Biography of Emily Brontë, English Novelist

19th Century Poet and Novelist

Portrait of Emily Bronte
Portrait of author Emily Bronte.

 Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty Images

Emily Brontë (July 30, 1818 - December 19, 1848) was an English novelist and poet. She was one of three famous writing sisters, and is best known for her novel Wuthering Heights.

Fast Facts: Emily Brontë

  • Full Name: Emily Brontë
  • Pen Name: Ellis Bell
  • Occupation: Author
  • Born: July 30, 1818 in Thornton, England
  • Died: December 19, 1848 in Haworth, England
  • Parents: Patrick Brontë and Maria Blackwell Brontë
  • Published Works: Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), Wuthering Heights (1847)
  • Quote: "I wish to be as God made me."

Early Life

Brontë was the fifth of six siblings born in six years to the Rev. Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë. Emily was born at the parsonage in Thornton, Yorkshire, where her father was serving. All six children were born before the family moved in April 1820 to where the children would live most of their lives, at the 5-room parsonage at Haworth on the moors of Yorkshire. Her father had been appointed as perpetual curate there, meaning an appointment for life: he and his family could live in the parsonage as long as he continued his work there. The father encouraged the children to spend time in nature on the moors.

Maria died the year after the youngest, Anne, was born, possibly of uterine cancer or of chronic pelvic sepsis. Maria’s older sister, Elizabeth, moved from Cornwall to help care for the children and for the parsonage. She had an income of her own.

The three eldest sisters - Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte - were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, a school for the daughters of impoverished clergy. Emily joined her sisters in 1824, upon reaching the age of six. The daughter of writer Hannah Moore was also in attendance. The harsh conditions of the school were later reflected in Charlotte Brontë's novel, Jane Eyre. Emily’s experience of the school, as the youngest of the four, was better than that of her sisters, but the conditions were still harsh and abusive.

A typhoid fever outbreak at the school led to several deaths. The next February, Maria was sent home very ill, and she died in May, probably of pulmonary tuberculosis. Then Elizabeth was sent home late in May, also ill. Patrick Brontë brought his other daughters home as well, and Elizabeth died on June 15.

Imaginary Tales and Teaching Career

When her brother Patrick was given some wooden soldiers as a gift in 1826, the siblings began to make up stories about the world that the soldiers lived in. They wrote the stories in tiny script, in books small enough for the soldiers, and also provided newspapers and poetry for the world they apparently first called Glasstown. Emily and Anne had small roles in these tales. By 1830, Emily and Anne had created a kingdom themselves, and later created another, Gondal, about 1833. This creative activity bonded the two youngest siblings, making them more independent from Charlotte and Branwell.

Brontë went with her sister Charlotte when the elder sister got a job teaching at Roe Head school in July 1835. She hated the school – her shyness and free spirit didn’t fit in. She lasted three months, and returned home, with her younger sister, Anne, taking her place. Back home, without either Charlotte or Anne, she kept to herself. Her earliest dated poem is from 1836. All the writings about Gondal from earlier or later times are now gone, aside from a 1837 reference from Charlotte to something Emily had composed about Gondal.

Painting of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte
Painting of the Bronte sisters by their father, circa 1834.  VCG Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images

Brontë applied for a teaching job of her own in September of 1838. She found the work grueling, working from dawn until nearly 11 pm every day. After just six months, she returned home, quite ill again. Instead, she stayed at Haworth for three more years, taking on household duties, reading and writing, playing the piano.

Eventually, the sisters began to make plans to open a school. Emily and Charlotte went to London and then Brussels, where they attended a school for six months. They were then invited to stay on as teachers to pay their tuition; Emily taught music and Charlotte taught English. In October to their home for the funeral of their aunt Elizabeth Branwell. The four Brontë siblings received shares of their aunt’s estate, and Emily worked as a housekeeper for her father, serving in the role their aunt had taken. 

Poetry (1844-1846)

Brontë, after returning from Brussels, began to write poetry again, as well as re-organizing and revising her previous poems. In 1845, Charlotte found one of her poetry notebooks and was impressed with the quality of the poems; she, Emily, and Anne finally read each other's poetry. The three selected poems from their collections for publication, choosing to do so under male pseudonyms. The false names would share their initials: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. They assumed that male writers would find easier publication.

The poems were published as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in May of 1846 with the help of the inheritance from their aunt. They did not tell their father or brother of their project. The book only initially sold two copies, but got positive reviews, which encouraged Brontë and her sisters.

Portrait of Emily Bronte
Portrait of Emily Bronte painted by her sister Charlotte.  Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty Images

Wuthering Heights (1847)

The sisters began preparing novels for publication. Emily, inspired by the Gondal stories, wrote of two generations of two families and the spiteful Heathcliff, in Wuthering HeightsCritics would later find it coarse, without any moral message, a highly unusual novel of its time. As with many authors, Brontë was not alive when her novel's reception shifted, but it did eventually become one of the classics of English literature.

The sisters' novels - Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Grey - were published as a 3-volume set, and Charlotte and Emily went to London to claim authorship, their identities then becoming public. Letters to her publisher seem to show that Brontë was working on a second novel before her death, but no trace of the manuscript has ever been found.

Wuthering Heights was more Gothic than anything her sisters had written, with stark depictions of cruelty and destructive emotions. Its characters are, for the most part, unlikeable, and they serve as vehicles for severe critiques of Victorian-era gender roles and classism, among other things. That harshness, combined with the fact that it was written by a female author, led to a harsh critical reception on grounds of both craft and, more often, morals. It also tended to be compared unfavorably with her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre.

Title page of a first edition of
The title page of the first edition of "Wuthering Heights", circa 1847. Wikimedia Commons

Later Life

Brontë had begun a new novel when her brother Branwell, died in April of 1848, probably of tuberculosis. Some have speculated that the conditions at the parsonage were not so healthy, including a poor water supply and chilly, foggy weather. At her brother's funeral, Brontë apparently caught a cold.

She declined quickly as the cold turned to a lung infection and, eventually, tuberculosis, but she refused medical care until relenting in her last hours. She died in December. Then Anne began to show symptoms, though she, after Emily’s experience, did seek medical help. Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey took Anne to Scarborough for a better environment, but Anne died there in May of 1849, less than a month after arriving. Branwell and Emily were buried in the family vault under Haworth church, and Anne in Scarborough.

Legacy

Wuthering Heights, Emily’s only known novel, has been adapted for stage, film and television, and remains a best-selling classic. Critics do not know precisely when Wuthering Heights was written nor how long it took to write. A few have attempted to argue that Branson Brontë, brother to the three sisters, wrote this book, but most experts disagree.

Emily Brontë is credited as one of the major sources of inspiration for Emily Dickinson's poetry (the other was Ralph Waldo Emerson).

According to correspondence at the time, Emily had begun working on another novel after Wuthering Heights was published. But no trace of that novel has turned up; it may have been destroyed by Charlotte after Emily’s death.

Sources

  • Frank, Katherine. A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë. Ballantine Books, 1992.
  • Gérin, Winifred. Emily Brontë. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
  • Vine, Steven. Emily Brontë. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.