INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON EMILY BRONTË
This volume contains the complete poems of Emily Brontë. Of these twenty-two appeared in the Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell published in 1846. After the death of Emily Brontë, seventeen poems were published by Charlotte Brontë. These are all derived from a manuscript transcribed in February 1844 by Emily Brontë, and written in microscopic characters. Four were left unprinted by Charlotte Brontë, and are now published. In addition, there was another volume of manuscripts and some small poems written on small slips of paper of various sizes. All of these were unpublished till 1902, when sixty-seven were privately printed by Dodd, Mead and Co. in an edition of only a hundred and ten copies. The rest of this volume, containing seventy-one poems, is here printed for the first time, and in a limited edition. It is not claimed for a moment that the intrinsic merits of the verses are of a special kind. But so very little is known of Emily Brontë, the greatest woman genius of the nineteenth century, that whatever throws light upon her thoughts is of high interest to her lovers. It is only for these that this book has been compiled and printed.
How small our knowledge of Emily Brontë's life is may be best shown by a brief chronological account of her thirty years:—
1818.—Emily Brontë born at Thornton.
1820.—Anne Brontë born at Thornton.
1820.—The family remove to Haworth.
1821 (September).—The mother, Mrs. Brontë, died.
1824.—The little Brontë girls went to school at Cowan's Bridge. Emily, the prettiest of the sisters, was 'a darling child, under five years of age, quite the pet nursling of the school.' As a matter of fact, Emily was in her seventh year.
1826.—The children established their plays, each choosing representatives. Emily chose Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Lockhart, and Johnny Lockhart. Blackwood's Magazine was the favourite reading of the children, and they had also Southey and Sir Walter Scott left by their Cornish mother, and 'some mad Methodist magazines full of miracles and apparitions, and preternatural warnings.'
1831.—Charlotte Brontë went to school at Roe Head.
1832.—Charlotte returned to Haworth in order to teach Emily and Anne what she had learned. After lessons they walked on the moors. At home Emily was a quiet girl of fourteen, helping in the housework and learning her lessons regularly. On the moors she was gay, frolicsome, almost wild. She would set the others laughing with her quaint sallies and genial ways. She is described as 'a strange figure—tall, slim, angular, with a quantity of dark brown hair, deep, beautiful hazel eyes that could flash with passion, features somewhat strong and stern, the mouth prominent and resolute.'
1833.—Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Brontë's friend, came to Haworth, and made acquaintance with Emily, then about fifteen. Miss Nussey describes her as not ugly, but with irregular features, and a pallid thick complexion, and 'kind, kindling, liquid eyes.' She had no grace or style in dress. She was a great walker, and very fond of animals. Only one dog was allowed to her, though two seemed to have got into the house. Emily was very happy on the moor and talked freely.
1835.—Emily, when close on seventeen, went to school at Roe Head with Charlotte. The change from her own home to a school, and from her secluded but free and simple life to discipline and companionship, she found intolerable. She became miserably ill, threatening consumption, and had to go home. This restored her health almost immediately.
In this year she found her brother Branwell beginning to go wrong, drinking in the public house and doing no work.
1836 (Midsummer).—Miss Nussey and Charlotte went to Haworth, and the girls had a taste of happiness and enjoyment. 'They were beginning to feel conscious of their powers, they were rich in each other's companionship; their health was good, their spirits were high, there was often joyousness and mirth; they commented on what they read; analysed articles and their writers also; the perfection of unrestrained talk and intelligence brightened the close of the days which were passing all too swiftly.' Charlotte and Emily would dance in exuberant spirits.
1836 (September).—Emily went into a situation as teacher in Miss Patchet's school at Law Hill, near Halifax, where there were some forty girls. She worked from six in the morning till eleven at night, with only half an hour of exercise between, and soon broke down. At Christmas she came home to Haworth for a brief rest, and then returned to Halifax.
1837 (Spring).—Emily's health broke down, and she came back to Haworth.
1837–38.—Emily alone at Haworth. Anne, Charlotte, and, for a time, Branwell were away.
1837 (Christmas) found Charlotte, Emily, and Anne at Haworth nursing their old servant, Tabby, who had fallen on the slippery street and broken her leg.
