The Enigma of Emily Bronte

The Enigma of Emily Bronte

Claire O’Callaghan

Since the moment Emily Brontë died we have tried – and failed – to understand who she was. 

Although Wuthering Heights (1847) is now acclaimed as a classic of English literature, its author has been remembered less fondly – and rather unfairly. Across numerous Brontë biographies from the Victorian era onwards, Emily has been portrayed in a range of unflattering ways and as the weirdest of the ‘three weird sisters’ – as the poet Ted Hughes called them. She is cast as an old-fashioned, people-hating spinster who roamed alone on the Yorkshire moors with her dog, or as a socially awkward girl-woman who made herself sick – deliberately – whenever she left home. Elsewhere, she is an obstinate figure who refused medical treatment when she needed it most, or an ethereal soul too fragile for the real world. With such eccentric portrayals, it is no wonder that, as the novelist Muriel Spark said, Emily is continually perceived as ‘no normal being’.The task for anyone searching for the ‘real’ Emily, though, is not easy. Our understanding of her is limited because, unlike her elder sister Charlotte, author of Jane Eyre (1847), who left behind a wealth of letters and documents as well as her novels, there is little on which to form a detailed picture of Emily. Apart from her novel and a body of poetry (most of which was private and unpublished in her lifetime), there is a handful of perfunctory letters and documents, the odd sketch, a few ‘diary papers’ (entries she and her younger sister Anne wrote together at intervals every few years) and some essays in French that she wrote while being tutored in Brussels in 1842. With next to nothing bequeathed to us directly from Emily about Emily, scholars have had to rely on alternatives to inform us: mostly Charlotte’s reminiscences of her sister, but also the anecdotes of family, servants and acquaintances. These sources have not always been treated critically nor scrutinised objectively.Today Wuthering Heights is celebrated as a classic text, but this would have been hard to imagine from the responses of some early reviewers. A critic writing in Graham’s Magazine in July 1848 reflected that:There is an old saying that those who eat toasted cheese at night will dream of Lucifer. The author of Wuthering Heights has evidently eaten toasted cheese. How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.Another, writing for Britannia (1848), simply put: ‘Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.’ The issue was that, except for the damage brought about by obsessive passion, no clear moral message was apparent in a book so violent. As the anonymous critic writing for Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper in January 1848 remarked: ‘In Wuthering Heights the reader is shocked, disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity and the most diabolical hate and vengeance, and anon come passages of powerful testimony to the supreme power of love – even over demons in human form.’ When Emily died, five reviews were found in her writing bureau; what she made of them is unknown.Charlotte was Emily’s first biographer, publishing a short ‘Biographical Notice’ for both of her sisters in the wake of their deaths from tuberculosis in December 1848 (Emily) and May 1849 (Anne). The piece was intended as a tribute to her sisters and an opportunity for her to clear up confusion about the identity of the ‘Bell brothers’, who had taken the literary world by storm in 1847. Charlotte’s approach to the task was, however, unorthodox and paved the way for all subsequent misshapen compositions of her sister.Unworldly writersIn the ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’, which appeared as a preface to a new edited volume of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in 1850, Charlotte tried to elicit pity from reviewers and critics who had derided the Bells’ novels as ‘coarse and loathesome’ (as the Examiner wrote in 1848). She deliberately construed Emily (‘Ellis’) and Anne (‘Acton’) as immature writers who had not fully understood what they were doing when they wrote their works. Charlotte claimed that Emily had ‘a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero’. But she lamented how Emily had lacked ‘worldly wisdom’ and was, in her view, ‘unadapted to the practical business of life’. As a result, an image of Emily as impenetrable, stubborn and difficult was born. Charlotte expanded her view of Emily in 1850 through her editorial ‘Preface’ for a new edition of Wuthering Heights. In it, she described Emily as ‘not naturally gregarious’ and noted that she preferred seclusion. She also wrote that, while Emily did not think