Emily Brontë at 200

Portrait of the Brontë sisters by their brother Patrick Branwell Brontë, c1834. Emily is second from the left (NPG 1725 © National Portrait Gallery, London)

Emily Brontë lived for just thirty years (1818-1848), and published one novel, Wuthering Heights, and a small number of poems. Both during her short life and throughout the much longer afterlife of her literary fame, Emily’s work has been defined in relation to her family. Her poetry appeared together with that of her sisters Anne and Charlotte, published under male pseudonyms in 1846 as Poems by Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell. As Juliet Barker explains in her life of Emily in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, she only agreed to publish her poems with reluctance, after Charlotte had discovered and read them without her knowledge. Wuthering Heights appeared jointly with Anne’s novel Agnes Grey in 1847. Several reviewers assumed that the three ‘brothers’ were in fact the same person. In order to disprove this, Anne and Charlotte travelled to London to reveal their true identities to Charlotte’s publisher. Emily refused to go with them. In the biography of Emily that she added to the posthumous 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte wrote that ‘an interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world.’

Left image: title page of the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, by Ellis and Acton Bell. Right image: page from the preface to the book by Charlotte Brontë, with biography of her sister Emily. Both images from r PR4172.W8E50 (SR)

She presented Emily as an unworldly genius, unable or unwilling to participate in the complicated business of life outside Haworth, the small Yorkshire village in which the Brontës lived. This portrait has been hugely influential ever since; our view of Emily Brontë is still shaped by her sister’s opinion of her.

Cover of the 1873 edition of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, one of the many editions held in the Library’s Special Collections (Har PR4172.W8 1873).

The close connection between Emily and her family is, of course, crucial to understanding her work, but it also threatens to obscure the originality of her writing. In order to appreciate what a unique author Emily is, we need to bypass Charlotte’s commentary and look again at the writing itself. Wuthering Heights is typically read as the story of a passionate romance between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, but it is also (and, I think, more importantly), a novel about family. Personality in Wuthering Heights is determined by upbringing. Again and again characters are betrayed or let down by parents, brothers, and sisters. And those who are mistreated in turn go on to mistreat younger generations, in a seemingly endless cycle of cruelty. But Emily’s characters, and especially Catherine and Heathcliff, also display a stubborn independence, a refusal to be controlled by their family relationships. Emily’s family was in no way as violent or abusive as the Earnshaws in Wuthering Heights, but she, her father, and her siblings were all eccentric and strong-willed. The novel presents an exaggerated version of what it was like to be part of the Brontë family (or, indeed, of any family), and its characters remind us that no one, and certainly not a writer as brilliant as Emily, can be defined exclusively by the family from which they come.

Emily’s poems are less well-known than Wuthering Heights, but they are just as important to her achievement as an author. The voice of her lyric poetry is singular, spare, and remarkably consistent in tone. It is very different from the clashing voices of the multiple and interconnected characters that populate her novel. And, in poems like ‘The Old Stoic’, it allows her to express an uncompromising independence:

Riches I hold in light esteem;
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn:

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, ‘Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!’

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
’Tis all that I implore:
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Left image: title page of the 1848 edition of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Right image: The Old Stoic by Emily Brontë. Both images from Har PR4167.P7 1848

Some readers might interpret this forthright rejection of love and fame as depressingly self-defeating, but I prefer to focus on its appeal to ‘liberty’, to the intellectual and emotional freedom which gives the poem’s speaker the ‘courage to endure’. Emily Brontë’s work has now endured for 200 years, and I can think of no better way to celebrate her bicentenary than to reread her work, and to be reminded that, however much she was influenced by her family, her writing displays an originality and an imaginative liberty which is all her own.

Dr Gregory Tate
School of English

The Library’s Special Collections holds a number of significant editions of the works of the Brontë sisters. Some of these were purchased at time of publication. Others have been added over more recent years. Our holdings were significantly strengthened by the generous gift of the Hargreaves Collection in 2012 which contains works representing the publishing history of the Brontë family and their contemporaries. Geoffrey Hargreaves served as Rare Books Librarian at the University of St Andrews from 1976. Alongside his professional work he was an avid book collector and bibliographer who aimed to collect the entire publishing history of the Brontës’ works. His widow donated his book collection and working papers to the University after his death.

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