1839.—Charlotte writes: 'I manage the ironing and keep the rooms clean; Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen.'
1840.—Emily, Branwell, and Charlotte were all at home together. Charlotte and Branwell had sent their writings to authors, Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, but Emily had not. Her manuscripts were in her locked desk. Emily, Anne, and Charlotte were hoping to enlarge the parsonage at Haworth and keep school.
1840.—Things were going fairly well, and Emily was, on the whole, happy. I have been told by Miss Nussey that the one man outside her home in whom Emily ever showed any interest was Mr. Brontë's first curate, the Rev. William Weightman. There was nothing like a love affair between them, but she was gracious to him and enjoyed his jests as they all walked together on the moors. But it is on record that Emily was trying to prevent the curate from pressing his attentions on Miss Nussey. It would seem that in no man's eyes was Emily passing fair. Emily's countenance, said Miss Nussey, 'glimmered,' as it always did when she enjoyed herself.
1841.—In the early months she was as happy as other country girls in a congenial home. Later on Miss Wooler offered Charlotte the good-will of her school at Dewsbury Moor, but though the girls wished to accept, no arrangement was carried through. In September Charlotte proposes to go with Emily to Brussels, in order that they might learn French and German, and fit themselves for keeping a school. She calculated that the journey would cost only five pounds for each, and that the living would be half as dear as in England. 'I feel an absolute conviction that if this advantage could be allowed to us, it would be the making of us for life.' Arrangements were made to decline the school at Dewsbury Moor. Bridlington was thought of. Emily assented, being anxious that the school should be started.
1842.—Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to the School of the Hégers. Héger thought that Emily knew no French at all. She was oddly dressed, and wore amazing leg-of-mutton sleeves, her pet whim in and out of fashion. She had a bitter sense of exile, but Charlotte enjoyed the change. Emily did not like Héger, and was as indomitable and fierce as Charlotte was gentle and obedient. But Héger thought Emily had more genius than her sister. He was deeply impressed with her faculty of imagination and her argumentative powers, and said: 'She should have been a man: a great navigator!' But the two were never friends. Emily was 'wild for home,' and seldom spoke a word to any one. It was probably at this time that she composed the poem 'at twilight in the schoolroom,'—'The house is old, the trees are bare.'
In the meantime, Charlotte was almost dangerously happy, but knew that Emily and her teacher did not draw well together. Emily, however, was working very hard, especially at German and music. She became an excellent musician, and her piano playing is described as singularly accurate and expressive. The two studied French under Héger, whose method was to take an author and investigate his technique. Emily complained against this method, and said that it destroyed all originality of thought and expression. But in spite of this she wrote better exercises than Charlotte did. All the while she was in revolt. She made no intimate companions, and suffered much, disliking intensely what she though the 'gentle Jesuitry of the foreign and Romish system.' Only her desire to be independent kept her in Brussels.
1842.—Madame Héger proposed that Charlotte should teach English, and that Emily should teach music to the younger pupils, so that they might stay on without paying for half a year. They were too poor to go home for their holidays in August and September, and remained in Brussels. But they were called back in the end of October by the death of their aunt.
1842 (Christmas).—They were invited by Héger to go back to Brussels. Emily would not consent. Branwell was at home, but the sisters had not seen him at his worst, and they were happy for three months.
1843 (January).—Charlotte went back to Brussels. Emily was left behind with Branwell for a short time. Branwell went away as tutor, and Emily was left alone with her father and old Tabby helping in the housework. She had Flossie, Anne's favourite spaniel, and Keeper, the fierce bulldog, cats, and other animals. Charlotte was not happy at Brussels. Branwell was still drinking, and Anne was very anxious about him. Mr Brontë, the father, was in failing health and tempted by stimulants. In the end of this year Emily wrote to Charlotte urging her return.
1844 (January).—Charlotte arrived at Haworth very reluctantly. 'Haworth seems such a lonely quiet spot.'
1844 (March).—Emily and Charlotte were together thinking over the future. Charlotte wrote: 'Our poor little cat has been ill two days, and is just dead. It is piteous to see even an animal lying lifeless. Emily is sorry.' The girls wrote for pupils, but failed to get them. Branwell got worse and worse, drinking heavily to excess. Emily had no friends. They gave up the idea of having pupils.
