary kingdom of Gondal with Anne||12|
|29 July 1835||Becomes a pupil at Roe Head School where Charlotte is a teacher||17|
|October 1835||Returns from Roe Head after starving herself||17|
|September 1838||Begins work as teacher at Law Hill, Halifax, probably for about six months||20|
|February 1842||Charlotte and Emily travel to a school in Brussels (Emily stays for about nine months)||23|
|Autumn 1845||Charlotte finds Emily's poetry. Probably began Wuthering Heights about now||27|
|May 1846||Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell published||27|
|December 1847||Wuthering Heights published along with Agnes Grey||29|
|28 September, 1848||Branwell's funeral at which Emily catches a severe cold leading to tuberculosis||30|
|19 December, 1848||Dies at Haworth Parsonage at about two in the afternoon||30|
|22 December, 1848||Interred in family vault at St Michael and All Angels Church, Haworth||30|
Emily was 30 years, 4 months and 23 days old when she died.Link to a graphical timeline of Emily and her siblings
Irish-born Patrick Brontë (who changed his surname from Brunty) and his Cornish wife Maria Branwell, moved to Thornton in Yorkshire where Emily was born 201 years ago on 30 July 1818. She was the fifth of six children. Her second name was probably inspired by her godmother, (her mother's cousin) although it is unknown where 'Emily' came from.4
In 1820, the family moved to Haworth, where Emily's father was to be perpetual curate. Haworth was an unhealthy, poor town and the children spent much of their time either roaming on the nearby moors or in the parsonage, creating stories and poems about imaginary lands.
The four eldest Brontë daughters were enrolled as pupils at the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in 1824. The following year Maria and Elizabeth, the two eldest daughters, became ill, left the school and died; Charlotte and Emily returned home.
For a poor clergyman's daughter, there was little hope of a career beyond a governess or teacher and Emily began work as the latter at Law Hill school, near Halifax in 1838 but hated the job, starving herself and returning home about six months later. In February 1842,with her sister Charlotte, she attended a private school in Brussels with the intention of preparing themselves to open their own teaching establishment. Emily again found herself unsuited to the life and the sisters returned home in November. They tried to open up a school at their home in 1844 but had no pupils and Emily eventually accepted a domestic life in the parsonage, cooking and looking after her father.
The Brontë sisters
(Anne, Emily and Charlotte,
aged about 15, 17 and 19 respectively)
painted by Branwell in 1834
The plaque marking
in St. Michael Church
Charlotte, Emily and Anne published a joint collection of their poetry in 1846 under the pen-names Currer, Ellis5 and Acton Bell. In 1847, Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were published in a three volume set to mixed reviews (Wuthering Heights comprising two of the volumes, Agnes Grey the other). Wuthering Heights was republished in 1850 under Emily's real name.
Her brother Branwell died in September 1848 and Emily caught a chill during the funeral. This brought on the tuberculosis that she had probably originally caught when nursing Branwell. Refusing all medical help until too late, she died 170 years ago surrounded by her family on 19 December, 1848, about two in the afternoon. She was interred in the family vault of the church opposite her Haworth home three days later.
(She was so emaciated when she died that her coffin was just 16 inches/40 cm wide.)
The record of Emily's burial
Emily (and her sisters') first published work was the book Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, published in 1846 with their own money. It was not a success, selling only two copies (although it did better as a reprint after the success of the novels). The sisters and Branwell had written poetry from childhood and the venture came about when Charlotte discovered a book of Emily's poetry in 1845 and persuaded her (with difficulty) to combine them with Charlotte's and Anne's. Despite the failure of the book, the sisters continued their literary career, turning to prose.
Emily only wrote the one novel, Wuthering Heights, although she was probably working on a second when she died. However, no trace of this book remains. We only think she was writing it because her publisher, T C Newby, sent her a letter dated 15 February 1848 which said:
I am much obliged by your kind note and shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your new work. If it be an improvement on your first, you will have established yourself as a first rate novelist, but if it fall short the Critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel. I shall therefore have pleasure in accepting it upon the understanding that its completion be in your own time.
You can read some contemporary reviews of Wuthering Heights on the Critical Reviews page.
Some of her poems (and one by Charlotte) can be seen by clicking on the link below.Link to Selected Poetry by Emily Brontë
A GoogleMap showing Wuthering Heights and Emily Brontë locations can be seen by clicking on the image left or here.
1. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Elizabeth Gaskell, 1857. Chapter 12.
2. Reminiscences of Charlotte Brontë. Ellen Nussey, 1871.
3. Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell. Charlotte Brontë, 1850.
4. The Brontës. Juliet Barker, 1994. Chapter 3.
5. Ellis may have come from the Ellis family who were the main mill owners in Bingley, near Haworth or the Bradford MP Ellis Culiffe Lister-Kay; Bell probably came from Arthur Bell Nicholls, Patrick Brontë's curate. The Brontës. Juliet Barker, 1994. Chapter 17.