Biography of Emily Bronte

Emily Brontë was born on July 30th, 1818, the 5th child of the Reverend Patrick Brontë, a stern Evangelical curate, and his wife Maria. When Emily was three years old, her mother died of cancer, and her Aunt Branwell, a strict Calvinist, moved in to help raise the six children (another daughter, Anne, was born soon after Emily). They lived in a parsonage in Haworth with the bleak moors of Yorkshire on one side and the parish graveyard on the other. When Emily was 6 years old she went to a boarding school run by charity, the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, where her older sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte were already enrolled. The school was in no sense a material improvement over her home environment: it was run with the intention of punishing the pupils' bodies that their souls might be saved. The students were kept hungry, cold, tired, and often ill: Maria in particular, who at her young age did her best to mother her sisters, was treated extremely harshly. In 1825 Maria and Elizabeth both died of tuberculosis, the disease that was later to claim Emily's own life, and that of her younger sister Anne. Following these new bereavements, the surviving sisters Charlotte and Emily were taken home, but they would never forget the terrors and the hardship of their lives at school. Charlotte made it the model for the charity school Lowood, which figures so prominently in her novel Jane Eyre.

Life at home was much better for Emily and her siblings: in their isolated childhood on the moors, they developed an extremely close relationship partly based on their mutual participation in a vibrant game of make-believe. In 1826 their father brought their brother Branwell a box of wooden soldiers, and each child chose a soldier and gave him a name and character: these were to be the foundation of the creation of a complicated fantasy world, which the Brontës actively worked on for 16 years. They made tiny books containing stories, plays, histories, and poetry written by their imagined heroes and heroines. Unfortunately, only the ones written by Charlotte and Branwell survive: of Emily's work we only have her poetry, and indeed her most passionate and lovely poetry is written from the perspectives of inhabitants of "Gondal." For Emily, it seems that the fantastic adventures in imaginary Gondal coexisted on almost an equal level of importance and reality with the lonely and mundane world of household chores and walks on the moor. One would be mistaken, however, to conclude that the poetic beauty of Gondal was essentially different from that which Emily saw in the world around her. This becomes clear in her novel Wuthering Heights, in which her familiar Yorkshire surroundings become the setting for a tragedy whose passion and beauty is equal to anything that could be imagined elsewhere. Passion is in no way inconsistent with empty moors, cold winters, and brown hills.

As might be imagined from her intense emotional and artistic attachment to the country of her childhood, Emily Brontë very rarely spent any time away from home: indeed she could hardly do so at all. In 1835, at the age of seventeen she went to school at Roe Head where Charlotte was teaching, but became so pale and thin that her sister was convinced she would die unless she returned home. She left home again to be a governess in 1837 (a failure) and to study in Belgium in 1842, but both times she found she was unable to bear being away from home and her beloved, wild countryside. She could not adapt to playing the role of a genteel Victorian lady, or deal with the intrusion of strangers into her life––she could never fit in. Emily never made any close friends outside of her family circle.

In 1845 Charlotte came across Emily's Gondal poems and read them, which made Emily furious when she found out. However, the discovery led to the publication of a volume of Charlotte, Emily, and the youngest sister Anne's poetry under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. They sold only two copies, but did not give up writing: Wuthering Heights was probably written in 1845-6, while Charlotte was working on The Professor and Jane Eyre, and Anne wrote Agnes Grey. Wuthering Heights (by Ellis Bell), was published in 1847, and attracted considerable critical attention: many people were shocked and horrified by the sheer violence of Emily's novel.

While his sisters were on their way to becoming famous authors, Branwell had failed as a painter and lapsed into alcoholism and drug abuse. He died in September of 1848, and his death marked the beginning of Emily's own illness. Tuberculosis killed her rapidly, perhaps because she stoically refused to make any concession to her ill health, continuing to get up early every day to feed her numerous animals even when she could barely walk. She died with heroic fortitude on December 19th, 1848, at the age of 30, and did not have time to appreciate the last flowering sprig of heather which Charlotte had found on the moors for her wild sister. Emily Brontë's stern self-discipline and passionate creative vision have continued to entrance modern readers through her poetry and especially her masterpiece, Wuthering Heights.


Study Guides on Works by Emily Bronte