Background material for The House
of Dead Maids
By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry
For those who wish to learn more about the background of
The House of Dead Maids, I have written a number of web pages
dealing with my research into the Brontë family and Wuthering
Heights. You may reach all of those pages by clicking on this
"We are three sisters," Charlotte Brontë told her startled
publisher, clarifying the identity of the new novelists Currer, Acton,
and Ellis Bell. "I regretted the avowal the moment I had made
it," Charlotte wrote later. "I regret it bitterly now,
for I find it is against every feeling and intention of 'Ellis
Bell' [Emily Brontë]." (Letters, 203)
The Brontës were a very private family, admitting only a handful
of friends into their inner circle, and they had chosen pseudonyms
to preserve that privacy. "What author would be without the
advantage of being able to walk invisible?" Charlotte remarked
to her publisher. "One is thereby enabled to keep a quiet
mind." (Brontës, 546) But when Mrs. Gaskell's
famous biography of Charlotte Brontë appeared in 1857, the three
sisters lost their privacy forever. Today, their humble home in
Haworth is one of the most visited literary shrines in the world.
When a family about whom very little is known suddenly becomes
famous, every scrap of information assumes tremendous significance.
A casual rumor becomes fact. A single portrait becomes the only
record of someone's features. A single impression recorded
in a diary becomes the way the person must have behaved for decades.
Imagine how distorted the picture of our lives would be if one stranger's
impression of us during one family visit became the basis for understanding
our entire family dynamic: Engage in a rare, inconsequential quarrel
on that day, and we go down in history as quarrelsome. Feel a bit
under the weather, and we go down in history as quiet or puny.
But in the case of the Brontës, quite a bit of the distortion was
not accidental but deliberate. They wrote in Victorian England.
Their writings were controversial. Their earliest admirers did not
hesitate to misread the few facts they had gathered in order to
"protect" the three sisters' reputations, and
scholars have found their own reasons for doing so since. Emily
Brontë, the most private of the three, about whom almost nothing
is known, has received the lion's share of the Brontë mythmaking.
Charlotte Brontë herself began this mythmaking after Emily's
death. Charlotte loved Emily, but she did not understand or approve
of Wuthering Heights. "Ellis has a strong, original
mind," she wrote, employing her sister's pseudonym.
"When he writes poetry that power speaks in language at once
condensed, elaborated and refined – but in prose it breaks
forth in scenes which shock more than they attract." (Letters,
175) After Emily's death, Charlotte supplied the preface to
a new edition of Wuthering Heights, and in that preface
she spent a great deal of time apologizing for the oddities of the
novel. Emily could not help herself, Charlotte seemed to
say. Emily grew up in the middle of nowhere. She didn't get
out much. She was too ignorant to realize that her novel was unconventional.
And (most curious of all) she wasn't in control of what she
wrote—her "gift" was in control. Emily was merely
the instrument of inspirations from the beyond.
Mrs. Gaskell continued this mythmaking. Unlike Charlotte, she was
not interested in protecting the reputations of the other Brontës.
Her goal was to redeem Charlotte—at the expense of her relatives
if necessary. Mrs. Gaskell's biography turned Charlotte Brontë
into a kind of Victorian saint, a woman who had suffered much from
the harshness and eccentricity of her bizarre family. Mrs. Gaskell
sometimes had to ignore fact and print gossip in order to preserve
this storyline, but her willingness to ignore prosaic truths in
favor of more sensational rumor helped make her biography a runaway
success. Many Brontë biographers and critics have followed her lead,
so some of the commonest "facts" we know about the Brontë
sisters today are not facts at all.
Click on the links below to learn whether the following Brontë
"facts" are fact or fiction.
EMILY BRONTË WAS A PASSIVE VISIONARY WHO WROTE WHAT HER MUSE LED HER TO WRITE.
EMILY BRONTË WAS TOO ECCENTRIC TO THRIVE AWAY FROM HOME.
EMILY BRONTË LOVED HER BROTHER BRANWELL MORE THAN THE OTHERS DID.
EMILY BRONTË WILLED HER OWN DEATH.
EMILY BRONTË WAS ANOREXIC.
EMILY BRONTË HAD A SECRET LOVER.
EMILY BRONTË LOVED ANIMALS MORE THAN PEOPLE.
WROTE WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
WAS CRUEL AND MOROSE.
BURNED EMILY'S SECOND NOVEL.
EMILY BRONTË WAS A PASSIVE VISIONARY WHO WROTE WHAT HER MUSE LED HER TO WRITE.
Charlotte Brontë herself created this "fact" in her preface to Wuthering
Heights, written shortly after Emily's death:
Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff,
I do not know: I scarcely think it is. But this I know; the writer
who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not
always master—something that at times strangely wills and
works for itself. He may lay down rules and devise principles, and
to rules and principles it will perhaps for years lie in subjection;
and then, haply without any warning of revolt, there comes a time
... when ... it sets to work on statue-hewing, and you have a Pluto
or a Jove, a Tisiphone or a Psyche, a Mermaid or a Madonna, as Fate
or Inspiration direct. ...
Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple
tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block
on a solitary moor ... He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no
model but the vision of his meditations. (Wuthering Heights,
This picturesque series of metaphors conveys the impression that
Emily Brontë was helpless to guide her artistic gift. She wrote
what she was compelled to write.
In Charlotte's famous "biographical
notice," released at the same time, she made this impression even more stark: "...[Emily]
had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical
business of life; she would fail to defend her most manifest rights,
to consult her most legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always
to have stood between her and the world."
And, just in case the reader hadn't gotten the point yet,
Charlotte drove it home a little further: "Neither Emily nor
Anne was learned; they had no thought of filling their pitchers
at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse
of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation
as their limited experience had enabled them to amass." (Wuthering
In other words, it wasn't Anne's or Emily's fault that
they had written shocking stories. They didn't know better.
They couldn't help themselves.
Certainly Charlotte must have known Emily better than anyone else
did. But were Charlotte's statements truthful? We have serious
reasons to doubt them. First, Charlotte had what must have seemed
to her an excellent motive to bend the truth: her sister's
reputation was at stake, and she needed to provide some excuse for
Emily's unconventional—indeed, almost unforgiveable—
novel. Second, certain well-documented facts from Emily's
life contradict these statements convincingly.
For example, if Charlotte really thought Emily had no "worldly
wisdom" or ability to handle the "practical business
of life," would she really have left Emily in charge of her
business affairs? Charlotte proclaims in a private letter that Emily
was handling financial investments for the entire family:
Emily has made herself mistress of the necessary degree
of knowledge for conducting the matter, by dint of carefully reading
every paragraph & every advertisement in the news-papers that
related to rail-roads and as we have abstained from all gambling,
all mere speculative buying-in & selling-out—we have got
on very decently. (Brontës, 449)
And what about Charlotte's comment that her sister was not
learned? Charlotte is correct that Emily spent little time in regular
schools, but in the 1840's, this was not uncommon. It is worth
pointing out that Emily spent almost a year at Monsieur Heger's
school in Belgium, studying French literature and teaching music.
Thanks no doubt to Patrick Brontë's enthusiasm for the
education of his daughters, Emily could also read Latin: her translation
of lines from Horace's Ars Poetica, complete with
strikeouts and notes, still survives. (Birth, 17) Patrick
Brontë, who had memorized Milton's Paradise Lost
simply because he loved it so, shared his love of literature with
his family: Shakespeare and Byron were on the parsonage shelves,
all the Brontë children read magazines and newspapers (most
notably Blackwood's Magazine, one of the monthly
literary magazines of the day), and other books came into the household
from friends and probably as well from the Keighley library. (Ghnassia,
17-18; Brontës, 149) The majority of Emily's
diary papers, which relate where each member of the household is
and (if at home) what that person is doing, mention someone in the
process of either reading aloud to another person or giving another
person something to read. (Letters, 29, 53, 95) The entire
family discussed literature and politics enthusiastically over their
meals, and proper little Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's closest
friend, was absolutely horrified to hear Irish ghost stories told
at the Brontë breakfast table. (Irish Background,
100-101) Emily Brontë's writings contain classical allusions
and reveal the influence of important authors who came before her.
