The author of Wuthering Heights (1847), Brontë was one of a trio of sisters whose writings introduced some of the most compelling characters in the history of the novel. Though Brontë completed only one novel, hers is often acknowledged as the greatest of the works by the Brontë sisters: the most complete, with the most expansive vision of both men and women. Her reputation as a difficult, temperamental individual has colored the reception and interpretation of her work, and the intensity and violent passions of Wuthering Heights and its female characters have made it a difficult work for feminist critics to interpret as a woman's novel. Nonetheless, Brontë's depiction of polarized gender differences and women's desire have led to the assessment of Wuthering Heights as an important text in the history of women's writing.
Brontë was born July 30, 1818 in Thornton, Yorkshire, England, the fifth of six children born to Maria Branwell Brontë and the Reverend Patrick Brontë. The family moved to the nearby parson-age at Haworth in 1820, which was her home for her entire life but for intermittent bursts of formal schooling. Her mother died in 1821, leaving Reverend Brontë and Brontë's maternal aunt to raise the children; Brontë was sent to the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in 1825. The dismal conditions at the school led to the death of two of her older sisters, and Brontë returned to Haworth, where her father determined the remaining children—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—should be self-educated and kept apart from the other children of the village. In addition to a diverse reading program, the children spent much time in imaginative play. Emily and her younger sister Anne invented the realm of Gondal, for which they created a romantic legend and history. In 1835, Emily followed Charlotte to Roe Head, a school in East Yorkshire where Charlotte was teaching, but Emily apparently did not thrive there and soon returned home, and Anne was sent to Roe Head in her place. In 1838, Brontë worked as an assistant teacher at the Law Hill School near Halifax, but this too was short-lived. Her time in Halifax likely provided the model for the house of Wuthering Heights, in High Sunderland Hall, and possibly some hints of the story of Heathcliff, in stories about local Halifax legend Jack Sharp. In 1842, she and Charlotte traveled to Brussels to acquire the skills needed to establish a school of their own, but when their aunt died later that year the Brontës returned to Haworth again, and for the rest of Emily's life the parsonage was her residence. In 1845, Charlotte discovered one of Emily's private poetry notebooks, and at Charlotte's urging the three remaining Brontë sisters published a collection titled Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846). The few notices of the book were generally positive, but it sold only two copies. Meanwhile, Emily had been working on Wuthering Heights, which was published in an edition that also included Anne's first novel, Agnes Grey, in December 1847. Charlotte's first novel, Jane Eyre, had been published just two months earlier. Wuthering Heights was not well received, and Brontë began to turn her attention again to poetry. Her work was interrupted by the death of her brother Branwell on September 24, 1848. Branwell had been unhealthy for some time, in part the result of alcoholism, and Brontë had been one of his primary caretakers. By October of the same year, Brontë was ill herself with what appeared to be a cough and cold but was actually tuberculosis. According to popular accounts, Brontë, allegedly strong-willed by nature, refused rest and medical attention. She died on December 19, 1848, and was buried at Haworth.
Brontë authored 193 poems and verse fragments in her life, but none of her poetry compares in reputation to her novel Wuthering Heights, which has become one of the most widely read novels in the English language. The novel chronicles the attachment between Heathcliff, an orphan taken in by the Earnshaw family of Wuthering Heights, and the family's daughter Catherine. The two characters are joined by a spiritual bond of preternatural strength, yet Catherine elects to marry her more refined neighbor, Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange. Ultimately, this decision leads to Catherine's madness and death and prompts Heathcliff to take revenge upon both the Lintons and the Earnshaws. Heathcliff eventually dies, consoled by the thought of uniting with Catherine's spirit, and the novel ends with the suggestion that Hareton Earnshaw, the last descendent of the Earnshaw family, will marry Catherine's daughter, Catherine Linton, and abandon Wuthering Heights for Thrushcross Grange. Brontë's narrative style is marked by fierce animal imagery, scenes of raw violence, and supernatural overtones. While Brontë's unique methods of storytelling and artistic craftsmanship have been appreciated by critics, the characters of Heathcliff and Catherine are at the center of the novel's power: ambiguous, sometimes unsympathetic protagonists, they represent not only ill-fated lovers but reflections of the tension between natural and civilized values and between the spiritual and material worlds. The unreliability of the novel's narrators and the uneven morality of its characters render Wuthering Heights problematic when interpreting the book's themes and moral sensibility. Critical interest in the paradoxes of Wuthering Heights led to a modern increase of interest in Brontë's early poetry, particularly the poems of Gondal, which have been read as a creative forerunner of the book. The passionate characters and violent motifs of the Gondal poems reappear in Wuthering Heights, and scholars have begun to connect Brontë's other poetry to her fantasy world of Gondal.
