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The Life and Works of Emily Bronte

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The Brontës:
Anne | Emily | Charlotte

Emily Brontë was the second youngest of the three Brontë sisters who became famous as authors. During her short lifetime (she was born on 30 July, 1818, and died on 19 December, 1848, at the age of just 30), she wrote various short stories and poems, plus the novel Wuthering Heights that she is best known for. Her work was inspired by her vivid imagination, books she had read and the people and places that she was familiar with.


The Brontë sisters' mother had died when Emily was three years old. Emily and her three older sisters were sent away to the Clergy Daughters' School in 1824 - their father was Rector of Haworth in West Yorkshire - but the eldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, became ill there and died in 1825. After that, Emily, Charlotte and Anne were educated at home by their aunt Elizabeth Branwell. Emily honed her writing skills by contributing to her siblings' tales about the fantasy lands of Angria and Gondal - her sister Charlotte and brother Branwell included her as Emmii in their stories, but Emily worked with Anne the most.

In 1835, Emily went to Miss Wooler's School - Charlotte had studied there and was then a teacher at the school. However, Emily was so homesick, she returned to Haworth Parsonage after three months.

The family was not rich, so the sisters' prospects of marrying well were not good. Instead they took steps to become financially independent in jobs that were considered suitable for women. In 1838 Emily secured a job as a teacher at a school in Halifax, but resigned after six months as she found the work very difficult.

In 1841, the sisters began to make plans to start their own school. In order to be able to compete with the proprietors of other small schools, they needed qualifications, so Charlotte and Emily spent some time in 1842 at the Pensionnat Heger school in Brussels, Belgium. They learned French, German and Literature. They also developed their teaching skills: Charlotte became an English teacher, and Emily gave piano lessons to her fellow pupils. Later in 1842, Aunt Branwell fell ill. Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth from Brussels, but by the time they arrived their aunt had died. Charlotte returned to Brussels in 1843, and Anne was working as a governess at a house near York. Their brother Branwell was with Anne, working as a tutor. Emily stayed at Haworth to look after their father and the family's financial affairs1.

Later in 1843, Charlotte returned from Brussels as Mr Brontë had lost his eyesight2. She tried to set up their planned school in Haworth, but was not able to recruit any pupils. However, all three sisters had been writing poetry and prose during that time. In 1846 Emily became a published author alongside her sisters, when they published a collection of their poetry. Wuthering Heights, the novel that Emily would become famous for, was published in 1847.

There were some indications that Emily had been working on another novel after Wuthering Heights, most notably a letter from the publisher TC Newby saying: '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, you will have established yourself as a first-rate novelist, but if it falls short the critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel.' However, the manuscript, if it existed, has not been found3.

Branwell died on 24 September, 1848, after a long period of ill health exacerbated by overindulging in alcohol and laudanum. Emily became ill soon after and developed tuberculosis. She died at Haworth Parsonage on 19 December, 1848.


Charlotte's opinions of her younger sisters were infused with the attitudes of the time towards women - she wrote on discovering some of Emily's poems in 1845: 'I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me - a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write.' However, the discovery that both Emily and Anne had written poems helped her to resolve to achieve their dream of becoming published authors.

They chose pseudonyms to protect their identity and also to make it less obvious that they were women, as that would have been likely to hinder their prospects of success. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published at their own expense (30 guineas) in May 1846. Emily contributed 21 out of the 61 poems in the book. She wrote on various themes, including nature and animals, but mostly on death and loss of loved ones. Some of the poems had been adapted from ones set in Gondal. Two poems, entitled 'To Imagination' and 'Plead for Me', illustrated how Emily took refuge in the 'Benignant Power' of her imaginary worlds.

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 together with Anne's novel Agnes Grey. The story is told through the diary of Mr Lockwood from 1801 onwards, and incorporates a transcription of the conversations Mr Lockwood had with Ellen 'Nelly' Dean, who had been a housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, a house in the Yorkshire Moors.

Through the reminiscences of Ellen, Wuthering Heights describes the intertwined lives of the Earnshaw and Linton families, and of Heathcliff, an orphan boy who was found in Liverpool. Mr Earnshaw raised Heathcliff as a son, alongside his own son Hindley and daughter Catherine.

Mr Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose.
- Mr Lockwood's description of Heathcliff

Talking to Ellen, Mr Lockwood learns that Catherine and Heathcliff had distrusted each other at first, but grew to love each other, spending time together out on the moors. When Mr Earnshaw died, Hindley treated Heathcliff as a servant instead of a brother. Catherine began to spend more time with Isabella and Edgar Linton at nearby Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff felt betrayed and plotted a revenge that would span generations.

Hindley married, and his wife Frances had a son, Hareton, not long before she died of consumption (tuberculosis). Edgar Linton proposed to Catherine, and she accepted, but confessed to Ellen that:

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now, so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.

Heathcliff disappeared on learning of Edgar's proposal. On his return three years later Catherine was overjoyed, but her husband was not impressed. Their subsequent fights drove Catherine into 'wicked rages' and she became ill.

Meanwhile, Isabella Linton had fallen in love with Heathcliff. She eloped with him, in spite of his warnings that he could be a brute, while the household was preoccupied with Catherine's health. She regretted her decision when she returned to live at Wuthering Heights with only Heathcliff, Hindley, Hareton and their servant Joseph for company.

When Catherine began to recover from illness, Heathcliff visited her one day while Edgar was out. The pair embraced and kissed and argued until Edgar returned home. Catherine then lost consciousness. At midnight she gave birth to a daughter, named Catherine. She died two hours later. In his grief, Heathcliff prayed to be haunted by her.

Isabella briefly returned to Thrushcross Grange a few days later, as Heathcliff had 'proceeded to murderous violence'. She fled towards London4 and had a son, named Linton. Hindley Earnshaw died soon afterwards, aged just 27. A drinker and gambler, he had become indebted to Heathcliff, so Heathcliff inherited Wuthering Heights.

The story was reflected in the second generation - Heathcliff treated Hindley's son Hareton as a servant. He arranged for Catherine Linton to marry his son (her cousin) Linton Heathcliff, 'a pale, delicate, effeminate boy' with fair hair like his mother's. When Linton died of consumption, all his property, and his wife's property, became Heathcliff's. Although Catherine had distrusted her cousin Hareton at first, they began to love each other, and they spent time together rambling over the moors, ending the cycle of revenge.


Dealing with themes of unhappy marriages, illness, death and revenge, as well as the passionate love/hate relationship of Catherine and Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights had a mixed reception at first, but has since become a classic novel. It has inspired numerous film adaptations5, a 1967 TV miniseries6, and a song of the same name by Kate Bush. It even inspired Heathcliff, a 1996 musical and 1997 TV movie starring Sir Cliff Richard in the title role.

[Heathcliff] got on to the bed. and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. 'Come in! come in!' he sobbed. 'Cathy, do come. Oh, do - once more! Oh! My heart's darling! Hear me this time, Catherine, at last!'
1Including managing their investments in the railways.2In 1846 he had an operation to remove cataracts from his eyes.3It is thought likely that Charlotte destroyed much of Anne's and Emily's writing after their deaths, as most of their work set in Gondal has also not been found.4This echoes the theme of Emily's sister Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - the tenant left her abusive husband to protect her child.5Including the 1939 version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon that focused on Heathcliff's relationship with Catherine Earnshaw, and the 1992 version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche that included both generations of the story.6Featuring Ian McShane and Angela Scoular.

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