Image: Zyan / Flickr
Image: Zyan / Flickr

What you didn’t know about Emily Brontë

Born on 30 July 1818, this month marks the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth, the second youngest of the four surviving Brontë siblings. Last summer I was lucky enough to visit the Brontë Parsonage and contributed to the re-writing of the manuscript of Wuthering Heights to celebrate this bicentenary. Emily lived happily in her close-knit community, rarely seeking an opportunity to travel. Her famous literary works including Wuthering Heights (1847) and No Coward Soul is Mine (1846) reveal a striking contrast to her reserved personality. Hence, this article will explore some unfamiliar fun-facts about the sister.

FACT ONE: All of the Brontë siblings played with toy soldiers and dolls as children.

The imaginative minds of this remarkable family transformed these toys into characters, which they used as the foundation for their political works, writings and chronicles. Emily and Anne created the fictional kingdom of Gondal which inspired Emily’s numerous poems and prose. This demonstrates the unrivalled power of the imagination and how it can be converted into stories and writing. Yet the plays and stories about Gondal, do not survive. Charlotte’s ‘accidental’ discovery of Emily’s poetry, led to the publication of the first Brontëbook in 1846 ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’, in which Emily contributed 21 poems.

The imaginative minds of this remarkable family transformed these toys into characters, which they used as the foundation for their political works, writings and chronicles

FACT TWO: As the most reserved member of her family, Emily preferred natural settings to the rapidly changing industrial environment in which she lived.

She found it easier to interact with animals than humans, a sign of her introversion. She found it difficult to speak in public and unlike Charlotte, she enjoyed the familiarity of home more than their visits to Brussels. She had a profound love of the West Yorkshire Moors which shaped her spirit and writing and is explored in detail in her Gothic tragedy Wuthering Heights which depicts the elemental relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and vagabond Heathcliff. This ruinous relationship is reflected in the desolation of the Moors.

FACT THREE: Emily took the chaotic and violent love story of her brother Branwell and his lover Lydia Robinson as the premise for Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship in Wuthering Heights.

Branwell claimed Lydia sent him a “lock of her hair”. This is directly paralleled in that Cathy keeps a lock of Edgar’s hair in her locket, which Heathcliff replaces with his own. Just as Heathcliff becomes increasingly maddened by his obsession for Cathy who rejects him, after her husband’s death, Lydia, refused to marry Branwell. This led Branwell to turn to alcoholism, opium and in consequence found himself financially ruined. It is this tumultuous and tragic end that Emily fictionalises in her novel.

FACT FOUR: Emily’s favourite dog was a mastiff called ‘Keeper’ which only she could tame.

A fact which initially shocked me is that according to Brontë biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily “was once bitten by a dog with rabies and she took a red-hot poker and cauterised the wound herself”. Through understanding Emily’s distinctive and perplexing personality, her decision not to concern others about her wound is not surprising and in fact epitomises her bold spirit and independence.

Branwell claimed Lydia sent him a “lock of her hair”. This is directly paralleled in that Cathy keeps a lock of Edgar’s hair in her locket, which Heathcliff replaces with his own

FACT FIVE: Emily’s short-lived existence

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Emily Brontë is that she only lived for 30 years before (like her sister Anne) she died of the silent killer Tuberculosis. Yet she achieved so much in this short period of time. It is easy to dismiss the Brontë’s (particularly Emily) as writers of Gothic novels. However, the fact that they created such global, unforgettable characters in such limited, unstimulating circumstances shows the power of the imagination in whatever environment.

Emily was undeniably a solitary person and lived a strong internal life. However, her father Patrick believed Emily to be “a brave and noble girl. She is my right hand, nay, the very apple of my eye.” Therefore, I would strongly encourage anyone to visit the Brontë Parsonage to try to make sense of Emily’s atypical behaviour and character in the quaint village of Haworth and how this is reflected in her best literary works. Indeed she was No Coward Soul

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