1844 (July).—Charlotte visited Miss Nussey. When she came back she found Branwell dismissed by his employer. Charlotte, writing of her sister Emily, afterwards said: 'She had in the course of her life been called upon to contemplate near the end and for a long time the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw went very deeply into her mind: it did her harm.' Madame Duclaux (Miss A. Mary F. Robinson) in her truly sympathetic book on Emily Brontë, argues that Emily never wearied in her kindness for her unhappy brother, and always hoped to win him back by love when the other sisters had despaired. In March 1846, Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen: 'I went into the room where Branwell was to speak to him, about an hour after I got home; it was very forced work to address him. I might have spared myself the trouble, as he took no notice and made no reply; he was stupefied. My fears were not in vain. I hear that he got a sovereign while I have been away, under pretence of paying a pressing debt; he went immediately and changed it at a public house, and has employed it as was to be expected. Emily concluded her account by saying that he was a hopeless being. It is too true. In his present state it is scarcely possible to stay in the room where he is.' Madame Duclaux has also a very graphic account of a fire in which a drunken Branwell must have been burned to death had it not been that Emily entered the blazing room, and half carried in her arms, half dragged out, her besotted brother. This is no doubt part of the extremely questionable Brontë tradition. The legend is almost certainly based on a similar episode in Jane Eyre. Mr Swinburne had a special delight in the belief that Emily was kinder than her sisters, but, as Mr. Shorter has shown, there is no clear evidence for the fact. It is quite plain that she did less in the way of remonstrance than the others.
1845.—In autumn Charlotte accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verses in her sister's handwriting. She saw the value of the poems, and caught their new note. It was resolved that the sisters should publish a little volume together.
1846 (May).—Poems of the sisters Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were published by Messrs. Aylott and Jones. The book cost the authors thirty guineas, and two copies supplied the public demand.
1846.—The three sisters were each busy on a novel, Emily was writing Wuthering Heights, Charlotte The Professor, and Anne Agnes Grey. It was a heavy and dreary time. Branwell became more and more the oppression of the family. Out of very scanty means they had to pay his debts. The father was growing blind with cataract, and was deeply depressed, but the indomitable sisters completed their work, and Charlotte began Jane Eyre.
1846 (August).—Charlotte Brontë went to Manchester with her father, and Mr. Brontë went through an operation for cataract, which was successful. In the end of the year Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were accepted by Newby, a third-rate publisher of the time, who issued many worthless novels on commission.
1847.—The Professor was declined, but Jane Eyre was accepted and published by Smith and Elder.
1847 (14th December).—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published by Newby, who was encouraged by the success of Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë writes: 'Wuthering Heightsis, I suppose, at length published, at least Mr. Newby has sent the authors their six copies. I wonder how it will be received. I should say it merits the epithets of vigorous and original much more decidedly than Jane Eyre did. Agnes Grey should please such critics as Mr. Lewes, for it is true and "unexaggerated" enough. The books are not well got up; they abound in errors of the press.'
She writes on 21st December to W. S. Williams: 'You are not far wrong in your judgment respecting Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Ellis has a strong original mind full of strange though sombre power. When he writes poetry that power speaks in language at once condensed, elaborated, and refined, but in prose it breaks forth in scenes which shock more than they attract. Ellis will improve, however, because he knows his defects. Agnes Grey is the mirror of the mind of the writer. The orthography and punctuation of the books are mortifying to a degree. Almost all the errors that are corrected in the proof sheets appear intact in what should have been fair copies.' I have before me Emily Brontë's own copy of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Never in all literature was any coupling so incongruous. The three volumes are in brown cloth labelled on the back Wuthering Heights I.; Wuthering Heights II.; and Agnes Grey III. Emily has corrected some of the misprints. For example: 'The distance from the gate to the Grange is to (sic) miles.' 'They shut the house door below never noticing our absence, it was so full of people.' For 'it' is substituted 'the place.' One clause appears thus: 'Yah gooid fur nowt, slattenly witch! nip up nud bolt intuh th' haks t' minute yah heard t' master's horse fit clatter up t' road.' For 'nud' she puts 'and,' and for 'haks' 'house.'