(Birth, 30; Miller, 217-219) And, as for the notion that
she wrote in some sort of star-struck haze, powerless to control
her literary gift, we have ample proof that Emily reworked her poems
methodically, sometimes revisiting and revising them for years.
Monsieur Heger's assessment of Emily Brontë presents
quite a contrast Charlotte's portrait of the impractical,
ignorant dreamer who needed an interpreter to stand between her
and the world. Monsieur Heger remembered Emily Brontë as having
"a head for logic, and a capability of argument, unusual in
a man, and rare indeed in a woman." To describe her, he used
phrases such as these: "powerful reason" (that is, reasoning
ability) and "strong, imperious will." (Letters,
107) His assessment leaves us with the impression of an indomitable
personality who would be unconventional if she chose to be—not,
as Charlotte suggests, unconventional because she did not know any
If this notion of Emily the dreamer is myth rather than reality,
we have to ask why Charlotte Brontë would have employed such
a disingenuous argument about her sister. Why would Charlotte think
it preferable to make her sister appear naive and incompetent rather
than bold and indomitable? It is worth remembering that Victorian
England did not place much value on indomitable women. And, when
it comes to assessing Charlotte Brontë's own "capability
of argument," we should keep this little insight in mind:
"When [Monsieur Heger] is very ferocious with me I cry,"
Charlotte writes. "And that sets all things straight."
BACK TO TOP
EMILY BRONTË WAS TOO ECCENTRIC TO THRIVE AWAY FROM HOME.
We can certainly say that Emily Brontë preferred to stay at home.
We can also say that in her thirty years of life, she spent very
little time away from it. As a five-year-old, she completed only
six months of school at Cowan Bridge before being withdrawn. (Letters,
7) When she was seventeen, she survived just three months of school
at Roe Head before being sent home. (Brontës, 236)
She quit her only job outside the parsonage (a teaching position
at a girl's school named Law Hill) after just a few months.
(Brontës, 306) And, while she seems to have done well
at Monsieur Heger's school in Belgium, she stayed there for
less than a year. (Brontës, 404)
Charlotte offers this explanation for her sister's seeming
inability to flourish away from home:
Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without
it, she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and
from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and
inartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though
under the kindliest auspices), was what she failed in enduring.
Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. Every morning
when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and
darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what
ailed her but me—I knew only too well. In this struggle her
health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and
failing strength threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she
would die if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained
her recall. (Brontës, 236)
Here we must take note of two particular elements in the history
of the Brontës: the reality of tuberculosis, the disease which
in all likelihood claimed the lives of five of the Brontë siblings,
and the psychological toll of the first two of these deaths on the
surviving family. Tuberculosis (or consumption, as the Victorians called
it) was both widespread and incurable in those days, sometimes making
slow progress for years before it killed its victims. As it progressed,
it gradually ulcerated the lungs, producing a chronic cough and
making breathing more and more difficult, until finally it spread
into the other organs and began to ulcerate them. By this time,
death was imminent.
The only hope a consumptive had was to bolster the immune system
in order to keep the disease in check. A minor illness might trigger
a flare-up of the tuberculosis and send the victim into a rapid
decline. Nor was that the only danger: bacterial infections of all
sorts could destroy a person's health, and the medicines available
then were all but worthless. Perfectly healthy people (or at least
people who seemed to be perfectly healthy) could be dead in a matter
of days. This led Victorians to be very careful of their health.
In our era of antibiotics, we cannot fully understand the worry
Victorians felt over a change in appetite or a mild sniffle.
Add to that worry the psychological scar the Brontës felt
over the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth, the two oldest Brontë
siblings. They were the first children to be sent away to school
at Cowan Bridge; Charlotte and Emily soon joined them. Only seven
months after arriving at school, Maria became very ill, and Elizabeth
was soon dangerously ill as well. The two sisters died that year
within weeks of one another. (Brontës, 128-138) As
soon as Patrick Brontë saw his second daughter arrive at the
parsonage, close to death, he immediately journeyed to Cowan Bridge
and brought Charlotte and Emily home. Thereafter, in the minds of
the Brontës, school would be associated with death and home
with life and health.
It is small wonder, then, that Charlotte brooded over Emily's
health when the two of them went away to Roe Head School together.
It was Charlotte who insisted that Emily be sent home: "nobody
knew," she says, "what ailed her but me." A year
later, Charlotte was to insist that another sister of hers be sent
home from Roe Head; this time it was Anne. Charlotte once again
considered her sister desperately ill, but this time she tells us
that the headmistress disagreed with her diagnosis: "Miss
Wooler thought me a fool—and by way of proving her opinion
treated me with marked coldness." (Brontës,
280) Perhaps Miss Wooler was being cold upon this occasion because
it marked the second time they had disagreed over a Brontë
sibling. Perhaps Charlotte was being a hypochondriac on her sisters'
behalf, and perhaps Emily—although clearly homesick—had
not been in danger and would have had a successful career at Roe
Head had not Charlotte intervened.
Emily did well in Monsieur Heger's school and left it only
to take over as housekeeper at the parsonage upon the death of her
aunt Branwell. (Brontës, 404-409) She did not leave
it due to either ill health or poor work, and while she does not
seem to have had an easy time in Belgium, she certainly did not fail
to thrive. Nor did she leave Cowan Bridge School as a small child
because of any weakness in her own constitution. Indeed, she was
remembered as a "darling child," according to the superintendent
there: "quite the pet nursling of the school." (Letters,
We must examine Emily Brontë's stint at Law Hill School,
then, to see whether she failed to thrive away from home. And here
we at once come upon a difficulty. Emily Brontë never evinced
the slightest interest in or enjoyment of teaching, but teaching
was the only mode of employment open to an impoverished English
lady. Thus, in the case of Law Hill, we cannot separate Emily's
dislike of her appointed profession from her unhappiness about leaving
Here again, Charlotte weighs in on the subject of what her sister
could and could not endure. In a letter to her friend Ellen, Charlotte
remarks of Emily's work at Law Hill, "This is slavery.
I fear she will never stand it." (Letters, 59) Did
Charlotte's prediction come true? Did Emily's health
break, as Charlotte believed it had broken at Roe Hill, and did
Emily come home to recover?
No one knows. No document tells us how long Emily stayed at Law
Hill. One biographer comments that "whether Emily was at Law
Hill for a short while or over a year is an interesting question
because if we knew the answer we would have a little more information
about Charlotte's reliability as a witness for her sisters'
lives. ..." (Winnifrith, 157) And we would also have a much
better idea whether Emily was capable of thriving away from home.
BACK TO TOP
EMILY BRONTË LOVED HER BROTHER BRANWELL MORE THAN THE OTHERS DID.
(Before reading this essay, you may wish to read my webpage
concerning the sad and wasted final years of Branwell Brontë's
life if you are not familiar with their details.)
This notion, like the others we have studied here, has a long history.
Apparently, Mary F. Robinson spawned it in 1889 in her biography
of Emily Brontë. (Miller, 241) Mary Robinson didn't have
at her disposal much of the primary source material we have today.
(Primary source material consists of documents written by the Brontës
themselves or by eyewitnesses to the events of their lives.) She
made a number of guesses in her biography, and unfortunately, some
of them turned out to be wrong.
For instance, Mary Robinson wrote that Emily Brontë's
poem, "Well, some may hate and some may scorn," described
Emily's feelings about her wastrel brother. Certainly this
poem seems ideal as an epitaph for Branwell:
"Well, some may hate and some may scorn
"And some may quite forget, thy name
"But my sad heart must ever mourn
"Thy ruined hopes, thy blighted fame"—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . .
Do I despise the timid deer
Because his limbs are fleet with fear?
Or would I mock the wolf's death-howl
Because his form is gaunt and foul?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No—then above his memory
Let pity's heart as tender be
Say "Earth, lie lightly on that breast,
"And kind Heaven, grant that spirit rest!" (Poems,
What perfect sentiments of pity and generosity towards that poor
young man, whose descent into alcoholism, opium, and immorality
must have made such an impression on Emily! Branwell spent his last
years in the parsonage with his father and sisters, wreaking havoc
on their quiet lives and inviting public ridicule. To be able to
write such kind words about her brother after all he had cost his
family truly would have been testimony of Emily's forgiveness
There is only one problem. Emily Brontë wrote this poem long
before Branwell's precipitous decline. (Poems, 98)
In fact, when she wrote it in 1839, Branwell's future still
looked very bright.