badly of the people of Haworth (where she lived in the parsonage all of her life), she rarely conversed with them.In recent years, cultural historians have begun to investigate the reliability of Charlotte’s portrayals. The manner in which her account of Emily was readily received (and repeated), because she was a familial subject, has come under scrutiny and it is slowly becoming accepted that Charlotte’s portrayal was wildly overblown. Moreover, as biographers and critics such as Juliet Barker and Lucasta Miller have shown, Charlotte’s tale was, in fact, part of her own strategy to control the authorial narrative of her sisters and herself. Indeed, as Miller persuasively details in The Brontë Myth (2002), Charlotte actively distorted the Bells’ personas in response to speculation that they were women and that, if this were the case, their fiction was inappropriate for female authors. Charlotte had long wanted to be ‘forever known’, as she put it in a letter to then Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, in 1836. This strategy led Charlotte, in the 1850s, to repeat her distorted view of Emily to her own biographer, the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, who readily accepted this account of Emily as difficult and, in turn, amplified it for her own biography.Despite never meeting Emily in person, in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) Gaskell declared a dislike of her, noting that she had not gained any pleasant view of Emily in the production of her book, while Charlotte was, in contrast, ‘genuinely good, and truly great’. Thus, in the service of a saintly portrayal of Charlotte, Gaskell criticised her reticent younger sister, describing how, although all of the siblings were shy, Emily wasn’t merely shy but rude because she was reserved. Gaskell also strengthened and distorted Charlotte’s remarks about Emily’s preference for solitude. Emily went from being a ‘solitude-loving raven’ in Charlotte’s hand to a ‘free, wild, untameable spirit’, who was also a ‘hater of strangers’, a view that was, no doubt, influenced by the critical responses to Wuthering Heights.Elsewhere in The Life, Gaskell reported an incident in which Emily is said to have violently abused her dog, Keeper. There is no historical source or evidence for this tale and Gaskell does not offer one. According to the biographer, Emily’s bull mastiff had a penchant for sleeping on the newly made beds upstairs in the parsonage, a space he was not meant to go. She reports (using an eyewitness account) how Tabby, the housekeeper, was upset by this and how, in reply, Emily declared that, if he was found doing this again, she would beat him ‘so severely that he would never offend again’.Despite a lack of evidence, the sensationalism of Emily apparently abusing Keeper is one that is not only repeated periodically in sensational headlines in the present day (‘Emily Brontë beat up her dog’, states a Daily Mail headline from a 2015 article), but is reproduced uncritically in scholarly writing. This is troubling when, elsewhere, historians and scholars have not only exposed the unreliability of Gaskell’s portrayal, but repositioned it as mythology. As Miller’s The Brontë Myth (2001) has documented, Gaskell slipped regularly between fact and fiction and liberally embellished stories and ideas in order to canonise her favourite author, Charlotte.In the 35 years before the first full biography of Emily was offered by Agnes Mary Robinson in 1883, which was published to positive reviews, the biographical shreds offered by Charlotte and Gaskell were able to cement. Since then they have enabled all kinds of fanciful new yarns about Emily to be spun, which continue to find currency.Eerie EmilyIn the hands of 20th-century writers, Emily has morphed even further; now she is not only reclusive and unfriendly, but a mystic who experienced ghostly visitations, as the turn-of-the-century writer May Sinclair suggested. This was expanded on by the biographer Virginia Moore who, in The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontë (1936), argued that Emily’s mysticism also ‘led her to commit suicide by self-neglect’. This imaginative idea about Emily’s demise from tuberculosis aged just 30 misconstrued Emily’s refusal of medical help in the final months of her life (presumably because of her first-hand experience of its fatal impact thanks to the loss of her two eldest sisters from the disease in childhood) into the unusual idea that she willed herself to death. This more speculative approach is, in part, responding to the ever-growing Brontë ‘industry’, as literary theorist Terry Eagleton termed it, in which Emily remains the most elusive of the Brontë sisters and thus the one