1848 (September).—Patrick Branwell Brontë died. Charlotte Brontë wrote: 'I myself, with painful, mournful joy, heard him praying softly in his dying moments; and to the last prayer which my father offered up at his bedside, he added, "Amen." How unusual that word appeared from his lips, of course you, who did not know him, cannot conceive.' He was in the village just before his death. 'The removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than as a chastisement.'
1848 (29th October).—Charlotte Brontë writes: 'Emily's cold and cough are very obstinate. I fear she has a pain in the chest, and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing, when she has moved at all quickly. She looks very, very thin and pale. Her reserved nature occasions me great uneasiness of mind. It is useless to question her; you get no answers. It is still more useless to recommend remedies; they are never adopted.'
On 2nd November she writes again: 'My sister Emily has something like a slow inflammation of the lungs. . . . She is a real stoic in illness: she neither seeks nor will accept sympathy. . . . When she is ill there seems to be no sunshine in the world for me. The tie of sister is near and dear indeed, and I think a certain harshness in her powerful and peculiar character only makes me cling to her more.'
1848 (22nd November).—We have a glimpse of Emily in her last days. Charlotte Brontë writes to W. S. Williams: 'The North American Review is worth reading. There is no mincing the matter there. What a bad set the Bells must be! What appalling books they write! To-day, as Emily appeared a little easier, I thought the Review would amuse her, so I read it aloud to her and Anne. As I sat between them at our quiet but now melancholy fireside, I studied the two ferocious authors. Ellis, the "man of uncommon talents, but dogged, brutal, and morose," sat leaning back in his easy chair, drawing his impeded breath as he best could, and looking, alas! piteously pale and wasted; it is not his wont to laugh, but he smiled, half amused and half in scorn as he listened. Acton was sewing, no emotion ever stirs him to loquacity, so he only smiled too, dropping at the same time a single word of calm amazement to hear his character so darkly portrayed. I wonder what the reviewer would have thought of his own sagacity could he have beheld the pair as I did.' The critic, I may add, was E. P. Whipple, who, for many years, had a considerable reputation in America.
1848 (19th December).—Emily Brontë died, 'conscious, panting, reluctant.' Mr. Shorter has recovered two precious fragments from her Journal, one dated 30th July 1841, the other 31st July 1845. She had agreed with her sister Anne to write papers which each one was to open four years after. In 1841 she writes: 'It is Friday evening, near nine o'clock—wild rainy weather. I am seated in the dining-room, having just concluded tidying our desk boxes. Papa is in the parlour, aunt upstairs in her room. . . We are all stout and hearty. . . A scheme is at present in agitation for setting us up in a school of our own; as yet nothing is determined, but I hope and trust it may go on and prosper and answer our highest expectations. This day four years I wonder whether we shall still be dragging on in our present condition, or established to our hearts' content. Time will show. I guess that at the time appointed for the opening of this paper we, i.e. Charlotte, Anne, and I, shall be all merrily seated in our own sitting-room in some pleasant and flourishing seminary, having just gathered in for the midsummer ladyday. Our debts will be paid off, and we shall have cash in hand to a considerable amount. . . And now I close, sending from far a exhortation of "Courage, boys! courage," to exiled and harassed Anne, wishing she was here.'
The next extract is dated Haworth, Thursay, 31st July 1845: 'My birthday—showery, breezy, cool. I am twenty-seven years old today. This morning Anne and I opened the papers we wrote four years since, on my twenty-third birthday. This paper we intend, if all be well, to open on my thirtieth—three years hence, in 1848.' She then summarises the events of the years, and says: 'I should have mentioned that last summer the school scheme was revived in full vigour. We had prospectuses printed, despatched letters to all acquaintances imparting our plans, and did our little all; but it was found no go. Now I don't desire a school at all, and none of us have any great longing for it. We have cash enough for our present wants, with a prospect of accumulation. We are all in decent health, only that papa has a complaint in his eyes, and with the exception of B., who, I hope, will be better and do better hereafter. I am quite contented for myself: not as idle as formerly, altogether as hearty, and having learnt to make the most of the present and long for the future with the fidgetiness that I cannot do all I wish; seldom or ever troubled with nothing to do, and merely desiring that everybody could be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding, and then we should have a very tolerable world of it. . . . I have plenty of work on hand, and writing, and am altogether full of business. With best wishes for the whole house till 1848, July 3Oth, and as much longer as may be, I conclude, Emily Bronte.' 'As much longer as may be'—she had scarcely six months more.
