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by Bamber Gascoigne

Emily Brontė (1818 - 1848) - pseudonym Ellis Bell


Perhaps the greatest writer of the three Brontė sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Emily Brontė published only one novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), a story of the doomed love and revenge. The sisters also published jointly a volume of verse, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Only two copies of the book was sold.

--'Heatcliff had knelt on one knee to embrace her; he attempted to rise, but she seized his hair, and kept him down.
--"I wish I could hold you," she continued bitterly, "till we were both death! I shouldn't care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn't you suffer? I do! Will you forget me? Will you be happy when I am in the earth? Will you say twenty years hence, 'That's the grave of Catherine Earnshaw. I loved her long ago, and was wretched to lose her; but it is past. I've loved many others since: my children are dearer to me than she was; and at death, I shall not rejoice that I am going to her: I shall be sorry that I must leave them! Will you say so, Heatcliff?"
--"Don't torture me till I am as mad as yourself," cried he, wrenching his head free, and grinding his teeth."'

(in Wuthering Heights)

Emily Brontė was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England. Her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontė, had moved from Ireland to Weatherfield, in Essex, where he taught in Sunday school. Eventually he settled in Yorkshire, the centre of his life's work. In 1812 he married Maria Branwell of Penzance. Patrick Brontė loved poetry, he published several books of prose and verse and wrote to local newspapers. In 1820 he moved to Hawort, a poverty-stricken little town at the edge of a large tract of moorland, where he served as a rector and chairman of the parish committee.

The lonely purple moors became one of the most important shaping forces in the life of the Brontė sisters. Their parsonage home, a small house, was of grey stone, two stories high. The front door opened almost directly on to the churchyard. In the upstairs was two bedrooms and a third room, scarcely bigger than a closet, in which the sisters played their games. After their mother died in 1821, the children spent most of their time in reading and composition. To escape their unhappy childhood, Anne, Emily, Charlotte, and their brother Branwell (1817-1848) created imaginary worlds – perhaps inspired by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Emily and Anne created their own Gondal saga, and Bramwell and Charlotte recorded their stories about the kingdom of Angria in minute notebooks. After failing as a paiter and writer, Branwell took to drink and opium, worked then as a tutor and assistant clerk to a railway company. In 1842 he was dismissed and joined his sister Anne at Thorp Green Hall as a tutor. His affair with his employer's wife ended disastrously. He returned to Haworth in 1845, where he rapidly declined and died three years later.

Between the years 1824 and 1825 Emily attended the school at Cowan Bridge with Charlotte, and then was largely educated at home. Her father's bookshelf offered a variety of reading: the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Scott and many others. The children also read enthusiastically articles on current affairs and intellectual disputes in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Fraser's Magazine, and Edinburgh Review.

In 1835 Emily Brontė was at Roe Head. There she suffered from homesickness and returned after a few months to the moorland scenery of home. In 1837 she became a governess at Law Hill, near Halifax, where she spent six months. Emily worked at Miss Patchet's shdoll – according to Charlotte – "from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half-hour of exercise between" and called it slavery. To facilitate their plan to keep school for girls, Emily and Charlotte Brontė went in 1842 to Brussels to learn foreign languages and school management. Emily returned on the same year to Haworth. In 1842 Aunt Branwell died. When she was no longer taking care of the house and her brother-in-law, Emily agreed to stay with her father.

Unlike Charlotte, Emily had no close friends. She wrote a few letters and was interested in mysticism. Her first novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), a story-within-a-story, did not gain immediate success as Charlotte's Jane Eyre, but it has acclaimed later fame as one of the most intense novels written in the English language. In contrast to Charlotte and Anne, whose novels take the form of autobiographies written by authoritative and reliable narrators, Emily introduced an unreliable narrator, Lockwood. He constantly misinterprets the reactions and interactions of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. More reliable is Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, who has lived for two generations with the novel's two principal families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons.

Lockwood is a gentleman visiting the Yorkshire moors where the novel is set. At night Lockwood dreams of hearing a fell-fire sermon and then, awakening, he records taps on the window of his room. "... I discerned, obscurely, a child's face looking through the window – terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, "Let me in!" and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear." The hands belong to Catherine Linton, whose eerie appearance echo the violent turns of the plot. In a series of flashbacks and time shifts, Brontė draws a powerful picture of the enigmatic Heathcliff, who is brought to Heights from the streets of Liverpool by Mr Earnshaw. Described as a racial outsider , he is dark, a "gypsy", a "little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway." Heathcliff is treated as Earnshaw's own children, Catherine and Hindley. After Mr. Earnshaw's death Heathcliff is bullied by Hindley, who forces him to labour out of doors. Being treated like a slave, he leaves the house, returning three years later. Meanwhile Catherine marries Edgar Linton. Heathcliff 's destructive force is unleashed. Catherine dies giving birth to a girl, another Catherine. Heathcliff curses his true love: "... Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me then!" Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton, Edgar's sister, who flees to the south from her loveless marriage. Their son Linton and Catherine are married, but the always sickly Linton dies. Hareton, Hindley's son, and the young widow became close. Increasingly isolated and alienated from daily life, Heathcliff experiences visions, and he longs for the death that will reunite him with Catherine.