The discovery that this poem did not pertain to Branwell failed
to discourage those biographers who followed Robinson's line
of scholarship. They continued to write about Emily's emotional
closeness and spiritual connection with her brother. Winifred Gérin,
in her 1971 biography of Emily Brontë, brought this idea to
a new generation of readers with statements such as this: "The
more Branwell resembled her Gondal characters or appeared to do
so in her vision of him, the more Emily could feel for him."
(204) She also declared that Emily became so unhappy over Branwell
that she withdrew into herself, distancing herself from her sisters,
and finally becoming so grief-stricken that she did not survive
Branwell's death. (234; 243) Gérin's work led
a later scholar to make an even more sweeping statement: "...Emily,
... of all the family, continued to love Branwell without judging
him." (Ghnassia, 250)
The primary source material does not support these conclusions.
If anything, Emily Brontë seemed particularly callous concerning
her brother's suffering. In Emily's diary paper of 1845,
all would appear to be at peace at the parsonage:
My birthday – showery – breezy – cool
– I am twenty seven years old to day [sic] – this morning
Anne and I opened the papers we wrote 4 years since on my twenty
third birthday – this paper we intend, if all be well, to
open on my 30th three years hence in 1848 – since the 1841
paper the following events have taken place ...
Anne and I went our first long Journey by ourselves together –
leaving Home on the 30th of June – monday – sleeping
at York – returning to Keighley Tuesday evening sleeping there
and walking home on Wedensday [sic] morning – though the weather
was broken, we enjoyed ourselves very much except during a few hours
at Bradford and during our excursion we were Ronald Macelgin, Henry
Angora, Juliet Augusteena, Rosobelle Esraldan, Ella and Julian Egramont
Catherine Navarre and Cordelia Fitzaphnold escaping from the palaces
of Instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present
by the victorious Republicans – The Gondals still flo[u]rish
bright as ever I am at present writing a work on the First Wars
– Anne has been writing some articles on this and a book by
Henry Sophona – We intend sticking firm by the rascals as
long as they delight us which I am glad to say they do at present
– I should have mentioned that last summer the school scheme
was revived in full vigor – we had prospectuses printed despatched [sic]
letters to all acquaintances imparting our plans and did our little
all – but it was found no go – now I dont [sic] desire
a school at all and none of us have any great longing for it --
we have cash enough for our present wants with a prospect of accumolation
[sic] – we are all in decent health – only that papa
has a complaint in his eyes and with the exception of Branwell who
I hope will be better and do better, hereafter. I am quite contented
for myself – not as idle as formerly, altogether as hearty
and having learnt to make the most of the present and hope for the
future with less fidget[i]ness that I cannot do all I wish –
seldom or ever troubled with nothing to do and merely desiring that
every body could be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding
and then we should have a very tolerable world of it ... (Letters,
One would never know, to read this cheerful missive, that Branwell
Brontë had just been summarily fired from his tutor's
position for a scandalous affair with his employer's wife
and was now at home in disgrace and great emotional turmoil.
By contrast, Emily's other sisters discuss this crisis in
their contemporaneous writings: Charlotte, writing to her friend
Ellen on the same day, announces, "We have had sad work with
Branwell ... he thought of nothing but stunning or drowning his
distress of mind – no one in the house could have rest –
and at last we have been obliged to send him from home for a week
with someone to look after him—" (Brontës,
469) Likewise, Anne mentions in her diary paper of that day Branwell's
"tribulation and ill health." She continues, "He
was very ill on Tuesday but he went with John Brown to Liverpool
where he now is I suppose and we hope he will be better and do better
in future." And then she seems to show the stress of the ordeal: "I
for my part cannot well be flatter or older in mind than
I am now." (Letters, 133)
Both Charlotte and Anne sound considerably more worried about the
situation than Emily, who concludes her diary paper, "I must
hurry off now to my turning and ironing I have plenty of work on
hands and writing and am altogether full of business with best wishes
for the whole House till 1848." (Letters, 132) This
does not appear to support the idea of Emily's feeling an especially
deep emotional bond or sisterly sympathy with Branwell.
One might argue that Emily's diary letters were not a place
in which she recorded her innermost thoughts. But why wouldn't
they be? They were for her and for Anne, not for anyone else. Certainly
Emily didn't hesitate to reveal in this one that she, a grown
woman of twenty-seven, had been enjoying what outsiders would have considered "pretend" games
with her sister during their journey to York.
Concerning the contention that Emily loved Branwell without
judging him (Ghnassia's italics), we may consider the following
incident recorded in a letter of Charlotte's:
I went into the room where Branwell was to speak to him about an
hour after I got home – it was very forced work to address
him – I might have spared myself the trouble as he took no
notice and made no reply – he was stupefied – My fears
were not in vain Emily tells me that he got a sovereign from Papa
while I have been away under pretence of paying a pressing debt
– he went immediately & changed it at a public-house –
and has employed it as was to be expected – she concluded
her account with saying he was 'a hopeless being' –
it is too true – (Letters, 145)
In this little episode—one of the few recorded incidents
concerning both Emily and Branwell that exist in the primary source
material—Emily again does not seem to have shown any particular
closeness or fondness for Branwell, and she and Charlotte ended
up agreeing on what is clearly a negative judgment of him. Once
more, we have to ask: If Emily was so much closer to her brother
than the rest of her family was, where is the evidence of that closeness?
It does not seem to exist in Emily's surviving writings or
in the letters Charlotte wrote at the time.
The biographer Winnifred Gérin seems to realize that she
is on shaky ground here. This is what she says to defend her conclusions:
But long after all the Brontë family were dead Emily's
goodness to Branwell in his degradation was still village talk.
Stories abounded of her waiting up at night to let him in and carry
him upstairs when he was too drunk to walk. Repeated to successive
biographers, they cannot all have been invention. Emily's
dashes through the churchyard to tap on the side window of The Bull
to warn Branwell when his father was out to fetch him home by force
were witnessed by too many people to be wholly unfounded. (202)
She goes on to cite as her source here the work of Mme Duclaux,
whom she terms "Emily's first quasi-official biographer
(1883)"—in other words, another of the early biographers
to whom critical source material was not yet available. (83) Let
us consider this evidence for Emily's goodness to Branwell:
"village talk" and "stories" long after
the death of the family—the gossip of Haworth citizens thirty
years after the fact, racking their brains to supply a few stories
to eager listeners. "They cannot all have been invention,"
Gérin says somewhat plaintively. Should we then try to guess
which ones were?
The story of Emily's dashes through the churchyard are not
really credible. The seventy-year-old Patrick Brontë was hardly
capable of bringing his adult son home by force. Patrick's
eyesight was so poor that he could not even walk down the street
in broad daylight without help; he required major eye surgery in
1846. (Brontës, 505-6) Moreover, nothing in Charlotte's
letters mentions her father threatening Branwell in any way. Patrick
shared a room with Branwell, but only because he wished to safeguard
the lives of his family: Branwell had once set the curtains of his
bed on fire while in a drugged stupor. (Gérin, 201)
if these stories contain a kernel of truth, what do they prove?
Emily could have waited up for her brother or attempted to roust
him out of the public house in order to spare her sisters and father
that difficult duty. Her love for her father or sisters could have
guided her, not any affection for Branwell.
We must ask another question at this point: Why have biographers
tried so hard, in the absence of hard evidence, to posit a close
emotional bond between Emily and Branwell? Lucasta Miller's
book, The Brontë Myth, suggests an interesting theory.
It would seem that a whole series of biographers have pored over
the details of Emily Brontë's life to try to solve the
"problem" of Wuthering Heights. How could a
simple young woman, a clergyman's daughter, have created the
brutal and passionate Heathcliff? What would have led the naive
Emily to dream up such unpleasantness?
