I live quite close to Haworth, the famous home village of the Brontë family. The way the wind howls in straight off the moors to strike the walls of my house, the first house for thirty miles of open moorland, reminds me very much of the most famous work of Emily Brontë (1818 – 1848), her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Emily was the third-eldest of the four surviving Brontë siblings, between the youngest Anne and her brother Branwell, and wrote under the pen name Ellis Bell.
Born in the village of Thornton Market Street in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Emily was the younger sister of Charlotte Brontë and the fifth of six children. Soon after the birth of Emily's younger sister Anne in 1820, the family moved a few miles away to Haworth, where Patrick their father was employed as a curate. The following year, though, the siblings lost their mother to cancer, and the older sisters Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, where they encountered the cruelty later described by Charlotte in her famous novel, Jane Eyre. After 1825, she was educated at home by her father and aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother's sister. Emily and her siblings had access to a wide range of books including works by Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Blackwood's Magazine.
The children began to write fiction at home, and developed a number of fantasy worlds including ‘Angria', which featured in stories they wrote, but when Emily was 13 she and Anne withdrew from participation in the Angria story and began a new one about a fictional island, Gondal, the myths and legends of which became a major preoccupation for the two sisters, though most of their writings on Gondal were not preserved. One of the fictional works produced during this time was Branwell's The Life of Alexander Percy, telling the story of how Percy and his wife had a complete love and understanding for one another that eventually becomes self-destructive.
Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax in 1838, when she was twenty, but the 17-hour work day was too much for her health and she returned home in 1839 to do the domestic duties in the household. She managed to teach herself German and piano-playing.
Constantin Héger, whose school Emily later attended in Belgium in the hopes of being able to start her own school with the training she received there, said of Emily:
She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have given way but with life. She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman... impairing this gift was her stubborn tenacity of will which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned.
Forced to return to Haworth by family illness, in 1844 the sisters did try to open a school but were unable to attract students to the remote village.
Emily’s closest friend was her sister Anne, with whom she shared the fantasy world of Gondal. Charlotte Brontë remains the primary source of information about Emily, but she presented Emily as someone whose love of the beauties of nature was exaggerated. In the Preface to the Second Edition of Wuthering Heights, in 1850, Charlotte wrote:
My sister's disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them, she rarely exchanged a word.
The Literary News (1883) stated that Emily ‘loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things’, something which becomes clear in Wuthering Heights. She has often been characterised as a devout but unorthodox Christian, and a visionary. This famous passage from Wuthering Heights gives us a flavour of how she perceived things:
I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.