Today is the birthday (1818) of Emily Jane Brontë, English novelist and poet who is best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, now considered a classic of English literature. Emily was the third eldest of the four surviving Brontë siblings, between the youngest Anne and her brother Branwell. Two other sisters died in childhood. She wrote under the pen name Ellis Bell.
Emily Brontë remains a mysterious figure and a challenge to biographers because information about her is sparse, due to her solitary and reclusive nature. She does not seem to have made any friends outside her family. Her sister Charlotte remains the primary source of information about her, although as Emily’s elder sister, writing publicly about her shortly after her death, Charlotte is not a neutral observer. 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.
Emily’s lack of sociability and extremely shy nature has subsequently been reported many times. According to literary historian Norma Crandall, her “warm, human aspect” was “usually revealed only in her love of nature and of animals”. In a similar description, Literary News (1883) states: “[Emily] loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things”, and her love of the moors is manifest in Wuthering Heights.
Over the years, Emily’s love of nature has been the subject of many anecdotes. A newspaper dated December 31, 1899, gives an account that “with bird and beast [Emily] had the most intimate relations, and from her walks she often came with fledgling or young rabbit in hand, talking softly to it, quite sure, too, that it understood”. The following is also related:
Once she was bitten by a dog that she saw running by in great distress, and to which she offered water. The dog was mad. She said no word to any one, but herself burned the lacerated flesh to the bone with the red hot poker, and no one knew of it until the red scar was accidentally discovered some weeks after, and sympathetic questioning brought out this story.
In Queens of Literature of the Victorian Era (1886), Eva Hope summarizes Emily’s character as,
. . . a peculiar mixture of timidity and Spartan-like courage. She was painfully shy, but physically she was brave to a surprising degree. She loved few persons, but those few with a passion of self-sacrificing tenderness and devotion. To other people’s failings she was understanding and forgiving, but over herself she kept a continual and most austere watch, never allowing herself to deviate for one instant from what she considered her duty.
Wuthering Heights was first published in London in 1847, appearing as the first two volumes of a three-volume set that included Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. The authors were listed as being Ellis and Acton Bell; Emily’s real name did not appear until 1850, when it was printed on the title page of an edited commercial edition.
The violence and passion of Wuthering Heights led the Victorian public and many early reviewers to think that it had been written by a man and many early readers were both enthralled, confused, and repelled by it. It received mixed reviews when it first came out, and was often condemned for its portrayal of amoral passion.
Although a letter from her publisher indicates that Emily had begun to write a second novel, the manuscript has never been found. Perhaps Emily, or a member of her family, eventually destroyed the manuscript, if it existed, when she was prevented by illness from completing it. It has also been suggested that, though less likely, the letter could have been intended for Anne Brontë, who was already writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, her second novel. In any case, no manuscript of a second novel by Emily has survived. Emily could be quite secretive about her writing as is attested by her unwillingness to show her poetry – even to her sisters.
Emily believed that her health, like her sisters’, had been weakened by the harsh local climate and by unsanitary conditions at home, their source of water being contaminated by runoff from the church’s graveyard. She caught a severe cold during the funeral of her brother Branwell in September 1848 and was soon showing symptoms of tuberculosis. It should be noted, though, that while many of her contemporaries believed otherwise, “consumption”, or tuberculosis does not originate from catching a cold. Tuberculosis is a communicable disease through mucus and saliva and anyone living in a house with another member would be likely to contract it. It is also a disease that can remain asymptomatic for long periods, so it is possible that all of the children could have contracted it at the same time. Though her condition worsened steadily, she rejected medical help and all proffered remedies, saying that she would have “no poisoning doctor” near her. On the morning of 19 December 1848, Charlotte, fearing for her sister, wrote:
She grows daily weaker. The physician’s opinion was expressed too obscurely to be of use – he sent some medicine which she would not take. Moments so dark as these I have never known – I pray for God’s support to us all.