Mary Robinson, the originator of this particular myth, thought she had found
the answer. Emily herself was not a bad person; no, she was a bright,
charming girl. It was her older brother Branwell—the dissipated
monster—who had put such evil thoughts into her head. Emily
was, in Robinson's biography, an innocent victim of his depravity—so
close to Branwell that she had no choice but to pour her agonized
soul and his agonized sufferings into a strange book. (Miller, 238-241)
Gérin appears to have continued this line of reasoning: "For
better or for worse, the effect on the inexperienced Emily of her
brother's and sister's experiences [at Thorp Green]
was so deep and painful as permanently to colour her thoughts."
In other words, Emily would have written a "nice,"
acceptable novel had Branwell not been in the house, or had his
influence on her not been so profound. She was driven by circumstances
to write as she did. Once again, as Charlotte had suggested in the
first myth we studied, Emily Brontë was helpless to control her creative impulses.
This is an insult to Emily Brontë's artistic genius.
It is very likely that her portrait of the depraved Hindley would
have been less detailed had she not had an alcoholic to study firsthand,
but she wrote what she chose to write and did so in a way that has
captivated generations of readers. Emily had no flighty, passionate
Catherine in the house to study, but this did not hinder her in
capturing Catherine's unconventionality and narcissism. She
had no sneering gentleman handy to sketch from life, but the complacent
and idle Lockwood lives on the page.
Since the appearance of the novels by Currer, Acton, and Ellis
Bell, scholars have masked their low opinion of women by seeking
to "explain" how Emily Brontë could possibly have produced
an enduring work of literature. Their notions have ranged from the
patronizing to the truly offensive. We do not need to join them
in their quest to "explain" the genius of Emily Brontë.
It is unique, and it will outlast them.
BACK TO TOP
EMILY BRONTË WILLED HER OWN DEATH.
This is a myth, and, like the first one mentioned above, it originated
in Charlotte Brontë's "biographical notice"
which appeared in the edition of Wuthering Heights Charlotte
edited after Emily's death. Concerning that death, Charlotte
Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that
lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She
made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally,
she grew stronger than we had yet known her. ... While full of ruth
for others, on herself she had no pity; the spirit was inexorable
to the flesh; from the trembling hand, the unnerved limbs, the faded
eyes, the same service was exacted as they had rendered in health.
To stand by and witness this, and not dare to remonstrate, was a
pain no words can render. (Wuthering Heights, 7)
This idea of Emily Brontë's indomitable will driving her failing
body seized the popular imagination. When Charlotte stated that
the great work, "No Coward Soul is Mine," had been Emily's
last poem, the image of the death-defying Titan was complete:
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm troubled sphere
I see Heaven's glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . .
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since Thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed. (Poems, 183-184)
But this great poem was not Emily's last. She wrote it long
before her final crisis of health. In fact, she wrote it before
she even began to write Wuthering Heights. (Miller, 201)
Biographers soon set to work memorializing the Brontë sisters.
Mrs. Gaskell followed Charlotte's lead by recording at some
length Emily's refusal to consult a doctor or follow any medical
treatment during the three months of her fatal illness, a circumstance
which at the time had caused Charlotte great grief and concern,
and which she had discussed in her letters. This refusal of medical
treatment seemed to mystify biographers. Why would a desperately
ill individual refuse treatment? Did Emily want to die?
Those scholars who had proposed the myth that Emily Brontë
had had a special bond with Branwell found the answer ready to hand:
To Martha Brown and her sisters, loyal servants of the Brontë
family, there never appeared to be any doubt that Emily died of
grief for her brother. She was taken ill after his funeral and was
dead within three months. It was as simple as that. "They
were all well when Mr. Branwell was buried," Martha told Mrs.
Gaskell, "but Miss Emily broke down the next week. We saw
she was ill, but she would never own it, never would have a doctor
near her, never would breakfast in bed." ... Her fatal illness
was brought on by a cold caught at Branwell's funeral service.
Though systematically neglected by her own wish, the illness would
not in itself sufficiently explain her rapid decline if her spiritual
resistance had not at the same time been undermined. (Gérin,
It is worth questioning here whether Martha Brown and her sisters
really believed Emily had died of grief, as the biographer states.
Although Martha does link Branwell's funeral with Emily's
fatal illness in the paragraph above, she does not state that the
death of one caused the death of the other. Moreover, as distraught
as Charlotte was over Emily's illness, and as ready as she
was to discuss in her letters what she thought might hurt or help
the situation, Charlotte never once mentioned even in passing that
Emily might be pining through shock or grief. Besides, as we have
discovered above, Emily does not appear to have had a stronger attachment
to Branwell than the other family members had.
Gérin states that "the illness would not in itself
sufficiently explain [Emily Brontë's] rapid decline."
This is simply not true. Emily Brontë, by all accounts then
and now, died of tuberculosis—the galloping consumption, as
it was then called when its progress was rapid. (Letters,
216) And consumption, in the days before antibiotics,
was invariably fatal. Many, many people in Victorian England died
of it. Some might linger for years. Others were gone within months
of the acute onset of the illness. By coddling herself, Emily might
have extended her life by a few weeks, or even by months, but she
would not have regained her health.
Here lies one possible explanation for Emily's steadfast
refusal to see the doctors. Doctors were powerless against consumption.
Not one single successful course of medical treatment for that disease
existed in Emily's day. What could the doctors have done for
her? They might have suggested various forms of treatment, but the
final result would have been the same.
The disease was so common that Emily Brontë very likely knew
this. Her father certainly did. "Anne and I cherish hope as
well as we can," Charlotte writes, "... but my father
shakes his head and speaks of others of our family once similarly
afflicted, for whom he likewise persisted in hoping against hope,
and who are now removed where hope and fear fluctuate no more."
If Emily Brontë had sought treatment, as Anne Brontë
did a few months later, the doctor's diagnosis likely would
have been the same for her as it turned out to be for Anne:
While consultations were going on in Mr Brontë's
study, Anne was very lively in conversation, walking round the room
supported by me. Mr Brontë joined us after Dr Teale's
departure and, seating himself on the couch, he drew Anne towards
him and said, "My dear little Anne." That was
all—but it was understood. (Brontës, 581)
Anne had received a death sentence.
Emily, in refusing treatment, may have been refusing to hear that
death sentence. She had written to her publisher, notifying him
that she was working on a second novel. (Birth, 194) She
was busy. She had no time for illness or death.
It is worth remembering that Emily herself has given us a portrait
of a young woman dying of consumption: Frances Earnshaw, Hindley's
delicate young wife. Frances, too, refuses to acknowledge that she
Till within a week of her death that gay heart never failed her;
and her husband persisted doggedly, nay, furiously, in affirming
her health improved every day. When [Dr.] Kenneth warned him that
his medicines were useless at that stage of the malady, and he needn't
put him to further expense by attending her, he retorted—
"I know you need not—she's well—she does
not want any more attendance from you! She never was in a consumption.
It was a fever; and it is gone—her pulse is as slow as mine
now, and her cheek as cool."
He told his wife the same story, and she seemed to believe him;
but one night, while leaning on his shoulder, in the act of saying
she thought she should be able to get up to-morrow, a fit of coughing
took her—a very slight one. He raised her in his arms; she
put her two hands about his neck, her face changed, and she was
dead. (Wuthering Heights, 60)
This in no way suggests that Emily Brontë saw herself as Frances
Earnshaw, but it does tell us that Emily had considered that a consumptive
might reject the advice of the doctor and pretend not to be ill—not
in order to hasten death, but to cling to life.
Charlotte Brontë herself firmly believed that her sister had
wanted to survive, regardless of brave words spoken in public about
inexorable wills and no coward souls. "It was very terrible,"
she wrote to her friend Ellen concerning Emily's death. "She
was torn conscious, panting, reluctant though resolute out of a
happy life." (Letters, 229) In her grief, Charlotte
could find only one consolation: that her sister no longer suffered.
... I will not now ask why Emily was torn from us in the
fulness of our attachment, rooted up in the prime of her own days,
in the promise of her powers – why her existence now lies
like a field of green corn trodden down – like a tree in full
bearing – struck at the root; I will only say, sweet is rest
after labour and calm after tempest, and repeat again and again
that Emily knows that now. (Letters, 219)
BACK TO TOP
EMILY BRONTË WAS ANOREXIC.