Wuthering Heights has been filmed several times. William Wyler's version from 1939, starring Merle Oberon as Cathy and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, is considered on of the screen's classic romances. However, the English writer Graham Greene criticized the reconstructing of the Yorkshire moors in the Conejo Hills in California. "How much better they would have made Wuthering Heights in France," wrote Greene. "They know there how to shoot sexual passion, but in this Californian-constructed Yorkshire, among the sensitive neurotic English voices, sex is cellophaned; there is no egotism, no obsession.... So a lot of reverence has gone into a picture which should have been as coarse as a sewer." (Spectator, May 5, 1939) Luis Buńuel set the events of the amour fou in an arid Mexican landscape. The music was based on melodies from Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner.

"Sleep not, dream not; this bright day
Will not, cannot last for aye;
Bliss like thine is bought by years
Dark with torment and with tears."

(from 'Sleep not', 1846)

Emily Brontė died of tuberculosis in the late 1848. She had caught cold at her brother Branwell's funeral in September. She did not believe in doctors despite how sick she was, but the illness made rapid progress. "In you will send for a doctor, I will see him now!" were her last words to Charlotte. Her coffin was only sixteen inches wide. After the appearance of Wuthering Heighs, some skeptics maintained that the book was written by Branwell, on the grounds that no woman from such circumscribed life, could have written such passionate story. In 1848 Charlotte and Anne visited George Smith to reveal their identity and to help quell rumors that a single author lay behind the pseudonyms.

After her sisters' deaths, Charlotte edited a second edition of their novels, with prefatory commentary aimed at correcting what she saw as the reviewers' misunderstanding of Wuthering Heights. The complex time scheme of the novel had been taken as evidence by the critics, that Emily had not achieved full formal control over her narrative materials. However, her model in layering narrative within narrative may have been Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Emily's refusal to reduce ambiguity to simplistic clarity did not have any immediate influence on the novel form until Wilkie Collins experimented with multivocal first-person narratives in such works as The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

For further reading: The Brontė's Web of Childhood by Fannie Ratchford (1941); The Genesis of Wuthering Heights by Mary Visick (1965); Their Proper Sphere by Inga-Stina Ewbank (1966); Emily Brontė: A Biography by Winifred Gérin (1971); The Brontės and Their Background by Tom Winnifrith (1973); Myths of Power by Terry Eagleton (1975); The Art of Emily Brontė, ed. by A. Smith (1976); Brontės of Haworth by Brian Wilks (1986); Emily Brontė by Stevie Davies (1988); Emily Brontė: Wuthering Heights by U.C. Knoepflmacher (1989); Women Writers:  Emily Brontė  by Lyn Pykett (1989); The Brontės by Juliet Barker (1994); Wuthering Heights by Maggie Berg (1996); Critical Essays on Emily Brontė, ed. Tom Winnifrith (1997); The Birth of Wuthering Heights by E. Chitman (1998); Emily Brontė by S. Vine (1998); The Brontė Myth by Lucasta Miller (2001); The Strange World of the Brontės by Marie Campbell (2001); Wuthering Heights on Film and Television: A Journey Across Time and Cultures by Valérie V. Hazette (2015); A Companion to the Brontës, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Deborah Denenholz Morse (2016) - Museums and places to visit: Brontė Society and Brontė Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Keighley; Brontė Way; a forty mile walk in four section to sites associated with the Brontės; Oakwell Hall County Park, Nutter Lane, Birstall; the house features as "Fieldhead" in Charlotte's Shirley; The Red House Museum, Oxford Rd, Gomersal, Cleckheaton; the house appears as "Briarmains in Charlotte's Shirley; Wuthering Heights Walk, a six mile walk to Top Withins, the setting for Wuthering Heights.

Selected works:

  • Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, 1846
  • Wuthering Heights, 1847
    - Humiseva harju (suom.: Martta Räsänen, 1927; Helka Varho, 1947; Kaarina Ruohtula, 1976; Eila Pennanen, 1991; Juhani Lindholm, 2001)
    - Films: 1939: dir. William Wyler, written by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven; 1953: (Abismos de pasión / Cumbras borrascosas), dir. Luis Buńuel, starring Irasema Diliįn, Jorge Mistral and Lilia Prado; 1970: dir. Robert Fuest, starring Anna Calder-Marshall, Timothy Dalton and Harry Andrews; 1992: dir. Peter Kosminsky, starring Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes, Janet McTeer, Sophie Ward, Simon Shepherd; 2011: dir.  Andrea Arnold, starring Kaya Scodelario, Nichola Burley, Oliver Milburn
  • The Complete Poems of Emily Brontė, 1910
  • The Complete Works of Emily Brontė, 1910-11 (2 vols.)
  • The Complete Poems Emily and Jane Emily Brontė, 1924 (ed. by Clement Shorter, arranged and collated, with bibliography and notes, by C.W. Hatfield)
  • Legends of Angria, 1933 (collection, with Anne and Charlotte Brontė)
  • Gondal Poems, 1938 (edited by Helen Brown & Joan Mott)
  • Gondal's Queen: A Novel in Verse, 1955 (arranged, with an introd. and notes by Fannie E. Ratchford)
  • A Peculiar Music. Poems for Young Readers, 1971 (chosen, introduced and annotated by Naomi Lewis)
  • Five Essays Written In French, 1974 (translated by Lorine White Nagel, with an introd. and notes by Fannie E. Ratchford)
  • The Complete Poems, 1992 (edited by Janet Gezari)
  • The Poems of Emily Brontė, 1992 (edited by Barbara Lloyd-Evans)

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