Sealed in her art-world, the moor strategically placed for escape above the house, no domesticating and limiting mother to weaken her capacity for identification with whatever sex she chose to impersonate at a particular moment, polite society at a safe distance, and a father who seems to have selected her as an honorary boy to be trusted with fire-arms in defence of the weak, Emily Brontë's life exemplifies a rough joy in itself, its war-games, its word games and its power to extend its own structuring vision out upon the given world. [Davies, 9]
Emily Brontë was born at Thornton, Bradford, Yorkshire, and just after the birth of her sister Anne (20 April 1820), she moved with her family to Haworth, near Keighley, Yorkshire, where she spent most of her life. Today remembered chiefly as the author of the eighteenth-century romance Wuthering Heights (1847), set in her native Yorkshire, Emily Brontë was the second surviving daughter and fifth child of Cornishwoman Maria Brontë and the Ulsterman Reverend Patrick Brontë (1777-1861), "perpetual curate" (rector) of the remote village of Haworth on the Yorkshire Moors from 1820 until his death in 1861. Maria died on 15 September 1821, survived by her husband, five daughters, and a son, Branwell (1817-48). Emily and her sisters (except Anne) attended Cowan Bridge School, a Church of England clergymen's daughters' boarding school (the original of Lowood in Charlotte's Jane Eyre). Emily spent a total of just six months there: 25 November 1824 to 1 June 1825. The eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, became so ill that they had to be taken home, and died shortly after their return, the former on 6 May and the latter on 15 June 1825. From then until 1830 the surviving children remained at Haworth. From 29 July through October 1835 Emily taught at Miss Wooler's School at Roe Head, where Charlotte had taught in 1831-32.
The girls' real education, however, was at the Haworth parsonage, where they had the run of their father's books, and were thus nurtured on the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Sir Walter Scott and many others. They enthusiastically read articles on current affairs, lengthy reviews and intellectual disputes in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and The Edinburgh Review. They also ranged freely in Aesop and in the colourfully bizarre world of The Arabian Nights' Entertainments. . . . [Cambridge Guide, 118
After service as a governess in Halifax, Yorkshire (the second half of the year 1838), in 1842 Emily accompanied her surviving sisters, Anne and Charlotte, to Brussels, where from mid-February through the beginning of November they attended the Pensionnat Héger with the goal of improving their proficiency in French in order to start their own school. Their 1844 plans for their own school, however, foundered, and the sisters were reunited at Haworth in August 1845. When in the autumn of 1845 Charlotte accidentally discovered the manuscript of Emily's Gondal verses, she initiated the publication of a volume of poems by all three sisters, who as a clergyman's daughters thought it advisable to adopt the noms des plumes Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell (probably with a pun on "Belle"). In the preface to the 1850 edition of the poems, Charlotte herself recalls the moment of discovery:
Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, — a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, not at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music — wild, melancholy, and elevating. [cited by Ian Jack, p. 359]
A year after the publication by Thomas Cautley Newby, London, of Wuthering Heights (December 1847), Emily died of tuberculosis. On 19 December 1848, she suddenly expired as she stood with one hand on the mantlepiece of the living room in the Haworth parsonage. She was just 30 years old but had already produced a romantic tragedy in novel form, written over the course of 1845-46, yet to be surpassed in the English language. As Paul Lieder points out,
Emily Brontë wrote so little in her short life that it is difficult to appraise her work with any surety. One point is generally agreed upon: that in both her prose and poetry there is, in spite of minor faults, a rare power.
In her poetry, Emily Brontë achieves a remarkable effect by the energy and sincerity, and often by the music, with which she portrays her stoicism, independence, and compassion in stanzas which in many instances are the commonplace vehicles used by mere rimers. It is as though she were brought up to feel that certain forms of verse were the patterns, and had, with dogged acceptance, poured into them her emotions with an honesty that made the outward form seem negligible. [Lieder 287-288]
Davies, Stevie. Emily Brontë. Key Women Writers series, ed. Sue Roe. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana U. P., 1988.
Jack, Ian. "A Chronology of Emily Brontë." Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. The World's Classics. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1988. Pp. xxvi-xxvii.
Lieder, Paul, ed. "Emily Brontë (1818-1848)." Eminent British Poets of the Nineteenth Century, Volume Two: Tennyson to Housman. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1938. P. 287.
McGovern, Una, ed. Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2003.
Ousby, Ian, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2003.
Last modified 12 August 2004