Katherine Frank made this startling assertion in her 1990 biography:
If Emily Brontë were alive today and could be prevailed
upon to submit to psychiatric treatment (a most unlikely prospect),
she would almost certainly be diagnosed as suffering from anorexia
nervosa. Not merely her refusal to eat and her extreme slenderness
and preoccupation with food and cooking, but also her obsessive
need for control, her retreat into an ongoing, interior fantasy
world, and her social isolation are all characteristic of the 'anorectic
personality' ... (4)
The desire to get into the head of a historical figure legendary
for her privacy and reserve leads Frank to build scenes of great
emotional intensity out of very meager evidence. For instance, Charlotte
(possibly overstating the case, as we have seen in the "failure
to thrive" myth above), wrote of Emily's school days
at Roe Head, "Every morning when she woke, the vision of home
and the moors rushed on her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me.
I knew only too well. In this struggle, her health was quickly broken:
her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength threatened
rapid decline." (Brontës, 236) From this evidence,
Frank has constructed the following interior dialogue for Emily herself:
"I hate it here. I will not eat. I want to go
home. I refuse to grow up, to grow big. I will make myself ill,
starve even, unless I am released." (Frank, 99)
This is indeed the voice of an anorexic. But is it Emily's
voice? No. This is nothing but a guess, a fiction dreamed up a hundred
and fifty years after the fact. Besides, the evidence supports other
much less startling conclusions. It isn't particularly surprising
that Emily would be homesick and fail to eat well upon leaving home
for a boarding school, and we have no idea whether the unfamiliar
food (prepared in the days before proper hygiene was understood)
might have caused Emily to become ill. And, rather than suggest
that Emily starved herself intentionally, Charlotte tells us that
she simply lost her appetite and couldn't bring herself to
eat: "Her nature here proved too strong for fortitude."
Frank makes an even more astounding statement concerning Emily's
final illness. While admitting that Emily was suffering from tuberculosis,
the biographer nevertheless asserts, "But tuberculosis was
not the primary cause of Emily's hasty and seemingly irreversible
physical deterioration." Then she goes on to bring up the
longstanding (but poorly supported) idea that Emily and Branwell
had been very close: "...Losing him poisoned her will to live."
In other words, Emily suffered from a deadly disease—a disease
which has killed millions—but it would not have proved
fatal had Emily not willed it. Emily Brontë had a strong will
The primary source material does not bear this bizarre assertion
out, and neither, of course, does medical science. We have already
seen that Charlotte brooded (perhaps excessively) over the health
of her younger sisters, watching them for signs of the tuberculosis
that had killed her two oldest siblings: paleness, fatigue, and
above all, weight loss. It was the symptom of weight loss that gave
tuberculosis its name in those days: "consumption" because
its victims became skin and bone, as if some invisible monster were
consuming their flesh. But Charlotte does not mention, either in her letters or
in her writings, very many instances of Emily's having these symptoms. She
reports to us in her "Prefatory Note to a Selection of Poems by Ellis Bell" the incident of homesickness at Roe Head
and the consequent weight loss then, but she goes on to say that
Emily did not allow her health to break down when she had to go to Brussels,
even though she once again suffered from homesickness. Nor do Charlotte's
letters from Brussels convey the worry for Emily's health
that they did during Emily's final illness. And, while Charlotte's
letters are full of worry over Emily's weight loss during
the final three months of her life, nowhere does Charlotte suggest
that Emily was deliberately fasting.
Emily did become very thin before her death, but her sister Anne
lost even more weight: "She is more emaciated than Emily was
at the very last," Charlotte sadly reports. (Letters,
231) Anne's and Emily's illnesses followed the same
progression: they had the same cough, weakness, and weight loss.
Anne Brontë tried her very hardest to live: she consulted doctors
and a specialist, drank cod liver oil and submitted to blister packs,
and even managed to get herself transported to the seaside, one
of the most widely suggested treatments for tuberculosis in her
day. (Brontës, 581-595) And yet, Anne died, just as
Emily had, within a few months of the acute onset of her symptoms.
If Emily's powerful will had achieved her death through anorexia,
had gentle Anne's will been unequal to preserve her life?
Much has been made of Emily's silence during the last three
months: "Barely a month after Branwell's death she did
not even answer when spoken to." (Gérin, 247) Frank
as well as others have pointed to a psychological cause for it.
But it is hardly surprising that a victim dying of consumption would
become quiet: the lungs fill up with a thick, cheesy mass of infected material, and every
breath becomes a struggle. Charlotte describes in one of her letters
Emily's efforts to draw her "impeded breath."
(Letters, 214) Talking would have become very difficult.
Besides, although Charlotte does make it clear that Emily didn't
want to be badgered about her illness, no such icy silence as the
one mentioned above is recorded in Charlotte's letters. Rather,
Charlotte has this to say to her publisher, who has recommended
that the desperately ill Emily consult a homeopath: "...After
reading your letter [Emily] said 'Mr Williams' intention
was kind and good, but he was under a delusion – Homoeopathy
was only another form of Quackery.'" (Letters,
212-213) A few days before Emily's death, Charlotte writes
again, "The pain in her side and chest is better – the
cough – the shortness of breath, the extreme emaciation continue.
Diarrhoea commenced nearly a fortnight ago and continues still –
of course it greatly weakens her, but she thinks herself it will
tend to good, and I hope so." (Letters, 215) In contrast
to the myth of Emily Brontë turning away from life and her
loved ones in order to starve herself in stony silence, we see here
Emily speaking to Charlotte even about the most prosaic details
of her medical condition.
Was Emily an anorexic? Who can say? This sort of armchair
diagnosis is both insupportable and unhelpful. Because so little
is known about Emily Brontë's life, armchair psychologists
have come out in hordes to give us the "answer" to her.
She has been styled, according to the era and the inclination of
the biographer, as a simple rustic, a untaught, vision-possessed,
ethereal Bernadette of the moors, a lesbian, a transexual, a man
publishing as a woman publishing as a man, a pantheistic pagan,
a rebel, a subhuman savage, a Roman Catholic, a woman engaged in
a passionate secret affair, and finally (at least for the moment),
an anorexic and suicide. (Miller, 233-279) Those who have looked
back and attempted to "solve" Emily Brontë have
done so from the lofty heights of their own enlightened superiority.
One wonders what she would have thought of them.
The fact is that Emily did not submit to a comprehensive
psychological evaluation, so no psychological diagnosis is possible.
Her private thoughts and attitudes remain just that: private—protected
by her legendary reserve. She will never be "solved"
like a riddle, no matter how many armchair doctors sit in judgment
of her. The mysteries of her character are hers to keep.
BACK TO TOP
EMILY BRONTË HAD A SECRET LOVER.
This has been something of an obsession for certain biographers who
have been sure that Emily Brontë could not have imagined Heathcliff
and Catherine without having had a love affair of her own. Lucasta
Miller finds this obsession questionable:
In fact, the representation of love in Emily's novel is very
far from the norm. ... Not only is it never consummated, but it
is, in a sense, incapable of consummation, since it reaches back
to the childhood time before the fall into self and other, when
Cathy and Heathcliff were surrogate brother and sister, at one with
each other as they scampered over the moors under the dairywoman's
cloak. With its analogues in the idealized brother-sister pairings
found in Byron, De Quincey, and Shelley, their relationship bears
little relation to conventional courtship, unlike Jane Eyre and
Did Emily have a lover? Nothing in the primary source material
even begins to hint at such a thing. Biographers have firmly established
the obsessive partiality of Charlotte Brontë for M. Heger—her
ardent letters to him still survive. And even Mrs. Gaskell, writing
in Victorian times, was able to establish the sordid relationship
that existed between Branwell and his employer's wife, although
Mrs. Gaskell did get sued for it. But, even though Brontë enthusiasts
conducted numerous interviews with Haworth residents and other Brontë
acquaintances in the 1800's, and even though Charlotte left
behind a wealth of personal letters, not one shred of evidence for
Emily's "lover" has ever been found.
Where have the biographers gone, then, to unearth their evidence?
