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Bookish Birthdays: Emily Brontё

29th Jul 2011

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Emily Jane Brontё was born on July 30 1818, in Thornton, near Bradford in Yorkshire, the fifth of six children. Her mother died of cancer when she was three years old.

By then, the family had moved to nearby Haworth, where Emily’s father, the Irish-born Reverend Patrick Brontё, was curate.

In 1824, the six year-old Emily Brontё joined her sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte Brontё at Cowan Bridge, a grim boarding school for daughters of the clergy. Within months, Maria and Elizabeth had both fallen ill, and they died at home.

Given their early experience of trauma, it is perhaps unsurprising that the four remaining Brontё children often retreated into a fantasy world, ‘Angria’. Soon the siblings were co-writing plays, poetry and stories.

While the elder children – Charlotte and Branwell Brontё – tended to monopolise the proceedings, and were fiercely competitive, Emily and her youngest sister, Anne Brontё, created another world, ‘Gondal’.

Emily Brontё was the tallest and hardiest of her siblings, and her father taught her to shoot. She was also the most deeply reserved.

At seventeen, she briefly attended another school. Two years later, after a short-lived teaching job, Emily Brontё returned to Haworth.

In 1842, Emily joined the more ambitious Charlotte at a girls’ academy in Brussels. While Charlotte would become infatuated with her teacher, he and Emily ‘did not draw well together.’

Back at home, Emily Brontё began to revise and collect her poems. However, when Charlotte discovered her notebooks in 1845, a furious Emily initially refused to consider publication.

Nonetheless, a volume of poems by Emily, Charlotte and Anne was published in 1846. Like her sisters, Emily had adopted a male pseudonym – ‘Ellis Bell’ – thus protecting the family’s privacy.

Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, was published in 1847. Early critics puzzled over its complex structure, and moralists were repelled by the violent protagonists.

When Emily’s brother, Branwell, succumbed to alcoholism, the family faced a new crisis. Branwell died of tuberculosis in 1848, by which time Emily had also contracted the disease.

Stoical as always, Emily refused medical treatment and died on December 19th 1848. She was thirty. By May 1849, Anne was also dead. Before long, the true identities of Emily and her sisters would be revealed.

After her sisters’ deaths, a grief-stricken Charlotte destroyed their Gondal manuscripts. It’s possible that she was shocked by Emily’s work, and one of her last poems, Why Ask to Know the Date, the Clime?, suggests that Emily’s writing had taken a more radical turn.

The sentimentalised view of Emily Brontё as a mystical ‘child of nature’ is too simplistic. She is now regarded as one of the greatest English poets of the 19th century.

Wuthering Heights has been endlessly revived in film, stage and song. The latest cinematic version, directed by Andrea Arnold, will open in September 2011.