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.