Virginia Moore, who wrote a biography of Emily Brontë in 1936, thought
she had found it in Emily's poems themselves. "Collating
the poems with her life," Moore wrote, "was as exciting
as working a new-staked gold mine." (xi) However, many of
Emily's poems relate, not to her life, but to the fictional
lives of her Gondal characters. Scholars list over a hundred names
of Gondal characters, both male and female, which appear in the
poems of Emily and Anne Brontë, and many of the poems are written
from one character to another: poems from Julius Brenzaida to Augusta
Almeda, for example. (Poems, 298-304)
Thus, in appropriating
these Gondal poems for her biography of Emily and declaring them to be, not fiction, but fact, Moore soon found
herself with entirely too much "evidence." On the one hand, Moore
found a poem written to Emily's secret lover, "Louis
Parensell." (Miller, 271) On the other hand, Moore found a
poem so passionate that its use of the pronoun she could
not be a mistake, and so Moore declared that Emily Brontë was
"a member of that beset band of women who can find their pleasure
only in women." (Moore, 189)
Poor Louis! If he had existed, he would have been very unhappy
about that. But he didn't exist. He was only a biographer's
mistake—probably the most famous gaffe in the history of Brontë biography. Moore couldn't read Emily's handwriting very
well. (Chitham believes Emily was left handed. (Birth,
10) ) So the name of Emily's mysterious lover, "Louis Parensell,"
turned out to be nothing but the title of the poem, "Love's
Farewell." (Miller, 271)
Concerning Moore's excited claim that Emily's poems must
contain the intimate secrets of her real life and deepest feelings, we might wish to consider the
words of the great poet, T.S. Eliot: "It would be foolish to
suggest that a poet ought to have gone through some experience similar
to that he describes. For a poet with dramatic gifts, a situation
quite remote from his personal experience may release the strongest
In other words, to attempt to explain the brilliance of Emily's
writings by poking through the details of Emily's personal
experiences is to belittle her creative gift. And to be so hungry
for personal experiences as to make them up out of fictional poems
and typos bespeaks a kind of desperation. At the back of such outlandish
claims lies the clear message: We don't believe a mere woman
like Emily Brontë could be capable of such an achievement—and
because we don't believe it, that means it must not be true.
Sadly enough, many of these myths have that hint of prejudice at
BACK TO TOP
EMILY BRONTË LOVED ANIMALS MORE THAN PEOPLE.
Although too extreme, in all probability, to be the literal truth,
this particular notion appears to have a good grounding in fact. It
is certainly true that Emily Brontë loved some animals
better than some people: she quite famously informed her
pupils at Law Hill School that she preferred the house dog to any
of them. (Letters, 61)
Emily Brontë may have kept pets all her life, but only in
adulthood did she begin to mention them in her diary papers: "Victoria
and Adelaide are ensconced in the peat-house – Keeper is in
the kitchen – Nero in his cage –" (Letters,
94) And, although she does not mention Branwell's very recent
disgrace and distress in her last diary letter, she spends some
time recording the comings and goings of the various family pets,
who were disrupted by her lengthy stay in Brussels:
We have got Flossey, got and lost Tiger – lost the Hawk Nero
which with the geese was given away and is doubtless dead for when
I came back from Brussels I enquired on all hands and could hear
nothing of him – Tiger died early last year – Keeper
and Flossey are well also the canary acquired 4 years since –
Her concern over the loss of her beloved hawk is obvious.
Charlotte and Anne also mention the family pets with affection
from time to time, both in their letters and in Anne's diary
papers. The care of these animals fell to Emily, who—as baker
and housekeeper—would have looked after their needs along
with those of the rest of the house. But Charlotte has given us
clues that this was more than just a duty, as this letter to Emily
I should like even to be cutting up the hash, ... and you standing
by, watching that I put in enough flour, and not too much pepper,
and, above all, that I save the best pieces of the leg of mutton
for Tiger and Keeper, the first of which personages would be jumping
about the dish and carving-knife, and the latter standing like a
devouring flame on the kitchen floor. (Letters, 118)
The evening before her death, Emily Brontë insisted on feeding
the family dogs, just as she had always done. (Brontës,
BACK TO TOP
WROTE WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
Several friends of Branwell's started this story some time after
his death. They claimed that Branwell had come out to drink with them
one night and had read aloud to them a page of the novel he was writing.
They later recognized what they had heard that night, they said, in
Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, so they concluded that Branwell must
have written the whole thing. (Miller, 228-233)
How credible are these witnesses? Certainly their love for Branwell
was sincere, and so was their anger over his treatment in the mythology
forming around the Brontës. Mrs. Gaskell had portrayed Branwell
in her biography as that stock character from Victorian novels,
the petted but ultimately worthless prodigal son. She had done nothing
to acknowledge his own literary gifts, which had been substantial;
nor had she acknowledged the important role of his early co-authorship
in the development of Charlotte's literary skills. It is small
wonder, then, that Branwell's friends wanted to present him in a
better light. (Brontës, 817; 830)
Does this mean Branwell's friends lied to create the story?
Probably not. They probably did remember hearing Branwell read aloud
from a manuscript in progress. Shortly before his sisters began
their quest for publication, Branwell wrote to tell a friend he
was working on a book of his own: "A three volume Novel
– one volume of which is completed. ..." (Brontës,
475) Branwell's friends were not particularly well educated
(according to Branwell, at least); they may, years after the fact,
have confused the little they had heard from this novel with the
novel Emily wrote.
Another possibility is that Branwell had found a page of Emily's
novel and had borrowed it to read to his friends, passing the work
off as his own. We have evidence of his lying to friends or relatives
during those final years in order to gain the money he needed for
release from his pain. (Letters, 145) And he might have
felt justified in stealing a bit of his sisters' glory and
using it to gain the admiration of his friends, even if only for
There is no evidence that Charlotte, Emily, or Anne ever told Branwell
of their publishing endeavors, even though they all were living
in the same house during these final years. But letters and parcels
were going back and forth, and Branwell, dissipated but not stupid,
may have learned what his sisters were up to. If so, the discovery
could not have been a happy one. Of all the things he had lost,
he regretted most the loss of his creativity:
Noble writings, works of art, music or poetry now instead
of rousing my imagination, cause a whirlwind of blighting Sorrow
that sweeps over my mind with unspeakable dreariness, and if I sit
down and try to write all ideas that used to come clothed in sunlight
now press round me in funeral black ... My rude rough acquaintances
here ascribe my unhappiness solely to causes produced by my sometimes
irregular life, because they have known no other pains than those
resulting from excess or want of ready cash – They do not
know that I would rather want a shirt than want a springy mind...
I know, only that it is time for me to be something when I am nothing.
To find that his sisters were on the verge of becoming famous would
have been a bitter blow indeed.
Could Branwell have written Wuthering Heights? Not by
his own admission in the letter above. And one must ask why on earth
Charlotte Brontë would have persisted throughout her life in
passing Branwell's work off as Emily's when Charlotte
found Wuthering Heights something of an embarrassment.
Surely Charlotte—along with the rest of Victorian England—would
have preferred that such a strange and brutal novel be known as
the work of a worldly man rather than as the imaginings of a retiring
But questions of Charlotte's or Branwell's credibility
needn't concern us here. The fact of the matter is that Wuthering
Heights bears clear marks of Emily Brontë's authorship.
Never mind that Emily's poems share common themes with Wuthering
Heights (fraternal feuds, childhood "siblings"
who later meet as enemies, an unconventional turn of thought concerning
organized religion and the natural world, and an obsession with
imprisonment and the grave)—Branwell lived in the same house
with Emily for much of his life, so one could conceivably claim
that he wrote her poems as well as her novel. We can, however, compare
Wuthering Heights to the devoirs written while
Emily Brontë was in Brussels—essays written in French,
still bearing the corrections of M. Heger, which no one would dream
of suggesting Branwell Brontë had written. Even though Emily
wrote these in a foreign language, their style and motifs often
echo those of Wuthering Heights.
These are no pretty schoolgirl themes. The uncompromising realism
which allows Emily Brontë to capture Hindley's drunken
rages and Heathcliff's brutality shows up on every page:
All creation is equally insane. There are those flies
playing above the stream, swallows and fish diminishing their number
each minute: these will become in their turn the prey of some tyrant
of air or water; and man for his amusement or for his needs will
kill their murderers. Nature is an inexplicable puzzle, life exists
on a principle of destruction; every creature must be the relentless
instrument of death to the others, or himself cease to live. ...
