EMILY BRONTË (1818 - 1848)
(Full name Emily Jane Brontë; also wrote under the pseudonym Ellis Bell) English novelist and poet.
Brontë is considered an important yet elusive figure in nineteenth-century English literature. Although she led a brief and circumscribed life, spent in relative isolation in a parsonage on the Yorkshire moors, she left behind a literary legacy that includes some of the most passionate and inspired writing in Victorian literature. Today, Brontë's poems are well regarded by critics, but they receive little attention, and her overall reputation rests primarily on her only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). While Brontë incorporated into that work the horror and mystery of a Gothic novel, the remote setting and passionate characters of a Romantic novel, and the social criticism of a Victorian novel, she transformed all of these traditions. In this story of extraordinary love and revenge, Brontë demonstrated the conflict between elemental passions and civilized society, resulting in a compelling work that has been elevated to the status of a literary classic. At the same time, Brontë's writings have raised many questions about their author's intent. Unable to reach a consensus concerning the ultimate meaning of her works and reluctant to assign them a definitive place in the English literary tradition, critics continue to regard Brontë as a fascinating enigma in English letters.
Although Brontë's life was outwardly uneventful, the unusual circumstances of her upbringing have prompted considerable scrutiny. One of six children born to Maria Branwell Brontë and the Reverend Patrick Brontë, she was raised in the parsonage at Haworth by her father and maternal aunt following her mother's death in 1821. In 1825 she was sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, but returned to Haworth when her sisters Maria and Elizabeth became ill at the institution and died. A significant event in Brontë's creative life occurred in 1826 when Patrick Brontë bought a set of wooden toy soldiers for his children. The toys opened up a rich fantasy world for Emily and her siblings Charlotte, Branwell, and Anne: Charlotte and Branwell created an imaginary African land called Angria, for which they invented characters, scenes, stories, and poems, and Emily and Anne later conceived a romantic legend centered upon the imaginary Pacific Ocean island of Gondal. The realm of Gondal became a lifelong interest for Brontë and, according to many scholars, a major imaginative source for her writings. In addition to composing prose works (now lost) concerning the history of Gondal, she wrote numerous poems that were evidently directly inspired by Gondal-related themes, characters, and situations. While Brontë was intellectually precocious and began writing poetry at an early age, she failed to establish social contacts outside of her family. She briefly attended a school in East Yorkshire in 1835 and worked as an assistant teacher at the Law Hill School near Halifax in about 1838, but these excursions from home were unsuccessful, ending in Brontë's early return to Haworth. She stayed at the parsonage, continuing to write poetry and attending to household duties, until 1842, when she and Charlotte, hoping to acquire the language skills needed to establish a school of their own, took positions at a school in Brussels. Her aunt's death later that year, however, forced Brontë to return to Haworth, where she resided for the rest of her life.
In 1845, Charlotte discovered one of Emily's private poetry notebooks. At Charlotte's urging Emily reluctantly agreed to publish some of her poems in a volume that also included writings by her sisters. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, reflecting the masculine pseudonyms adopted by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, respectively, was published in May 1846. While only two copies of the book were sold, at least one commentator, Sydney Dobell, praised Emily's poems, singling her out in the Athenaeum as a promising writer and the best poet among the "Bell" family. Meanwhile, Brontë had been working on Wuthering Heights, which was published in 1847 in an edition that also included Anne's first novel, Agnes Grey. Brontë's masterpiece was poorly received by contemporary critics who, repelled by the vivid portrayal of malice and brutality in the book, objected to the "degrading" nature of her subject. Brontë worked on revising her poetry after publishing Wuthering Heights, but her efforts were soon interrupted. Branwell Brontë died in September 1848, and Emily's health began to decline shortly afterwards. In accordance with what Charlotte described as her sister's strong-willed and inflexible nature, Brontë apparently refused medical attention and died of tuberculosis in December 1848.
Although Brontë is more distinguished as a novelist than as a poet, scholars regard her poetry as a significant part of her oeuvre. In particular, lacking first-hand information concerning her life and opinions, commentators have looked to the poems as a source of insight into Brontë's personality, philosophy, and imagination. Critics have attempted to reconstruct a coherent Gondal "epic" from Brontë's poems and journal entries. In addition to identifying Gondal's queen, commonly referred to as Augusta Geraldine Almeda, and her lover Julius Brenzaida as key characters in the Gondal story, scholars have underscored the presence of wars, assassination, treachery, and infanticide in Brontë's fantasy realm. Critics have consequently noted many similarities between the passionate characters and violent motifs of Gondal and Wuthering Heights, and today a generous body of criticism exists supporting the contention that the Gondal poems served as a creative forerunner of the novel.
In Wuthering Heights, Brontë chronicles the attachment between Heathcliff, a rough 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 descendant of the Earnshaw family, will marry Catherine's daughter, Catherine Linton, and abandon Wuthering Heights for Thrushcross Grange.
Initially, critics failed to appreciate Brontë's literary significance. While commentators acknowledged the emotional power of Wuthering Heights, they also rejected the malignant and coarse side of life that it depicted. Charlotte Brontë responded to this latter objection in 1850, defending the rough language and manners in her sister's novel as realistic. At the same time, however, she acknowledged the dark vision of life in the book, which she attributed to Emily's reclusive habits. This focus on Brontë's aloofness, combined with the mystical aspects of her poetry and the supernatural overtones of Wuthering Heights, fostered an image of the writer as a reclusive mystic that dominated Brontë criticism into the twentieth century. During that century, however, a number of modern studies brought Brontë's craftsmanship to light. Recognition of her artistry increased dramatically as scholars discovered the sophistication and complexity of her images, characterizations, themes, and techniques in Wuthering Heights. Interest in her poetry has also grown, primarily due to investigations into its Gondal background, so that today Brontë is the focus of considerable scholarly attention as both a novelist and poet.
Many critics have noted the Gothic elements in Brontë's novel, particularly the distinct architecture of Wuthering Heights, the characterization of Heathcliff as a dark, brooding hero, and ghostly wanderings on the moors. Syndy McMillen Conger wrote that Wuthering Heights arouses emotions "central to the Gothic experience: melancholy, desire, and terror." Commentators observe that Brontë heightened her story as well with fierce animal imagery and scenes of raw violence. Dream motifs figure prominently in Wuthering Heights, and critics also stress the importance of windows as symbolic vehicles for spiritual entrance and escape in the novel. While the Gothic tradition influenced Brontë, she also deviated from that tradition in significant ways, notably in her characterization of Catherine Earnshaw. The typical Gothic heroine is petite, naïve, and morally virtuous, but Catherine, as Conger wrote, is "complicated, analytical, and uninhibited." The subject of wide-ranging critical debate for generations, Wuthering Heights continues to defy categorization and endures as a literary classic.