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Last weekend, the historian and literary biographer Kathryn Hughes wrote for The Guardian about ‘The Strange Cult of Emily Brontë and the “Hot Mess” of Wuthering Heights,’ arguing that the middle Brontë sister was “no romantic child of nature but a pragmatic, self-interested Tory,” and that her only novel (which Hughes read as a teenager and struggled to finish) was a “screeching melodrama.” Published on the eve of Emily’s bicentenary, this clickbait sensation was only the latest in a long line of outraged and baffled responses to the writer and her work. Whereas her sisters Charlotte and Anne have been embraced by feminists, Emily – about whom little is known – remains something of an outcast.
Emily Jane Brontë was born in Yorkshire on July 30, 1818, the fifth of six children delivered to the Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria. At three years old, Emily lost her mother; and after enrolling at a grim boarding school three years later, she watched her two eldest sisters sicken and die from tuberculosis. With so much trauma in her formative years, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this playful little girl would become a shy, remote young woman. But among the four remaining siblings (including brother Branwell, and sisters Charlotte and Anne) there was a powerful bond, evoked in the imaginary kingdom of Angria which they pieced together in tiny, handwritten books. Later on, Emily and Anne would forge their own legend of Gondal, but that myth can only be glimpsed in their poetry.
As she reached adulthood, Emily followed Charlotte into teaching, but fell ill and returned home. Charlotte then persuaded her to study with her in Brussels, but once again, she was unsettled. She returned to the family parsonage at Haworth, where she kept house for her father, and took long walks on her beloved moors with her dog, Keeper. After Branwell failed in his artistic endeavours and embarked on a doomed adulterous affair, Emily cared for him in her firm, taciturn way, dragging him home from the local pub on more than one occasion. Her closest relationship was with Anne, the youngest Brontë; and while it is sometimes said that Emily dominated her, it was sweet, gentle Anne who coaxed Emily out of her shell.
However, it was the ambitious, frustrated Charlotte who discovered Emily’s remarkable poems, and despite breaching her privacy, she somehow persuaded a reluctant Emily to partake in a collection attributed to Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Of the three sisters, Emily was the better poet by far; and her work deserves to be considered among the immortals of English verse, rather than being dismissed as a mere prelude to her fiction.
Wuthering Heights was published alongside Anne’s autobiographical Agnes Grey in 1847 (Charlotte’s The Professor had been rejected.) When Anne and Charlotte travelled to London to meet their publisher (thereby outing themselves as women), Emily refused to join them. Initial reviews of Wuthering Heights savaged its violence, as many have done since. But if Emily had no desire to be publicly identified with her work, correspondence from this time indicates another novel was in progress.
But tragedy would soon overtake the lives of the Brontë sisters. After Branwell died of consumption, Emily also fell ill and passed away, aged thirty, in December 1848. Having maintained her stubborn integrity to the end, Emily is an exemplary model for all who find themselves at odds with society’s expectations. Anne followed her to the grave months later, while a heartbroken Charlotte would survive a few more years, finding fame and marriage before her death.
The first literary portrait of Emily appeared in Charlotte’s 1849 novel, Shirley, where she is depicted as an idealised mystic. Mortified by the harsh response to Wuthering Heights, Charlotte wrote an introduction for the 1850 edition, claiming Emily was an unworldly innocent who didn’t fully comprehend the monster she had created. For some, the passionate imagination of this reclusive spinster will forever remain a mystery.
Many more years would pass before Emily and Anne’s novels earned acclaim on a par with Charlotte’s. Wuthering Heights has been filmed numerous times, but its elusive wildness has never been recaptured. The complex structure seems to thwart imitators, but despite its Gothic influences, these adaptations have also propagated the narrow view of a star-crossed love story. In fact, it has more in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than a Mills & Boon romance. Virginia Woolf and Muriel Spark were among those who recognised Emily’s rare genius, and with its disturbing imagery inspiring endless interpretations, Wuthering Heights could have been the first modernist novel.
While critics may have been slow to recognise its power, readers of Emily Brontë were not, and her vision has inspired many towards their own expressive acts. Inspired by Kate Bush’s 1978 single, Wuthering Heights has spawned a series of ‘flash-mob’ performances where fans recreate the music video, beginning with Brighton’s ‘Shambush’ in 2013, and followed by others such as Lancaster’s ‘Bush Rush’, spreading as far as Australia.
In recent years we’ve seen fictional portraits of Emily (in Jude Morgan’s A Taste of Sorrow and Robert Edric’s Sanctuary); Sally Wainright’s Brontë biopic, To Walk Invisible; a grittier take on Wuthering Heights from filmmaker Andrea Arnold, and Caryl Phillips’ novel The Lost Boy, both exploring the anti-hero Heathcliff and his ambiguous origins. Making Thunder Roar, a bicentennial tribute to Emily currently on display at the Brontë Parsonage, includes new lyrics from Kate Bush and a short film from Lily Cole focusing on Heathcliff’s foundling stigma.
Like Kathryn Hughes, I first read Wuthering Heights in adolescence (during the summer before I left home in London for university up north.) It wasn’t my first Brontë novel; that was Charlotte‘s Jane Eyre, while Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was still ahead of me. Unlike Dr. Hughes I’ve always loved Wuthering Heights, though in a slightly different way than I do now. Cool-headed Nelly Dean, who seemed a righteous bore then, is a voice of reason in a mad world. I’m still fascinated by Cathy and Heathcliff, while accepting them as wilful and cruel; Joseph’s religious mania still amuses and appals; and like the gauche Lockwood, we’re all strangers in the land of Emily’s creation. In the gulf between the rugged existence at the Heights and the bourgeois refinement of Thrushcross Grange, I see a metaphor for the English class system that still holds true. And finally, in the next generation of Earnshaws and Lintons, I’m reminded that all things must change.
In her polemic for The Guardian, Kathryn Hughes curiously speculates that Emily would have set her dogs on the Suffragettes. While her father was most certainly a Tory – ‘more Tory than the Tories’, according to Brontë scholar Edward Chitham – one of Emily’s final poems indicates that her reaction to the industrial unrest of the 1840s was secretly more radical than either Patrick or Charlotte’s – closer, perhaps, to Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy. But it’s absurd to judge a writer from two centuries past by today’s identity politics, so as a final testament to Emily’s quiet rebellion, I’ll leave you with these lines from Why Ask to Know the Date, the Clime…
Strange proofs I’ve seen how hearts could hide
Their secret with a lifelong pride,
And then, reveal it as they died—
Strange courage, and strange weakness too,
In that last hour when most are true,
And timid natures strangely nerved
To deeds from which the desperate swerved!