Clare B. Dunkle

Background material for The House of Dead Maids

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

Haworth church plaque

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 link.

Brontë Myths

"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. (Ghnassia, xi)

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.












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, 12)

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 Heights, 8)

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. (Birth, 123)

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 better.

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." (Letters, 103)



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, 9)

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 home.

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.



(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, 98)

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 and love.

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, 131-132)

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)

But even 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." (200)

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.



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 wrote,

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, 242-3)

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." (Brontës, 572-3)

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 is dying:

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)



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." (Brontës, 236)

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." (Frank, 255)

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 indeed!

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.



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 Rochester's. (270)

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 emotion." (290)

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 their core.



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 – (Letters, 132)

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 suggests:

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, 576)



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 an evening.

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. (Letters, 159)

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 young spinster.

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 her.

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, 16)

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.



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 up.

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, 741)

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, 748)

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 books.

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.



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 reputation.

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 severe.

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. (Letters, 237)

Faced with such agony, who could bear to judge her? Let us tiptoe away and leave her to her grief.


Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. London: Phoenix Press, 1994.

—. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. New York: Overlook Press, 1998.

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 Press, 1986.

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 Press, 1994.

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.

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