The saint leaves enough misery here below to sadden him even before
the throne of God. (Essays, 17-18)
We find in one devoir Emily proposing society as the enemy
of liberty. Concerning a king, she argues that "his body is
actually a prisoner, with his kingdom for a prison and his subjects
for guards. ... Death's touch will be ... what the striking
off his chains is to the slave." (Essays, 12) Reading
this, we cannot help thinking of the desperately ill Catherine,
longing to run free, with the officious Nelly Dean nearby to guard
But one devoir in particular deserves our attention: a
fictional letter written by one brother to another from whom he
has long been divided by a feud. The letter writer has dreamt in an
eerie dream that he returned to their childhood home and walked
through the empty rooms, meeting no one. At last, something stirred
in the darkness: "It was a big dog which rose from a dark
corner and approached to examine a stranger. He did not find a stranger.
He was glad to see me and showed his joy by the most expressive
caresses. ..." The brother reports, however, that he was not
kind to the old dog: " I pushed him away, because he was yours."
Now the letter writer regrets his cruelty, and the devoir
ends with a heartfelt cry for forgiveness and reunion. (Essays,
In this short devoir, we see several of the elements Emily
explores further in Wuthering Heights: the dream sequence,
fraternal strife, nostalgia for lost childhood joys, cruelty to
one who does not deserve it, and a longing for unity with one who
has long been gone. But it is the literary device of the dog that
most vividly reminds us of Wuthering Heights. This use
of the animal as surrogate—receiving the push that should
have gone to the brother—appears throughout Wuthering
Heights. In the text, animals frequently stand in for people,
acting out the feelings of their human counterparts or receiving
the treatment (often abuse) that should go to a human. Thus, to
cite only a few examples, the dog Juno attacks Lockwood, acting
out Heathcliff's resentment towards the intruder; Heathcliff
hangs Isabella's little dog Fanny since he can't hang
Isabella herself; and young Cathy II rejects Hareton's peace
offering of a puppy, signifying her wholehearted rejection of him.
This is a distinctive element of the style of Wuthering Heights'
author, and its appearance in Emily Brontë's French essay,
composed far from home, demonstrates that she is that author—if,
indeed, such authorship could ever be in doubt.
BACK TO TOP
WAS CRUEL AND MOROSE.
Of all the myths put about concerning the Brontë family, this
was very likely the most hurtful in its day. After Patrick
Brontë had survived the loss of all of his children—having
buried Charlotte that very year—he wrote to Charlotte's
good friend and fellow writer, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, to ask her
to undertake an authorized biography of his daughter. Mrs. Gaskell
seems to have already been interested in the idea, and she jumped
at the chance. Patrick Brontë called the news "a ray
of light on our gloomy solitude." (Brontës,
781-2) He could have had no idea that the biography would come at
the cost of his own reputation.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Gaskell had already formed a very unfavorable
opinion of her dear friend's father. Whereas most people who
met him found him gracious and charming, she had from the very beginning
disliked him and felt "sadly afraid of him in my inmost soul;
for I caught a glare of his stern eyes over his spectacles at Miss
Brontë once or twice which made me know my man. ..."
(Brontës, 741) This was no gentle clergyman, Mrs.
Gaskell felt, but a cold and pompous tyrant. He was the sort who
should never have raised children. When she set out to write
Charlotte's biography, she did not reconsider this
opinion, which she had formed, not as a scholar, but as a family
acquaintance. Accordingly, she suppressed the evidence which did
not accord with her prejudice and went looking for gossip that would
support her bad opinion.
How had Mrs. Gaskell formed this bad opinion in the first place?
Mrs. Gaskell had met Patrick Brontë during the one time in
his life when he and Charlotte truly were at odds. Arthur Bell
Nicholls, the curate who assisted Patrick Brontë in the parish,
had proposed to Charlotte without consulting him. Charlotte's
father knew Nicholls was penniless, without even the incumbency
of a parish, which is what had enabled Patrick Brontë to provide
for a family—and in no grand style, either. Patrick Brontë
believed that Nicholls was after Charlotte's money, as her
books were selling well, and he was furious that Nicholls should
seek to win his daughter without the courtesy of a man-to-man discussion
first. Losing his hot Irish temper, he criticized his future son-in-law
in the harshest language every time the poor man's name came
Nor was Patrick Brontë the only person who opposed Nicholls'
marriage proposal. The Brontë family servants (who were like
family since they had served there for decades) also roundly criticized
him, and so did Charlotte's old friend Ellen Nussey. (Brontës,
726, 735) Charlotte Brontë—who had never particularly
noticed Arthur Bell Nicholls before the proposal—found herself
in the unlikely position of his champion, defending Nicholls'
character against the irate critics who surrounded her since she
seemed to be the only person who was keeping a cool head about the
whole affair. In this way, she began to see and appreciate her suitor's
fine qualities. If those around Charlotte had been calmer about
the proposal, it is very possible that Charlotte wouldn't
have given him a second thought. (Brontës, 732)
Into the middle of this quarrel came Mrs. Gaskell on her first
visit to Haworth. (Brontës, 738-741) She had learned
about the proposal and its obstacles from Charlotte's letters,
and her romantic heart found it tragic and disgraceful that this
Romeo and Juliet should be kept apart. What she failed to take into
account was Charlotte's own ambivalence about the love affair.
Charlotte wasn't sure whether she was even interested in Nicholls,
so her father's opposition to the match gave her the perfect
excuse. She could act passive and resigned, and no one would be
offended: not her father, who felt guilty for upsetting her; not
Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was managing to carry on a quiet correspondence
with her behind her father's back; and certainly not the romantic
Mrs. Gaskell, who concluded that her poor friend was a persecuted
saint. All negative attention could direct itself to the obstinate
Patrick Brontë—and while his future son-in-law never
blamed him, Mrs. Gaskell certainly did. (Brontës,
But Charlotte was not generally passive and resigned, and she did
not stay so now. As soon as she made up her mind, she went straight
to her father and her suitor and told them how things were to be.
She was going to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls, and she was not going
to leave either her father or her home. Nicholls would return to
Haworth to live in the parsonage with them, and he would resume
his old occupation as curate, carrying out her father's duties
so that the elderly Patrick Brontë could retire. (Brontës,
One wonders how Patrick Brontë felt when she laid down the
law like that, but he had not opposed any of his children when their
minds were made up, and he did not do so now. "Papa's
mind seems wholly changed about this matter," Charlotte writes.
"And he has said both to me and when I was not there –
how much happier he feels since he allowed all to be settled."
(Brontës, 750) Charlotte and Nicholls married on June
29, 1854, and were very happy together, but that happiness was not
to be long-lived; she died before they reached their first anniversary.
Arthur Bell Nicholls then went on to take care of his aged father-in-law
until Patrick Brontë's death six years later. A very
close friendship sprang up between these formerly bitter rivals
for Charlotte's affection, and when Patrick Brontë died,
his son-in-law was so devastated by the loss that he could barely
manage to walk in the funeral procession, physically supported by
a friend. (Brontës, 821)
But although all was settled between the members of Charlotte's
family, her biographer never did come around. Mrs. Gaskell put into
the biography enough hints at the "true" nature of the
tyrant she thought she had met that readers were quite stirred up
about it, mentioning among other untruths that Patrick Brontë
had limited his daughters to a very unhealthy vegetarian diet and
thrown violent tantrums in the presence of his family. Based on
this malicious gossip, reviewers were prepared to lay the blame
for the "saintly" Charlotte's difficult life squarely on the
shoulders of her "evil" father.
Mrs. Gaskell removed the unflattering and unfounded gossip about
Patrick Brontë in the third edition, but by then, the damage
was done. The public had fixed on a certain idea of the Brontë
patriarch, and that inaccurate portrait persists to the present
day. A reporter writing in 1857 summed up the popular image of
"the stern old man left childless and alone" which has
persisted in the Brontë mythology. He remarked, "...
we could not help feeling for [Mr. Brontë's] troubles,
although they had in a great measure been brought about by his own
discipline and mode of life." (Brontës, 799)
In other words, it was his fault his children were dead!
