Emily Bronte Died At 30. What Can Wuthering Heights Tell Us About Her?

by Robert Morss Lovett | December 19, 2013

"Emily Brontë and Her Sisters"

July 18, 1928

photo credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Brontës have always been novelists’ novelists, perhaps because their history is novelistic material—the six children in their bleak setting of the Yorkshire moors, their struggle against fate, marked by recurrent death—Maria and Elizabeth dying in childhood—Branwell’s fantastic tragedy, the simultaneous illumination of three personalities in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, fame and then death once more—Emily, Anne, Charlotte. There was enough in this story in its purely external aspects to challenge a novelist. Mrs. Gaskell was the first biographer. Mrs. Humphry Ward introduced their works in the definitive edition. Then under the more penetrating methods of modern psychology their situation took on a new interest. Miss May Sinclair wrote her enthusiastic study of The Three Brontës. Now comes Miss Romer Wilson with her version of the sister whose fame, long overshadowed by Jane Eyre and Vilette, is now in the ascendant with Wuthering Heights and the Poems alike revealing a personality so far beyond the usual limits of human nature as to seem miraculous.

One reason why the Brontës have held such fascination for novelists and critics of fiction is that they afford extraordinary examples of the relation of personal experience to art. Outwardly their lives were so limited as to offer only the simplest material for record. In the case of Charlotte, we are compelled to smile at the overemphasis with which she constantly treats the trivial. An encounter between rival Sunday schools in Shirley is described with the seriousness of a battle. Lucy Snowe’s ordeal at meeting a class of school-girls in Villette may be compared with Stevenson's fight in the round-house in Kidnapped. The only escape of the sisters was to the wide, windy  spaces of the moors, or to the wider spaces still of the imagination. With Charlotte the line between the world that she knew and the world that she imagined is as clear as the difference between Lowood and Thornfield, between Mr. Brocklehurst and Mr. Rochester. With Emily the fusion is far more complete. The poems, and still more the novel Wuthering Heights contain echoes of external reality, intimations of actual experience, but the line between fact and fiction is never drawn. Emily was in a sense the most suppressed of the four children who grew to maturity. She was the household drudge. The shyness which to Charlotte and Anne was embarrassment and suffering was to Emily agony and bloody sweat. It operated as a complete barrier to intercourse with strangers. Accordingly, the ways by which her spirit grew into greatness and by what experience it was nourished, remain a mystery.

A few years ago Miss Sinclair was congratulating us on this enduring silence which surrounds Emily Brontë. "By the mercy of heaven the swarm of gossips and theorists have passed her by. She has no legend, or hardly any." Yet she warned us that "there may be somewhere some awful worshipper of Emily Brontë, impatient of her silence, and unsatisfied with her strange, her virgin and inaccessible beauty, who will some day make up something of a love-affair, some passion kindred to Catherine Earnshaw’s passion for Heathcliff of which the moors have kept the secret: and he will tell his tale.” This philosophy is fulfilled in some sort by Miss Romer Wilson.

As a biographer of Emily Brontë, Miss Wilson presents herself with certain indubitable credentials. A Yorkshire woman with memories of a childhood on the moors, she is prepared to enter into the environment of her heroine. As a novelist who has explored the obscure depths of the unconscious, she finds clues everywhere to the labyrinthine ways of personality. Her method is to reconstruct Emily’s experience by psychoanalysis from the themes and material of her poetry and fiction. Now it may be that Emily as a child was shut up in a room associated with death and haunted by ghosts and phantoms, fell into a fit. This may be the origin of the recurring prison theme in her poetry; and Charlotte may have recalled the originating episode in Jane Eyre. Again, it may be that Emily suffered from jealousy of Branwell's high place in the family, and "solaced her jealousy with contemplation of the unrelieved blackness of her future, in contrast to the unrelieved brilliance of his"; that "in secret, in imagination she began to foster and love a dark soul in herself, a dark thing that grew and grew upon her and ultimately possessed her, body and soul" and became Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. These are interesting excursions into the field of conjectural biography.

