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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë was born in a bleak, Georgian Vicarage in Market Street, Thornton, West Yorkshire on July 30, 1818. She was bought up by her father, Patrick, an eccentric Irish clergyman, who was in the habit of carrying a loaded pistol in his pocket and an aunt, who was her mother’s unmarried sister. Her Cornish mother, Maria, had died in 1821 at the age of 37 of cancer.

Emily had four sisters including Charlotte (1816-1848) who wrote Jane Eyre and Anne (1820-49) who wrote Agnes Grey.

The Brontë sisters: Anne, Emily and Charlotte

Her one brother Patrick (1817-1848) (always known simply as Branwell), was addicted to opium and alcohol and often used to frequent the Nelson Inn at Luddenden Foot, West Yorks. He was the black sheep of the family. Her two other sisters Maria and Elizabeth also died of consumption, both in 1825. Her father outlived all his children.

She moved to Haworth Rectory, in Church Street, Haworth in 1820 where Emily and her sisters were bought up in isolation on the Yorkshire moors. The rectory is now a museum and today over 200,000 tourists visit Haworth a year. Charlotte's father gave the first tour in the 1850s.

In August 1824, Emily was sent with her three sisters, Charlotte, Maria, and Elizabeth, to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, (which Charlotte would describe as Lowood School in Jane Eyre). As borders there cruelty, poor hygiene and starvation made life horrific and hastened the deaths of their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died of tuberculosis in June 1825. Soon afterwards Emily's father removed her and Charlotte from the school. Their father undertook to educate them himself, although this education seems to have been largely self-administered by Charlotte.

In 1826 Mr Brontë bought home a box of wooden soldiers for Branwell to play with. Emily and her sisters joined in and together they used the soldiers to create an imaginary kingdom called Angria. When Emily was 13, she and Anne withdrew from participation in the Angria story and began a new one about Gondal, a large island in the North Pacific. She filled thousands of pages of miniature books writing about her imaginary kingdom, continuing to do so until 1845.

A portrait of Brontë made by her brother, Branwell Brontë

At the age of seventeen, Emily became a pupil at Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head, Mirfield, West Yorkshire, where Charlotte was a teacher, but managed to stay only three months before being overcome by extreme homesickness. She returned home and Anne took her place. At this time, the girls' objective was to obtain sufficient education to open a small school of their own

Emily took up a position as a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax in September 1838 to earn money to pay for an art education for her brother Branwell when she was twenty. Her health broke under the stress of the 17-hour work day and she returned home in April 1839.

In 1842-43 Emily accompanied Charlotte to Brussels, Belgium, where they attended a girls' academy run by Constantin Heger. They planned to perfect their French and German in anticipation of returning to Yorkshire to establish a school of their own.

Using a small inheritance from her aunt, Emily set up with Charlotte a school for girls in their home village of Haworth. Although they advertised they received no pupils, so the sisters turned to their poems and novels which they had been writing.

After leaving school, Emily and her sisters read widely at home including Byron and Scott. They wrote magazines in imitation of Blackwoods Magazine. In 1844, Emily began going through all the poems she had written, recopying them neatly into notebooks. In the fall of 1845, Charlotte discovered the notebooks and insisted that the poems be published. Emily, furious at the invasion of her privacy, at first refused, but relented when Anne brought out her own manuscripts and revealed she had been writing poems in secret as well.
Sketch by Emily Brontë showing herself and Anne at work in the dining room of the parsonage.

In 1846, the sisters' poems were published in one volume as Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Only two copies of the first edition were sold. Despite this the book was much admired by Florence Nightingale, who was read extracts from it by one of her suitors

The next year the three sisters each sent a novel to the publishers, and Emily's Wuthering Heights along with Anne's Agnes Grey, were both accepted. The first London edition was published December 4, 1847 under her Ellis Bell nom de plume..

The ideas for Wuthering Heights evolved from Gondal, her fantasy world set on a Pacific island. Her classic, poetic story was about Heathcliffe's doomed, obsessional love for Cathy located on the Yorkshire moors that Emily knew so well. The 'Wuthering Height’'s building itself is said to be modelled on a local farm house.

The critics were initially shocked by Wuthering Heights' immoral passion, unusual construction and violent nature. One referred to it as "brutal, coarse and vulgar”.

Emily had a cat called Tiger who played at her feet while she wrote Wuthering Heights.

The Brontë family dog was a large mastiff called Keeper. Once, when Keeper dirtied a counterpane with his muddy paws, Emily punched the poor pooch in the face so many times that he was left half blind.

Despite this, Keeper who was so beloved that Emily rose from her sickbed the evening before her death to feed him . When she died, Keeper followed her coffin and then according to Charlotte, came into the church with the family, “lying in the pew couched at [their] feet while the burial service was being read.”

Emily was plain and gaunt with a "large protruding tooth, compressed mouth and drooping eyelids.

Mocked for her appearance, a family friend said she wore dresses long after they went out of fashion.

Emily was a silent, reserved woman almost to the point of rudeness with strangers. She never married or had a boyfriend.

In private she was somewhat wacky, preferring to live in her imaginary land of Gondal, and mystical to the extent that Charlotte had to tone down her image after she died.

Emily's health, like her sisters', had been weakened by unsanitary conditions at home and at school. Having caught a cold during the funeral of her brother in September 1848, she grew very thin and ill, but rejected medical help and refused all proffered remedies, saying that she would have "no poisoning doctor" near her. She died on December 19, 1848 at about two in the afternoon. Emily was interred in the Church of St. Michael and All Angels family vault, Haworth, West Yorkshire.

She became so thin before her death that her coffin was reputedly just 16 inches wide.

Whilst Charlotte was widely acclaimed straight away for Jane Eyre, Emily's fame was wholly posthumous. Within a few years of her death, Brontë mania had started and people were flocking to Haworth.

Kate Bush's 1978 UK number one Wuthering Heights was the single that introduced her to the public. (Incidentally Kate Bush shares the same birthday as Emily).

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