We now see the extraordinary conditions under which this woman of genius did her work. Outside her own circle she had not a single friend. She never had a lover or any one who came near to be her lover. She was never outside of Yorkshire save during the Brussels experience, where she paid so dearly for the education which she hoped to turn into money. She had practically no acquaintances. The only people in Haworth she talked to were the servants and the visitors forced upon the home by the brother. Yet she loved life and shrank from death. Between her sister Anne and herself there was a tie of peculiar tenderness and closeness. She was passionately loved by Charlotte, who saw, nevertheless, something harsh in her temperament. There is no reason to suppose that she failed in affection to her father and her aunt, or to Branwell, though he may have wearied her out. She did the work of a servant in the house apparently with the greatest cheerfulness and efficiency. In the exercise of her imagination and in her love of nature she found peace. She refused to complain, and turned a front now calm, now defiant, to the most threatening circumstances.
The recognition of Emily Brontë's great powers did not come in her lifetime, and though authoritative voices have spoken, her place is even yet disputed. I have referred to the criticisms published at the time. Jane Eyre was originally published under the title Jane Eyre: an Autobiography, edited by Currer Bell. The word 'edited' was, of course, put in to negative the idea that Currer Bell was writing the history of her own life. But critics of the time misunderstood and were suspicious. The Athenæum in reviewing Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, said: 'Jane Eyre, it will be recollected, was edited by Mr. Currer Bell. Here are two tales so nearly related to Jane Eyre in cast of thought, incident, and language as to excite some curiosity. All three might be the work of one hand—but the first issued remains the best.' It is to be feared that Mr. Newby sought some advantage from the suspicion. He advertised Wuthering Heights (leaving out Agnes Grey) along with Mrs. Crowe's Nightside of Nature, a work not quite forgotten. In his advertisement he quoted from the Athenæum and also from the Spectator, which said: 'The work bears affinity to Jane Eyre.' He left out the pseudonyms of the sisters, Ellis and Acton Bell. Naturally they took umbrage at Haworth, though Newby published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. One of the oddest criticisms of the time was by Douglas Jerrold: 'We strongly recommend all our readers to get this story. We promise them they never read anything like it before.' The Atlas said: 'It reminds us of The Newlands, by Banim. It is a colossal performance.' Britannia said: 'The author is a Salvator Rosa with his pen,' and the Star complacently remarked: 'It is not often that two such talented novels as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are published in the same season.' But the critics unanimously objected to the subject. The Spectator said of Wuthering Heights: 'The success is not equal to the abilities of the writer, chiefly because the incidents and persons are too coarse and disagreeable to be attractive . . . with an immoral taint about them, and the villainy not leading to results sufficient to justify the elaborate pains taken in depicting it!' The first authoritative recognition came from Sydney Dobell, who wrote a paper in a short-lived periodical called the Palladium, full of just, eloquent, and discriminating praise. This, which is by far the best of Sydney Dobell's generally too cloudy and ambitious criticisms, has been reprinted in his Life and Letters. Dobell, who was then twenty-six in 1850, insisted that Wuthering Heights was an early work of Charlotte Brontë, and spoke of 'those powers of insight, that instinctive obedience to the nature within her, and those occurrences of infallible inspiration which astound the critic in the young author of Wuthering Heights. 'He also attributed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the same pen. Dr. John Brown, in a letter to Lady Trevelyan dated 23rd June 1851, wrote: 'Have you read Wuthering Heights—carefully? I did so last week and think it a work of the highest genius. If it had been in the form of a Tragedy, it would have been the noblest bit of intensity and passion and human nature, in the rough and wild, since Shakespeare—it is far above Jane Eyre.' I may also quote Dante Rossetti, who writes in 1854 to William Allingham: 'I've been greatly interested in Wuthering Heights, the first novel I've read for an age, and the best (as regards power and sound style) for two ages, except Sidonia. But it is a fiend of a book—an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from Mrs. Browning to Mrs. Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell—only it seems places and people have English names there.' Matthew Arnold paid his tribute in the well-known lines:—
'. . . she
(How shall I sing her?) whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died,
That world-famed son of fire—she, who sank
Baffled, unknown, self-consumed;
Whose too bold dying song
Stirr'd, like a clarion-blast, my soul.'