Miss Wilson makes the further hypothesis that Emily was in Bradford in 1837 or 1838, based on the date of one poem, and "that some event took place with grave results to herself" during these years when "she began to write of betrayal and vengeance," and shortly afterward "of guilt, of shame, of crime, and of tarnished name.” All this, however, is incapable of test by external evidence. Charlotte’s copious correspondence gives no ground for believing that Wuthering Heights is an allegory of the Brontë family life, or that Heathcliff in Emily’s form was a specter at their hearth. Nor is it likely that Emily could have spent any considerable time at Bradford (though Branwell was there in 1837-8) without some mention in those letters which deal so fully with the family life.

Miss Wilson, as a partisan of Emily, is a bit hard on Charlotte, for whom, nevertheless, she professes great admiration. "Charlotte's vices were inability to yield an inch, and a horrid partiality for tampering with the lives of others.” No doubt Charlotte was by character and position the executive of the family. But when Miss Wilson blames Charlotte, first, for reading Emily's private poetry, and then, after securing permission to publish, for editing it, she is patently unfair. Undoubtedly it is a tragedy that we have not every line of Emily's poetry as it was written; but if Emily had had her way we should have none of it. In view of such inferences as Miss Wilson draws from that we have, we may forgive Charlotte’s discretion.

Miss Wilson and Miss Sinclair agree in finding a close connection between the series of Gondal poems, discovered by Mr. Shorter, and “Wuthering Heights.” In both it is impossible to distinguish certainly what is objective and dramatic, what is subjective and personal. Miss Sinclair believes that “the impersonal would be found in a mass out of all proportion to the other.” Miss Wilson thinks the contrary. But Miss Sinclair’s conclusion ill do for both, that in respect to the Gondal characters, Emily “was these people; she lived indistinguishably and interchangeably their tumultuous and passionate life.” In the same mysterious sense, "she was Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw.”

Canon Dimnet's book has very long been the classic account of the Brontës for French readers. It is a contrast to Miss Romer’s book in every way, being altogether decorous, discreet, demure. Canon Dimnet leaves Charlotte in the center of her group. He looks with kindly amusement at her provincialism and at the naiveté of her art, which a French public would scorn; with gentle tolerance of her religious bigotry. As all these qualities appear undisguised in Villette, he does not agree with English critics who regard that novel as her best. As to Charlotte's experience in Brussels, he accepts quietly what Miss Sinclair asserts vociferously, that she was never in love with M. Héger, that Madame Héger’s jealousy had no foundation, and that when she wrote, "I returned to Brussels after Aunt's death, prompted by what seemed an irresistible impulse. I was punished for my selfish folly by a total hindrance of more than two years of happiness and peace of mind," she was referring to the difficulties at Haworth which had risen in her absence.

Canon Dimnet has not changed his original assertion in the text—"Not a word in Charlotte’s correspondence permits the supposition that she was in love with her master”—but he prints in his appendix the letters which Charlotte wrote to M. Héger after her return and which the son of Professor Héger presented in 1913 to the British Museum. There are many ways of loving and being in love, and possibly some definition might be devised which would exclude from these categories the state of mind which Charlotte’s letters clearly show. M. Héger was evidently reluctant to write to Charlotte, and had rationed her in her letters to him to one every six months. What this limitation meant to Charlotte may be seen from this passage written in January, 1845:

Mr. Taylor has returned. I asked him if he had a letter for me. “No; nothing.” “Patience,” said I—“his sister will be here soon.” Miss Taylor has returned. “I have nothing for you from Monsieur Héger,” says she; “neither letter nor message.”

Having realized the meaning of these words, I said to myself what I should say to another similarly placed: “You must be resigned, and above all do not grieve at a misfortune which you have not deserved.” I strove to restraint my tears, to utter no complaint.

But when one does not complain, when one seeks to dominate oneself with a tyrant’s grip, the faculties start into rebellion and one pays for external calm with an internal struggle that is almost unbearable.

Day and night I find neither rest nor peace. If I sleep I am disturbed by tormenting dreams in which I see you, always severe, always grave, always incensed against me.

Forgive me then, Monsieur, if I adopt the course of writing to you again. How can I endure life if I make no effort to ease its sufferings?

In the light of these letters, one can hardly fail to recognize the sojourn of Brussels as the most important experience of Charlotte Brontë’s life. M. Héger was responsible for her first novel, “The Professor,” and for her last. He is to Charlotte’s genius what Heathcliff is to Emily’s.

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