Reserved and reclusive by nature, Emily Jane Brontë remains a figure whose life and personality are largely shrouded in mystery. She was born on July 30, 1818, at Thornton in Yorkshire. Her father, Patrick, was the curate of Haworth, and her mother, Maria Branwell Brontë, died of cancer when Emily was three. Two of Emily’s older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption when she was just seven. The surviving Brontë children—Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily, and Anne—were brought up by a maternal aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who came to live in their father’s parsonage. She read to them from newspapers, and the children kept abreast of political debates, such as the question of Catholic emancipation and the aftermath of the French Revolution. They also had free reign of their father’s library, where they encountered such writers of their time as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth, along with William Shakespeare and Aesop. Two of their favorite books were John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). In June of 1826 Patrick Brontë gave Branwell a set of twelve wooden soldiers, and the four siblings began to create a fantasy world. Ascribing names and personalities to the toy soldiers, the Brontës wrote and performed a number of plays. Later, Emily and Anne created the Gondal saga, which centered on the inhabitants of an imaginary island in the north Pacific. These “Gondal chronicles,” the inspiration for some of Emily’s most passionate poems, occupied her thoughts and writings throughout most of her life, even after Anne had tired of the fantasy.
Although she wrote quite extensively, Emily had little formal schooling. In 1835 she briefly attended Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, where Charlotte was a teacher; she left after only three months because she was homesick and made few friends, and as a result, her health was suffering. Around 1837 (the exact date remains in question) Emily taught at Law Hill School but remained there only a short time. In 1842 she and Charlotte studied in Brussels, where Emily was exposed to the writings of the French and German Romantics. It was at home on the moors, however, where Emily was happiest, and aside from limited travels for schooling, she spent her life in Haworth.
In the biographical notice Charlotte wrote for the republication of Wuthering Heights in 1850, she refers to her accidental discovery of a notebook of Emily’s poems five years earlier: “My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication.” But Charlotte did succeed, and in 1846 the three Brontë sisters, using pseudonyms, published Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
Emily is best remembered for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847 to much less recognition than her sister’s Jane Eyre. Only with its 1850 republication and with Charlotte’s preface, which addresses some of the violence and nihilism of the novel, did Wuthering Heights begin to receive real recognition. Emily Brontë died on December 19, 1848.
The World of Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights
1818 Emily Jane Brontë is born on July 30. The fourth canto of Byron’s Childe Harold is published.
1819 The Reverend Patrick Brontë, Emily’s father, is offered a lifetime curacy at Haworth.
1820 The Brontës move to Haworth.
1821 Emily’s mother dies. Her sister, their Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, agrees to raise the Brontë children.
1824 Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily are sent to the Clergy Daughters’ school at Cowan Bridge.
1825 Maria Brontë dies in May. Charlotte and Emily are taken out of school. Elizabeth dies in June.
1826 The four surviving Brontë children use Branwell’s toy soldiers to create make-believe characters. These sol diers, referred to by the children as the Young Men, are the source for numerous plays they write and perform.
1827- 1828 The Brontë children begin the play The Islanders; each picks an actual island and populates it with his or her favorite heroes. Having been influenced by their readings of The Arabian Nights, the Brontës see them selves as genii who have omnipotent power over the worlds they create. Emily selects Sir Walter Scott, his son-in-law, and his grandson as some of her heroes. Their aunt had earlier given the children a copy of Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather (1828).
1831 Emily and Anne begin the Gondal saga,