Emily Brontë, born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in northern England in 1818, is considered by Nineteenth Century Literature as a fascinating enigma. Living most of her brief life in the morally circumspect atmosphere of her father’s parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, she failed, according to Nineteenth Century Literature to establish social contacts aside from her family. Yet, she was able to create in Wuthering Heights a world rife with tempestuous, passionate, vengeful characters. How, one wonders, was she able to depict violent human nature, given the seeming uneventfulness of her life?
Despite her reclusive nature, she was a great observer of life. Although she has generally been depicted as a recluse, she was, in fact, exposed to a cross-section of society through her father’s congregation and their very diverse life experiences. In fact, the Yorkshire temperament has often been characterized as somewhat passionate and vengeful, replete with blunt manners and colorful speech. Clearly, Brontë had personal experience with the type of people she characterized in Wuthering Heights.
Her first exposure to the type of emotional cruelty depicted in Wuthering Heights may have come during her stay at the Haworth school. Educated there with her sisters, Emily could not help being aware of the special torment meted out to her sister Maria by the despotic headmistress. Indeed, even her life at home was not immune from life’s seamier side. Her brother Branwell was a dissolute figure, addicted to both alcohol and drugs. Living amidst the sometimes rough Yorkshire gentlemen farmers of her father’s parish, Brontë was undoubtedly exposed to the darker side of human behavior. Nevertheless, the extreme violence and obsessive passion in her art fascinates her readers for its sharp contrast with the conventional aspects of her life.
A seemingly insignificant event in her childhood fostered Brontë’s creative imagination. When she was eight, her father bought his children a set of wooden toy soldiers. While playing with them, Brontë and her siblings Charlotte, Branwell, and Anne created imaginary lands about which they invented stories and poems, peopled with characters of their fancies. Emily invented an imaginary Pacific island called Gondal, which was the wellspring of her many romantic fantasies.
Although Brontë left her home briefly to study in Brussels, the death of the aunt who had raised her and her siblings forced her to return home at the age of 24 where she lived for the remainder of her life. While tending to household duties, she wrote poetry based on her childhood Gondal fantasies. Acting on Charlotte’s suggestion, she published some of her poems with those of her sisters’, using the pseudonym “Ellis Bell.” Although the book, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell only sold two copies, the poems written by Emily were singled out by one critic as the best in the collection. Meanwhile, Brontë had been working on Wuthering Heights, which was published in 1847 together with her sister Anne’s novel, Agnes Grey, and which followed on the heels of Charlotte’s masterpiece, Jane Eyre. Agnes Grey fell into obscurity, while Jane Eyre met with critical acclaim.
Some Victorian critics, such as the one writing in the July 1848 issue of Graham’s Magazine, objected to the “vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors” depicted in Wuthering Heights, asking how “a human being could have written such a book … without attempting suicide.” In 1850, while working with the editors on the Second Edition of the novel, Charlotte defended Wuthering Heights, replete with authentic Yorkshire dialect and manners, as “realistic,” although she allowed that it did contain sinister overtones. Her contemporaries were not quite ready for Brontë’s sinister form of realism which fell far outside the mainstream of conventional Victorian sensibilities.
In any event, Brontë was not to live long after Wuthering Heights' publication. She tended her brother, Branwell, while he was dying from alcoholism and drug abuse. During his funeral she caught a severe cold which developed into tuberculosis. Refusing medical attention, she died very shortly after him in December 1848.
Did this raise a question for you?