Literary anniversary

The short, sad life of Emily Brontë

On her birthday, a look back at one of history’s most talented female authors

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A portrait of Emily Brontë (Wikimedia)

Emily Brontë was born on this day 197 years ago. Considered to be one of the greatest female authors ever to put pen to paper, she produced only one book—her masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. But Emily’s legacy as a literary giant did not come in time for her to enjoy it. Upon its release, Wuthering Heights was critically reviled. Emily died suddenly and too young, at age 30, without ever knowing that the world would one day appreciate her genius.

She grew up on moors near Yorkshire in England. Her father was a minister, and worked as a rector in a small town called Haworth. When she was three, Emily’s mother died, leaving behind six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Maria died in 1825, and Elizabeth several weeks later. By the time she was six years old, Emily’s life had been marked by tragic loss.

The three surviving Brontë sisters all wrote poetry and, in 1845, published a joint collection titled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (the first letter of each pseudonym corresponds to each sister’s first initial). Critics would one day point to the beauty of Emily’s verse, but at the time, the book only sold two copies. The rest of Emily’s life seems to have been largely uneventful. She rarely travelled far from her home in Haworth, content to spend her days in her father’s house. Emily never married, and there is no evidence to suggest that she ever engaged in any romantic affairs.

It is somewhat difficult to reconcile these staid (though admittedly meager) details of Emily’s biography with the brooding, tempestuous narrative of her magnum opus. Wuthering Heights has given us some of literature’s most complex and vivacious characters: vicious Heathcliffe, self-destructive Catherine, pathetic Hareton. The novel is a story of electric passion and terrifying hatred, played out against the backdrop of suitably dark and blustery moors.

Wuthering Heights was published in December of 1847, several months after it was slated to go to print; publication had been delayed until after the release of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, which became an instant success. Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, was met with near-universal critical disdain. The Examiner wrote that the novel “was a strange book. It is not without evidences of considerable power: but, as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable.” A reviewer of Philadelphia’s Graham’s Lady Magazine declared Wuthering Heights “a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors,” and wondered how a person could write such a book without “committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters.”

Not long after the release of her novel, Emily’s health took a turn for the worse. She had been grappling with tuberculosis for some time, but her breathing suddenly became labored and she endured great pain. She died on December 19, 1848. But though her life was short and devoid of the appreciation she deserved, at least one person seems to have recognized Emily’s genius before the rest of the world caught on. In a preface to Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë takes it upon herself to point out the flaws of her sister’s novel, but ends with praise for the story’s complex beauty:

Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials,” she wrote. “The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor … With time and labour, the crag took human shape; and there it stands colossal, dark, and frowning, half statue, half rock: in the former sense, terrible and goblin-like; in the latter, almost beautiful, for its colouring is of mellow grey, and moorland moss clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows faithfully close to the giant’s foot.”

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