To explode this myth of the stern patriarch, one has only to read Emily's diary
paper from 1834 which gloats over the duties she has neglected performing
and mentions a very robust meal:
It is past Twelve o'clock
Anne and I have not tid[i]ed ourselv[e]s, done our bed work or done
our lessons and we want to go out to play We are going to have for
Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips potato's and applepudding [sic]
the Kitchin [sic] is in avery [sic] untidy state Anne and I have
not Done our music excercise [sic] which consists of b majer [sic]
Tab[b]y said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering
there instead of pilling a potate [sic] I answered O Dear, O Dear,
O Dear I will derictly [sic] ..." (Letters, 29-30)
The gleeful Emily certainly doesn't sound like the mousy child
of a strict, overbearing father.
In fact, Charlotte's letters and the other family documents,
as well as the family servants' stories, paint a picture of
a loving, considerate man who delighted in his children's
quick wit and encouraged their education well beyond the norms of
the day. Patrick Brontë took care to treat his daughters with
respect and shared with them his ideas on life, literature, and
politics; it is clear from Charlotte's breathlessly enthusiastic
political writings during childhood that he took an interest in
what they thought as well. Emily Brontë lived at home for almost
her entire life, but her father did not force her to take a turn
teaching the Sunday school classes, as many other curates'
daughters did; indeed, he left her free to ponder, write, and publish verse
which was quite bold in its comments on religion. All three Brontë
sisters were never happier than when they could be at home, and
it is there—under the nose of the supposed "tyrant"—that
their literary gifts blossomed and they wrote their extraordinary
Astute and considerate, Patrick Brontë never publicly protested
his unfair treatment in Mrs. Gaskell's book. He realized that
the success of Mrs. Gaskell's biography was linked to his
daughter's chance at lasting fame, and he did nothing that
might injure that success or fame. (Brontës, 804)
But privately, one can only imagine what the poor man suffered.
He had outlived his wife and all six of his wonderful and talented
children, who had been his companions in his old age. He had had
to witness his son Branwell's degradation and disgrace, and
one of his few remaining joys was Charlotte's continuing popularity.
Now her popularity came at the expense of his own reputation: the
more a member of the public revered Charlotte, the more likely that
person was to misjudge and detest her father. It must have been
a very painful burden for the fine old man to bear.
BACK TO TOP
BURNED EMILY'S SECOND NOVEL.
Unfortunately, this may well be true. Emily Brontë saved a
letter from her publisher, tucking it into her lap desk along with
some reviews of Wuthering Heights:
I am much obliged by your kind note & shall have great
pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not
hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let
it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends
on your next work. If it be an improvement on your first novel you
will have established yourself as a first rate novelist, but if
it fall short the Critics will be too apt to say that you have expended
your talent in your first novel. I shall therefore, have pleasure
in accepting it upon the understanding that its completion be at
your own time. (Birth, 194. Some punctuation added for clarity)
This letter is dated February 15, 1848, the year after Wuthering
Heights came out. Emily's publisher went on to announce
that December that he was to publish another work by "Ellis
and Acton Bell." However, Emily died later that month, and
no novel ever turned up. Indeed, nothing she composed during the
last year of her life has come down to us. Had she commenced work
on this mysterious next novel, and if so, what happened to it? The
"obvious inference," according to Barker, is that Charlotte
destroyed the manuscript. (Brontës, 579)
Would Charlotte Brontë actually have committed such a crime against literature?
All the evidence suggests it. Charlotte's attitude toward
her sisters' literary efforts was both cautious and patronizing.
She took the surprising liberty of "improving" Emily's
poetry when she published a posthumous edition of it, altering word
choices and even adding or removing entire stanzas. (Poems,
24) About Emily's novel, she was even more severe. She declared
in her famous "Editor's Preface" to the work,
"Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff,
I do not know; I scarcely think it is." (Wuthering Heights,
12) And, when her publisher wrote to discuss the novel with her,
Charlotte was apologetic: "Ellis [Emily Brontë] has a
strong, original mind, full of strange though somber power ... but
in prose it breaks forth in scenes which shock more than they attract
– Ellis will improve, however, because he knows his defects."
(Letters, 175) About her sister Anne's second novel,
Charlotte took an even harsher line, writing, " 'Wildfell
Hall' it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice
of subject in that work is a mistake." And she refused to
authorize a new edition. (Brontës, 654)
This leaves us to wonder whether Emily's second novel had
failed to meet with Charlotte's approval. Had "Ellis
Bell" failed to improve, as she had so confidently predicted?
If so, Charlotte would not have hesitated to destroy the manuscript in order
to preserve what she would have thought of as her sister's
Much more has been lost to scholarship than Emily Brontë's
finished or unfinished second novel. Not a single prose composition
concerning the fantasy world of Gondal survives. Emily and her sister
Anne worked together on the Gondal sagas, as Branwell and Charlotte
worked together on Angria, and both sisters mention various Gondal prose
works in their diary papers. In 1837, Emily reports, "Anne
and I writing in the drawing room – Anne a poem beginning
Fair was the Evening and brightly the Sun – I Agustus –
Almedas life 1st vol – 4th page from the last. ..."
(Letters, 53-4) Four years later, Anne records, "I
am now engaged in writing the fourth volume of Solala Vernon's
life." (Letters, 97) In her last diary paper, Emily
tells us, "I am at present writing a work on the First Wars
– Anne has been writing some articles on this and a book by
Henry Sophona..." (Letters, 131-132) What happened
to all these volumes?
Again, almost certainly, Charlotte disposed of them when she went
through her sisters' papers. Charlotte tells us that "an
interpreter ought always to have stood between [Emily Brontë]
and the world."(Wuthering Heights, 8) She appears
to have considered it her duty to don that self-appointed role,
and she became the first of a long line of interpreters who have
stepped between us and Emily Brontë. We have been the poorer
for all this misguided interference, and in the case of Emily's
mysterious second novel and her Gondal sagas, the loss has been
It would be deeply unfair, however, for us to think badly of Charlotte
Brontë. However much we may regret what we perceive as meddling,
we should never forget that Charlotte stood within the circle of
that deeply private and close-knit family, while we ourselves stand
on the outside. Charlotte was not a scholar, but a devoted sister—the
oldest sister to her siblings for almost as long as any of them
could remember. If she sought to shield her younger sisters from
a harsh and misunderstanding public, we may doubt her prudence but
never her love.
After having had the pleasure of Emily's and Anne's company
for the better part of thirty years, Charlotte lost all three of
her adult siblings during the course of one bitter year. Witnessing
their slow deaths must have seemed like a long nightmare, and at
the end of it, Charlotte wrote this cry from the heart:
I let Anne go to God and felt He had a right to her[.] I could hardly
let Emily go – I wanted to hold her back then – and
I want her back now – Anne, from her childhood seemed preparing
for an early death – Emily's spirit seemed strong
enough to bear her to fulness of years – They are both gone
– and so is poor Branwell – and Papa has now me only
– the weakest – puniest – least promising of
his six children – Consumption has taken the whole five.
Faced with such agony, who could bear to judge her? Let us tiptoe
away and leave her to her grief.
BACK TO TOP
Barker, Juliet. The Brontës.
London: Phoenix Press, 1994.
—. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. New York: Overlook
Brontë, Emily. Five Essays in French. Translated by
Lorine White Nagel. El Paso: University of Texas Press, 1948.
—. The Poems of Emily Brontë. Edited
by Derek Roper with Edward Chitham. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
—. Wuthering Heights: An Authoritative Text with Essays
in Criticism, 2nd ed. Edited by William M. Sale, Jr. Norton
Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1972.
Chitham, Edward. The Birth of Wuthering Heights. New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1998.
—. The Brontës' Irish Background. St. Martin's
Eliot, T.S."In Memoriam." Selected Essays. New edition.
New York: Harcourt, 1964.
Frank, Katherine. A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Gérin, Winifred. Emily Brontë: A Biography. Reprinted
(with corrections). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
Ghnassia, Jill Dix. Metaphysical Rebellion in the Works of Emily
Brontë: A Reinterpretation.New York: St. Martin's
Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. New York: Knopf, 2003.
Moore, Virginia. The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontë.
London: Rich & Cowan, 1936.
Winnifrith, Tom. The Brontës. Masters of World Literature
Series. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
"Brontë Myths" copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author
is credited in a full citation.