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Ten Facts About Emily Brontë

Oil painting of Emily by her brother, Branwell Brontë, 1833


Greetings, Janeites! Family-oriented, mysterious, the middle child... that's right, it's time for the one and only Emily Brontë. Let us foray into her world with a few particularities, shall we?

1. Emily was incredibly private and reserved.

With her solitary and reclusive nature, as well as a great lack of surviving letters, Emily has proven a challenge for historians. While outwardly shy, her keen mind swirled with creative thoughts and passionate feelings. Family friend, Ellen Nussey, described Emily:

She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little. She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption […].

2. She preferred housework to studying or teaching.

In 1835, Charlotte returned to Roe Head to teach, after previously attending the school. Emily came too, as a pupil. Between her lack of formal education, reserved nature, and the difficulty of being separated from Anne, the experience was miserable. In three month's time Emily became ill and had to return Haworth. Anne took her place at Roe Head. When the family's beloved cook and housekeeper, Tabitha Aykroyd, broke her leg in the winter of 1836, it was Emily who completed her tasks instead. "Tabby" entered the Brontës' employ in 1824– when Emily was six– and remained with them until her death in 1855. Emily took part in the housework more than her sisters, so she and Tabby grew very close. In 1838, Emily worked as a teacher at a girls' school, Law Hill. Exhausted by long hours and thankless work, she remained there six months before, once again ill, she returned home to Haworth.

3. She was musically inclined.

Emily was a proficient pianist, and while she played regularly for family, she did not perform widely. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily traveled to Belgium to study at the Pensionnat Héger in order to prepare for opening their own school. After six months, both Charlotte and Emily were asked to stay on as instructors. Charlotte taught English; Emily taught music lessons.

4. Emily was a poor speller.

As seen in her manuscripts, spelling was not Emily's greatest strength. But despite the odd spelling here and there, Emily's work is no worse for wear. Her brilliance remains unmarred despite spelling errors, and, in a way, her mistakes are comforting. We can forget that our favorite authors did not automatically produce perfect drafts and spell everything correctly, especially in youth... just like us. (Janeites, need I say more than Love and Freindship?)

Two pages of Emily's Gondal poems, from October and November of 1844

5. Very little of her work survives.

What does survive, however, include a few private letters, paintings and sketches, and poem manuscripts. Many of the poems are connected to Gondal, the imaginary world Emily and Anne created as children, but on which they continued to collaborate through adulthood. Even in adolescence, Emily was drawn to melodrama, and many of the juvenile stories and poems she concocted about Gondal were full of themes of intrigue, murder, and treachery. This proved to be the best practice for her later prose, and what would become one of the great classics of English literature: Wuthering Heights.

"How beautiful the earth is still", one of Emily's poem penned in 1845

6. Emily's poetry was the Brontës' first claim to fame

In the early autumn of 1845, Charlotte stumbled upon a book filled with Emily's poetry. She read it, and astonished by the talent she found within, approached both Emily and Anne. At first, Emily was betrayed and shocked at Charlotte's disregard for her privacy, but in time both she and Anne softened to Charlotte's idea of publishing a collection of their work.

Of the three sisters, Emily is considered to have had the most poetic prowess. While the slim volume, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, sold a mere two copies and received only three reviews, the words of the critics were positive. Emily's poems– she contributed twenty-one to the 1846 collection– received particularly favorable notice. Publishing their poetry was, in short, a stepping-stone on the path to the Brontë sisters' future successes.

Here is a transcription of the first two stanzas of the poem pictured above.

"How beautiful the Earth is still

To thee–how full of Happiness;

How little fraught with real ill

Or shadowy phantoms of distress;

How Spring can bring thee glory yet

And Summer win thee to forget

December's sullen time!

Why dost thou hold the treasure fast

Of youth's delight, when youth is past

And thou art near thy prime?"


7. Wuthering Heights was not well received... at first.

Emily's only published novel sparked widespread controversy back in 1847. Critics were first appalled by the course– even vulgar– subject. Not everyone was deterred, however, by the Gothic undertones, lack of morals, and violent bent of the novel's plot. Algernon Charles Swinburne, literary critic, novelist, playwright, and poet, wrote of Wuthering Heights in 1883:

From the first we breathe the fresh dark air of tragic passion and presage; and to the last the changing wind and flying sunlight are in keeping with the stormy promise of the dawn. There is no monotony, there is no repetition, but there is no discord.

"Nero, Body of a Merlin", an 1841 painting by Emily Brontë

8. Emily was fond of nature and animals.

The Brontë sisters regularly took walks in the moors, and they came to be one of the only places Emily frequented beyond the church and parsonage. Emily's poetry was significantly inspired by her observations of and experiences with the flora and fauna in Haworth. Much of her surviving art depicts sweeping Yorkshire moors and Brontë family pets, particularly Charlotte's King Charles Spaniel, Flossy and Emily's bull mastiff, Keeper. Her art depicts a deep appreciation for all living creatures as well as the natural world. The Brontës had quite the menagerie at one point, shared by Anne Brontë in a "birthday paper" written on Emily's twenty-third birthday, July 30, 1841:

We have got Keeper, got a sweet little cat and lost it, and also got a hawk. Got a wild goose which has flown away, and three tame ones [...].

9. Charlotte edited Wuthering Heights.

Two years after Emily's death in 1848, Charlotte made edits to her sister's novel, Wuthering Heights, in preparation for a second printing. A new preface was added, and Charlotte also parsed through Yorkshire dialogue written phonetically, revising it for readability's sake. Emily's name was also placed in its rightful place as author, confirming once and for all that the novel was a feat of skill accomplished by Miss Emily Brontë, rather than Mr. Ellis Bell.

10. Emily was working on a second novel at the time of her death

A letter found in Emily’s desk decades after her death has given scholars reason to believe that she was in the process of writing a second novel. The missive is an amicable reply from her publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, from February 15, 1848. The "kind note" to which Newby replied, as well as any additional correspondence between them on the subject has been lost to history. While some believe the letter was actually for Anne Brontë– who would have been drafting The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at the time– the letter was addressed to Ellis Bell, which was Emily's pseudonym. The letter is as follows:

I am much obliged by your kind note & shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry it 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 falls short the Critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel.

Many believe Charlotte destroyed the elusive manuscript. The reason? No one knows for certain. Sisterly censure, perhaps. A more likely idea, however, is that she hoped to protect Emily. (Sound familiar? It seems that Charlotte Brontë and Cassandra Austen shared the quality of loyal protectiveness for their sisters.) There has been much speculation as to the lost novel's contents. Based on your knowledge of Emily Brontë, what would you suppose?


Were these riveting facts new to you? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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