At noon, Emily was worse; she could only whisper in gasps. With her last audible words she said to Charlotte, “If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now” but it was too late. She died that same day at about two in the afternoon while sitting on the sofa at Haworth Parsonage. It was less than three months since Branwell’s death, which led a housemaid to declare that “Miss Emily died of a broken heart for love of her brother”. Emily had grown so thin that her coffin measured only 16 inches wide. The carpenter said he had never made a narrower one for an adult. She was interred in the family vault in the church of St Michael and All Angels in Haworth.
Emily Brontë never knew the extent of the fame she achieved with Wuthering Heights, as she died a year after its publication, aged 30.
I’ve always had a fascination with Wuthering Heights ever since I first read it when I was 15. I was puzzled by the chronology at first, as were 19th century readers who were used to beginning, middle and end even though classic Greek and Roman epics frequently use the device of beginning in media res (in the middle of things) and then looking back. I’ve particularly been fascinated by the character of Heathcliff. Critics have often tried to “type” him but this is a great mistake I fear. He is the romantic hero AND the cruel villain. He shows the two sides of passion, tender and ugly, in the most penetrating way. This is one of the great strengths of Emily Brontë’s characterizations. She gives us the struggles of complex people in an alarmingly real way – considerably pre-dating Freud in this respect. Brontë’s women are all equally complex, Cathy especially, who has to balance all manner of issues including love versus social pressure, and obedience versus self-assertiveness. Obviously the Brontë sisters all wrote in the same vein, but I find Wuthering Heights superior to the other novels.
In film, especially in the classic 1939 version, the passionate love between Heathcliff and Cathy overshadows the complexity of the novel, including the whole second part dealing with the next generation, and, hence, oversimplifies it for the sake of a crude “happy ending.” Wuthering Heights is neither a happy book, nor has a happy ending in any conventional sense.
I could give you a Yorkshire moorland recipe such as rhubarb parkin and the like, to celebrate Brontë’s vivid, yet stark, setting. But I recently discovered that Emily had a favorite pie that she (and her sisters) loved to make. The recipe was re-created by modern cooks and now is usually called Brontë pie even though it was doubtlessly not unique to the Brontë kitchen. It’s not made in a pie dish but is completely encased in pastry in a form that was known as a “coffin” in the 19th century. Although I could make puff pastry from scratch I almost always use frozen from the supermarket. Go ahead and make your own if you like that sort of labor. I don’t. The results are probably better (by a whisker). Anyway, I suspect the original used flaky pastry which would hold up better without the use of a pie dish. As long as you stick to the original filling you could experiment with crusts in any number of ways.
2lbs lean sirloin or beef fillet, cut into small cubes
1 onion, chopped fine
1lb puff pastry
6 oz chicken liver paté
1 egg, beaten with a little milk
3 oz butter
6 oz button mushrooms
black pepper and salt
Pre-heat the oven to 400°F
Dredge the beef in salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. I like a lot of pepper.
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and sauté until it is lightly browned on all sides. It helps to do this in batches. Set the meat aside.
Sauté the onion and mushrooms in the butter remaining in the skillet (adding more if needed), until they are lightly browned. Put them aside.
Roll out the puff pastry to form a large rectangle that when folded over in half will hold the meat and vegetables.
Spread the onion and mushroom mix over half the pastry leaving a ½ inch edge and spread the meat on top. Spread the paté thinly and evenly over the meat.
Brush the inner edges of the pastry all around with the egg wash. Fold the other half of the pastry over the meat to form an envelope and seal or crimp the edges.
Brush the top of the pie all over with egg wash.
Place on a baking tray and bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes. Turn the heat down to 300°F and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the crust is golden. It’s usually a good idea to turn the baking tray around once to make sure the crust bakes evenly.
This pie should be brought straight from the oven to the table on a heated serving platter with buttered boiled potatoes (or mashed with gravy) and a green vegetable.