Sunday, December 19, 2010
Today in Literary History - Emily Brontë Dies in Haworth, Yorkshire, England
On December 19, 1848, English novelist and poet, Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis at her home at Haworth, Yorkshire, England at the age of thirty.
The years 1848 and 1849 saw much death and turmoil in the Brontë household. In September, thirty-one-year-old Branwell Brontë, the only brother of the Brontë sisters died as exuberantly as he had lived, cursing in delirium tremens due to alcoholism and tuberculosis. In May 1849, twenty-nine-year-old Anne Brontë also died of tuberculosis, but quietly and without the turmoil that accompanied Branwell’s death.
Charlotte Brontë described Emily, who wrote as “Ellis Bell” as having a “powerful and peculiar” character in life, one which inspired “an anguish of wonder and love” in death. Emily never left her home after Branwell’s death, never spoke of her own illness or permitted others to do so, never gave up her work routine, even on the last day of her life, and never allowed a doctor to see her until only hours before she died. At just before noon on the last day of Emily Brontë’s life, she told her older sister, Charlotte, “If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now.” She then proceeded to die at two in the afternoon. Her refusal was in keeping with her retiring and reclusive nature. Months earlier, as people were both admiring and protesting Emily’s masterpiece of Romanticism, Wuthering Heights, she refused to accompany her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, to their London publisher’s office in order to disclose publicly the true identities of “Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.”
Emily Brontë’s funeral was attended only by family members and servants – and Emily’s beloved little dog, who sat in a church pew during the funeral service, and who would then sit and howl in front of Emily’s empty room for weeks after her death.
Emily Brontë was born Emily Jane Brontë on July 30, 1818 in Thornton, West Riding, Yorkshire, England to Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë. She was the younger sister of Charlotte Brontë and the fifth of sixth children.
Although all the Brontës suffered from ill health due to unsanitary conditions in their home, with the source of water being contaminated by runoff from the church’s graveyard, Emily’s health was particularly precarious. In September 1838, she became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax, but her delicate health could not withstand the rigorous seventeen-hour work days, and she returned home in April 1839, where she did the cooking and cleaning, taught Sunday school, taught herself German, and learned to play the piano.
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily traveled to Brussels, Belgium, where they attended a girls’ academy run by Constantin Heger. The Brontës wanted to perfect their French and German in anticipation of opening their own school in England. Today, nine of Emily’s French essays survive from this period. The girls returned home at the death of their aunt, and they did attempt to open a school, but it failed due to a lack of students in such a remote area.
In 1844, Emily, who was a poet as well as a novelist, began sorting all her poems, recopying them into two separate notebooks: one was labeled “Gondal Poems,” while the other was unlabeled. In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte Brontë discovered the notebooks and insisted that Emily publish her poems. Emily, rather than being grateful for Charlotte’s praise, was furious at what she perceived as an invasion of her privacy, and refused. She relented only when Anne Brontë confessed that she, too, had been writing poems in secret and showed her sisters her notebooks.
In 1846, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë’s poems were published in one volume as Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The poetry received only mediocre reviews, and the girls had already begun work on their first professional novels.
In 1847, Emily Brontë published her only novel, Wuthering Heights, as two volumes of a three-volume set, with the last volume being Agnes Grey, written by her sister Anne. The innovative and sophisticated structure of Wuthering Heights puzzled critics and readers alike, and the book received mixed reviews, with some condemning it as a portrayal of amoral passion. The book, of course, became a classic of English literature, and in 1850, Charlotte Brontë edited and published Wuthering Heights as a stand alone novel under Emily’s real name.
Emily Brontë caught cold during her brother Branwell’s funeral and soon grew very thin and ill. Until the last moment, she said she would have “no poisoning doctor” near her. She is buried in the Church of St. Michael and All Angels family vault, Haworth, West Yorkshire.
Charlotte Brontë wrote about her younger sister’s death in a letter on Christmas Day, saying that she tried not to hear Emily’s constant “deep hollow cough” and to bite her tongue, “so I will not ask why Emily was torn from us in the fullness of our attachment, rooted up in the prime of her own days...why her existence now lies like a field of green corn trodden down.... I will only say, sweet is rest after labor and calm after tempest, and repeat again and again that Emily knows that now.”
Emily, herself could have written her own and Branwell’s epitaph in Wuthering Heights when she writes Lockwood’s haunted thoughts as he looks down at the graves of Catherine and Heathcliff, then overgrown by heather and moss:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
Note: You can read my review of Wuthering Heights here: http://literarycornercafe.blogspot.com/2008/12/book-review-wuthering-heights-by-emily.html