most sought after.Consequently, in the late 20th and early 21st century, critics have begun to take a more sensationalised approach to Emily, combining the early portrayals with pseudo-scientific and medical theories. As such, there is now a burgeoning body of work by non-medical experts that has pathologised Emily, applying retrospective diagnoses of modern ailments and disability on the basis of limited evidence, supposition and conjecture.In 1990, the biographer Katherine Frank claimed in Emily Brontë: A Chainless Soul that Emily was anorexic. Frank’s biography is a generally thoughtful one, but her assertion is unfounded. As she puts it:If Emily Brontë were alive today and could be prevailed upon to submit to psychiatric treatment (a most unlikely prospect), she would most certainly be diagnosed as suffering from anorexia nervosa. Not merely her refusal to eat and her extreme slenderness and preoccupation with food and cooking, but also her obsessive need for control, her retreat into an ongoing, interior fantasy world, and her social isolation are all characteristic of the ‘anorectic personality’.Frank’s biographical spin is based on her own imaginary commentary of Emily’s mind: ‘I hate it here. I will not eat. I want to go home. I refuse to grow up, to grow big. I will make myself ill, starve even, unless I am released.’Elsewhere, critics have developed the idea that Emily was agoraphobic. In 2000, Maureen Adams wrote that, today, Emily ‘might be classified as an avoidant personality disorder or an agoraphobic’, while four years later Dana Stevens remarked that ‘Emily’s reclusiveness bordered on agoraphobia’. These assertions stem from comments made by family friends that Emily was shy and reserved and Charlotte’s assertion that her sister was ‘something of a recluse’ who, she also suggested, experienced homesickness. There is no historical evidence that Emily experienced any of the symptoms common with agoraphobia, such as panic attacks, sweating, sticky palms and hyperventilating; to the contrary, we know she did successfully leave home on several occasions, such as travelling with Charlotte to Belgium for several months in 1842. Nonetheless this image has gained a place as truth in popular Brontë writing.Disability labelsFinally, in 2015, one of the more recent Brontë biographers – Claire Harman – reported that Emily ‘was an Asperger’s-ey person’. Harman’s comments were made during the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the promotion of her book for Charlotte’s bicentenary. The media responded to Harman’s suggestions with uninhibited speculation. Again, we see how, because Emily (apparently) exhibited some behaviours associated with autism, this is uncritically repackaged for retrospective diagnosis. Writing in frustration at Harman’s comments, the critic Emily Willingham has reflected on the dangerous implications of such a ‘freewheeling approach to characterising what it means to be on the autistic spectrum’, perceiving it as a worrying and casual manner to apply a disability label. Like Gaskell’s biography, Harman’s book is not especially sympathetic to Emily. We have various reports that Emily was unhappy in different ways when she left home. We also have evidence to suggest that she preferred solitude. But, as Willingham points out:People seem to think that the sole features of autism involve being solitary and odd, possibly with a dash of ‘magic disabled supergenius’ thrown in and a prickly temperament. Of course, those traits also fit people who are antisocial, or have some form of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, some other personality disorder, a history of abuse and loss, unmatched talent or nothing at all.To retrospectively ‘diagnose’ Emily with autism, anorexia or Asperger’s in the light of such sparse and unreliable evidence, then, seems to stretch the evidence too far.Ironically, Emily was, by all accounts, keen to preserve her privacy. She was the Brontë sister most adamant about concealing her identity under a pseudonym. However, despite the question mark overhanging dominant accounts of her, these ideas continue to circulate widely. Biographers and historians need to approach Emily’s life story critically and more ethically. Sadly, though, the gaps in our knowledge about her and the paucity of first-hand writing by Emily about Emily, coupled with the ever-growing tourist industry surrounding the family, means that she will, no doubt, continue to inspire Brontë myth-making.Claire O’Callaghan is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. Her book Emily Brontë Reappraised: A View from the Twenty-First Century was published by Saraband in June 2018.

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