Friday, March 31, 2017

Who was Emily Bronte?

My favorite novel is Wuthering Heights. I first read it when I was around eleven years old and was immediately drawn to the rugged landscape, the bleak tone, the unfulfilled longing that cried out from the pages.

Masterpiece’s To Walk Invisible, a two-hour film based on the three Bronte sisters, aired last Sunday night, and in my opinion, it was extremely well done. Raw, honest, and surprising, the movie affords a stark look at these women who produced such monstrous works of literature under male pen names.

Even though Wuthering Heights has always been my favorite novel, I confess to know very little about its author (other than the fact that she wrote under the name of Ellis Bell and never married). Obviously, Emily Bronte loved the character of Heathcliff. Much like the character of Catherine, despite Heathcliff’s darkness and evil doings, Emily saw past the posturing and understood he was a tortured soul who had been deeply wounded. Some scholars believe he may have been fashioned after her troubled, severely alcoholic brother, Branwell. Or perhaps his character represented one side of a romanticized battle between the suitable, socially appropriate gentleman—like Linton—and the wild, rake of a man who was Heathcliff.

Perhaps Heathcliff represented the internal struggle—a tug of war of between what was and what could be. The movie suggests Heathcliff was born of a story she overheard from someone else, but I suspect it was more than that.

So who was Emily Bronte?

(Emily Bronte/public domain)

Her sister, Charlotte Bronte, described her in this way: “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”

(Emily's dog, Grasper)

Her life was short (she died at thirty due to tuberculosis) and most of it she spent at home in her father’s parsonage in Yorkshire. When she attended school abroad with Charlotte, she was terribly homesick and longed for the moors. Reserved, shy, and stubborn to a fault, Emily was uncomfortable around people, and she was often found in the company of animals (and in her imaginary world of Gondal, created by the Brontes when they were children).

It was not easy living in the Yorkshire moors, and the Brontes were not well-off. Economics were certainly one reason for the girls seeking publication. Their house was in constant upheaval due to their brother’s alcohol and drug addiction. Emily was known to exhibit anorexic symptoms during times of extreme stress. Much like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, she would refuse to eat for days. Biographer Katherine Frank suggested that Emily spent much of her life in a state of psychological hunger in her biography, A Chainless Soul. “Even more importantly, how was this physical hunger related to a more pervasive hunger in her life–hunger for power and experience, for love and happiness, fame and fortune and fulfillment?”

It is interesting to note that Emily Bronte left behind virtually no correspondence except for two letters and a lot of raw, passionate poetry, which is extraordinarily good. Here is an excerpt from "Oh, Thy Bright Eyes Must Answer Now."

So, with a ready heart, I swore
To seek their altar-stone no more;
And gave my spirit to adore
Thee, ever-present, phantom thing
My slave, my comrade, and my king.

A slave, because I rule thee still;
Incline thee to my changeful will,
And make thy influence good or ill:
A comrade, for by day and night
Thou art my intimate delight,

My darling pain that wounds and sears,
And wrings a blessing out from tears
By deadening me to earthly cares;
And yet, a king, though Prudence well
Have taught thy subject to rebel.

And am I wrong to worship where
Faith cannot doubt, nor hope despair,
Since my own soul can grant my prayer?
Speak, God of visions, plead for me,
And tell why I have chosen thee!

The rest of Emily Bronte’s life has been pieced together through others' comments about her.

I highly recommend watching To Walk Invisible. If you didn’t catch it on Sunday, you can still watch it on Masterpiece’s website.

Have you ever read Wuthering Heights? If so, what is your opinion of the novel?

More good info on Emily Bronte found here:
Emily Bronte


  1. I DVRed To Walk Invisible. Maybe I'll have time to watch it this weekend. I read Wuthering Heights. I wasn't that crazy about it, but I was under pressure to read it for a book club. I want to read it again and take my time with it. I didn't know that Emily struggled with anorexia. In my college class on Chaucer we encountered a character who refused to eat. The professor pointed out that for as long as we know it's been one of the few ways that women could try to control their lives.


    1. I'm sure there are many women throughout history who have used this as a way to control SOMETHING when they had so little that actually could control. I was fascinated to learn this too. I'd like to read a full biography on her.

  2. I never read Wuthering Heights; have to do that sometime. She does seem like she struggled with a lot in her life; such a short one too!


    1. Wuthering Heights is a far cry from Jane Austen's novels, but I think there is much to be gleaned from both. WH is raw and unbridled. It is more of a cautionary tale, but the writing is TRULY beautiful.

  3. I love Wuthering Heights! This little biographical sketch of Emily Bronte was so interesting.