Immediate critical response to Brontë's work mixed admiration for the power of the storytelling with distaste for the harsher, more shocking elements of the novel. When "Ellis Bell" was discovered to be a woman, that distaste tended toward disapproval. Critics suggested that if such writing was strong for a man, it was unseemly for a woman; some critics took a paternalistic tone in suggesting that Brontë lacked feminine discretion. Others, however, could not believe a woman capable of creating a character like Heathcliff. Several reviewers argued that the brutality of Wuthering Heights and the insightful depiction of a male character proved that at least parts of the novel were written by Branwell Brontë. While such gender stereotypes have come to seem obsolete by modern standards, critics have continued to observe that Brontë eludes forms of analysis and interpretation usually applied to women authors. In a 1991 essay, Emma Francis asks, "Is Emily Brontë a Woman?" as a reflection of the challenges in reading Brontë's work from a conventional feminist perspective. Many critics have focused their attention on the circumstances and environment that could have produced such an unusual mind. Mary A. Ward saw the foundations for Brontë's "wildness" of thought in her breeding, in the landscape surrounding her, and in her tendency to withdraw from social life. While some feminist critics have seen in Brontë's self-imposed seclusion an example of the nineteenth-century repression of women's self-expression, Stevie Davies suggests that Brontë led a life of remarkable independence and that the unusual freedom with which she lived allowed her to develop her unique creative vision. But as Carol Senf has observed, the tendency to emphasize Brontë's solitude and interiority has led scholars to miss the author's broader feminist vision. Senf claims that Wuthering Heights also examines the evolution of women's roles in a patriarchal society and imagines the possibility of further changes, a view of women's potential empowerment also observed by Drew Lamonica. The mystique of Brontë's unusual personality has also hindered the study of Wuthering Heights as serious literature. Not until 1926, with C. P. Sanger's study The Structure of Wuthering Heights (see Further Reading), did critics begin to approach the novel as a work of art.
* Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell [as Ellis Bell] (poetry) 1846
† Wuthering Heights [as Ellis Bell] (novel) 1847
* Life and Works of the Sisters Brontë. 7 vols. (novels and poetry) 1899-1903
* The Shakespeare Head Brontë. 19 vols. (novels, poetry, and letters) 1931-38
Gondal Poems (poetry) 1938
The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë (poetry) 1941
* This collection includes works by other members of the Brontë family.
† This edition of Wuthering Heights also includes the novel Agnes Grey, written by Anne Brontë.
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EMILY BRONTË (POEM DATE 1846)
SOURCE: Brontë, Emily. "How Clear She Shines." In The Poems of Emily Brontë, edited by Clement Shorter, pp. 31-32. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.
In the following poem, originally published in the 1846 collection Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Brontë displays some of the passionate motifs that later appear in Wuthering Heights.
HOW CLEAR SHE SHINES
How clear she shines! How quietly
I lie beneath her guardian light;
While heaven and earth are whispering me,
'To-morrow, wake, but dream to-night.'
Yes, Fancy, come, my Fairy love!
These throbbing temples softly kiss;
And bend my lonely couch above,
And bring me rest, and bring me bliss.
The world is going; dark world, adieu!
Grim world, conceal thee till the day;
The heart thou canst not all subdue
Must still resist, if thou delay!
Thy love I will not, will not share;
Thy hatred only wakes a smile;
Thy griefs may wound—thy wrongs may tear,
But, oh, thy lies shall ne'er beguile!
