At a time when the fad in literary biography is for huge tomes detailing every moment in a writer’s life and speculating exhaustively on every ambiguity, it is refreshing to read a study of a major literary figure that emphasizes essential events and a strong narrative line Nevertheless, one may rightly ask why, after Winifred Gerin’s four-volume treatment of the Brontë siblings, a new study of Emily Brontë is warranted. Katherine Frank raises and squarely answers this question herself asserting the need to correct “the rhapsodic, storm-tossed, fundamentally sentimental version of the family’s story.” Her interpretation presents Emily as neither Romantic rebel nor passive victim but as a courageous, willful, secretive, and very often abrasive woman of great but often self-destructive integrity.
The essential facts of the Brontës’ story are well known and not much in dispute. Patrick Brontë, born in Ireland, raised himself from the peasantry to become first a student at the University of Cambridge and then an ordained clergyman of Evangelical temper. He accepted a call to his second parish in Haworth, Yorkshire, in 1820 and remained there until his death in 1861. His wife’s death in 1821, followed by the deaths of his two oldest daughters in 1825, left his remaining four children essentially orphaned and deeply affected, for neither Patrick nor his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell could provide the parental affection necessary to children. Isolated from adults and cut off by class and temperament from village life, the children took refuge in fantasy worlds of their own creation—worlds that all the children except Emily eventually outgrew. Allowed free rein in their father’s library and stimulated by subscriptions to newspapers and Blackwood’s magazine, the children received a rich but unsystematic education whose weaknesses were revealed when Charlotte Brontë and later Emily attended Roe Head School. Already tall, gawky, and withdrawn, Emily could not adjust to school discipline and, Frank claims, gained control by refusing to eat. Thus was established what Frank sees as a recurrent pattern in Emily’s life: Emily is content only when at Haworth, where she can consume her days in household tasks (particularly cooking and baking) and long walks on the trackless Yorkshire moors, and spend her nights writing about the imaginary kingdom of Gondal.
Frank sees the other major events in Emily’s life as similarly revolving around the need for privacy and liberty. Whenever these were threatened or taken from her, she retreated into sullen silence and a refusal to eat—a refusal so adamant and self-destructive that Frank interprets her malady as anorexia nervosa. Whether this label is clinically accurate, Frank builds a convincing case for the general pattern. When the long hours, loneliness, and drudgery of teaching at Law Hill School could no longer be tolerated, Emily wrote Gondal poems dominated by images of imprisonment and once more starved herself until she was sent home. Again, in 1842 in Brussels at the Pensionnat Heger, where Charlotte and Emily were to be acquiring the “accomplishments” that would enable them to establish their own school, Emily rebelled and punished her sister by keeping her from the other teachers, refusing to speak, and denying herself food. Brought back to Haworth by Aunt Branwell’s death, Emily never again left the parsonage for more than a day or two, and thus in control of her life and free to write and roam the moors, she was restored to health. Not until her brother Branwell’s death from tuberculosis, brought on by the dissipation of alcohol and opium addiction, did Emily again resort to her extreme tactics of rebellion. In 1848, just months after Branwell’s death, Emily herself died of tuberculosis. No doubt she contracted the disease from her brother, but its onset was aided by a weakened resistance brought on by depression and hunger.
The pivotal moment in this otherwise unremarkable narrative occurred on an afternoon in October, 1845, when Charlotte, depressed at the failure of all of her endeavors, found two small leather-bound notebooks in Emily’s portable writing desk. Violating her sister’s fierce sense of privacy, she opened these and discovered poems of a quality she did not expect. These were no mere effusions of a Victorian lady versifier, but the real thing, poetry of honest emotion and original expression. How Charlotte persuaded Emily to overcome her natural reticence and to join with her and Anne in jointly publishing their poems literary historians will never know. From this point forward, however, the...
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