While gazing on the stars that glow
Above me, in that stormless...
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EMILY BRONTË (ESSAY DATE 1846)
SOURCE: Brontë, Emily. "No Coward Soul is Mine." In The Poems of Emily Brontë, edited by Clement Shorter, pp. 81-82. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.
In the following poem, originally published in the 1846 collection Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Brontë offers what many commentators have identified as a reflection of her personality and private beliefs. Charlotte Brontë published it with the preface, "The following are the last lines my sister Emily ever wrote." Emily Dickinson selected the poem to be read at her own funeral.
NO COWARD SOUL IS MINE
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven's glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life—that in me has rest,
As I—undying Life—have power in Thee!
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idle froth amid the boundless main,
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
SOURCE: Francis, Emma. "Is Emily Brontë a Woman?: Femininity, Feminism, and the Paranoid Critical Subject." In Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day, edited by Philip Shaw and Peter Stockwell, pp. 28-40. London: Pinter, 1991.
In the following essay, Francis looks at the avant-garde aspects of Brontë's work to consider how her poetry confounds a conventional feminist reading.
The critical history of Emily Brontë's poetry is a history of evasion. The vast body of work which advertises its subject as 'Emily Brontë' is, in fact, almost wholly engaged with Wuthering Heights (1847) (Brontë 1965). Where her poetry is read, the cacophony of other poetic voices almost invariably invoked when speaking of her work—ranging through the canon of male romanticism and its antecedents such as Milton—is at its loudest. That these comparisons function not to elucidate her poetics, but to avoid encountering them, became abundantly clear in 1986 when Robert K. Wallace published Emily Brontë and Beethoven. Wallace manages to go one better than the usual account of Brontë as an honorary male romantic a decade or more after the event. His variation of the theme—that Brontë was crucially influenced by her knowledge of the 'Byronic' life and works of Beethoven—is argued out within a structure which alternates discussion of...
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MARY A. WARD (ESSAY DATE 1899)
SOURCE: Ward, Mary A. Introduction to Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, pp. xviii-xxxix. London: John Murray, 1899.
In the following excerpt, Ward discusses the genesis of Wuthering Heights from the influence of German Romanticism to the unique temperament of Brontë herself.
Emily Brontë, like her sister, inherited Celtic blood, together with a stern and stoical tradition of daily life. She was a wayward, imaginative girl, physically delicate, brought up in loneliness and poverty, amid a harsh yet noble landscape of hill, moor and stream. Owing to the fact that her father had some literary cultivation, and an Irish quickness of intelligence beyond that of his brother-clergy, this child of genius had from the beginning a certain access to good books, and through books and newspapers to the central world of thought and of affairs. In 1827, when Emily was nine, she and her sisters used to amuse themselves in the wintry firelight by choosing imaginary islands to govern, and peopling them with famous men. Emily chose the Isle of Arran, and for inhabitants Sir Walter Scott and the Lockharts; while Charlotte chose the Duke of Wellington and Christopher North. In 1829, Charlotte, in a fragment of journal, describes the newspapers taken by the family in those troubled days of Catholic emancipation...
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Barclay, Janet M. Emily Brontë Criticism 1900-1982: An Annotated Checklist. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1984, 162 p.
Provides an annotated list of writings on Emily Brontë.
Crump, Rebecca W. Charlotte and Emily Brontë: A Reference Guide. 3 vols. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
Provides critical sources from 1846-1983.
Stoneman, Patsy. "Feminist Criticism of Wuthering Heights." Critical Survey 4, no. 2 (1992): 147-53.
Surveys modern criticism on Wuthering Heights applying feminist literary theory and addressing gender issues.
Grin, Winifred. Emily Brontë Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971, 290 p.
Offers a scholarly biography that attempts to clarify the myths about Brontë's personality.
Apter, T. E. "Romanticism and Romantic Love in Wuthering Heights." In The Art of Emily Brontë, edited by Anne Smith, pp. 205-22. London: Vision Press, 1976.
Contends that Cathy and Hareton's relationship presents an alternative model...
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