From this it was evident that it was Emily Brontë's poetry rather than her prose that roused Arnold's enthusiasm. The work of Madame Duclaux (1883) is one of some real value, and the critical part is sound. But the noblest and the wisest praise is that given by Mr. Swinburne in his well-known work, A Note on Charlotte Brontë, and with a yet more deep and delicate insight in the Essay on Emily Brontë, which is published in his Miscellanies. The appreciation by Mrs. Humphry Ward, in her introduction to Wuthering Heights, is at once penetrating and generous.
How did this lonely girl come to write a book at once so great and yet so strange? What were her sources? Mrs. Humphry Ward, following Mr. Shorter, has suggested, without dogmatising, that Emily Brontë worked probably under influences from German literature. We know that the Brontës read Blackwood diligently, and Mrs. Humphry Ward has discovered that Blackwood published about 1839 certain translations including Tieck's Pietro d'Abano. It is barely possible that the story of the 'beautiful and deeply beloved Crescentia' might have been read with pleasure by Emily, but I can find no real likeness between it and Wuthering Heights. Mrs. Ward also suggests Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit, but surely nothing could be more remote from the spirit of that book than the spirit of Wuthering Heights. Nor have I been able to find anything that justifies the suggestion that Hoffmann was an influence. The wild Irish stories which Mr. Brontë must have known at least have also been mentioned as possible influences, and I am strongly inclined to think that the Brontës must have known some of the books of Banim. As an Irishman, Mr. Brontë would relish those Rembrandtesque sketches of the Irish peasantry which were intended to do for the Irish what Scott had done for the Scottish in his Waverley Novels. But this is all conjecture. On the other hand, we know that Charlotte Brontë, the most truthful of women, says that the materials for Wuthering Heights were gathered in Yorkshire. Her words must be quoted: 'Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits materials whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine.' It is worthy of note that the contemporary critics objected to the book, not so much because it was improbable, as because it was disagreeable. In fact the Athenæum admitted 'its truth to life in the remote nooks and corners of England.' The reviewer goes on to complain of the painful and exceptional subject, and especially of the descriptions of physical acts of cruelty. 'The brutal master of the lonely house on Wuthering Heights—a prison which might be pictured from life—has doubtless had his prototype in those ungenial and remote districts where human beings, like the trees, grow gnarled and dwarfed and distorted by the inclement climate; but he might have been indicated with far fewer touches, in place of so entirely filling the canvas that there is hardly a scene untainted by his presence.' The authors are warned against what is eccentric and unpleasant. 'Never was there a period in the history of Society when we English could so ill afford to dispense with sunshine.' The period of Wuthering Heights was in the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the same as some of the stories in Mr. Hardy's Wessex Tales and A Group of Noble Dames. Mr. Swinburne's words are decisive: 'The book is what it is because the author was what she was; this is the main and central fact to be remembered. Circumstances have modified the details; they have not implanted the conception.' But every writer on the Brontës is brought up against the repellent figure of the miserable brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë. Most readers of Madame Duclaux's book have felt with Mr. Swinburne, that 'of that lamentable and contemptible caitiff—contemptible not so much for his commonplace debauchery as for his abject selfishness, his lying pretension, and his nerveless cowardice—there is far too much in this memoir.' But on close study it has to be admitted that this wretched creature had but too much influence on the minds of his sisters. Of their gifts he had not a particle. I have read many of his compositions, and there is scarcely a line in them that deserves to be printed. He comes into prominence because, unlike his sisters, he mingled but too freely with his neighbours, and with all who would make acquaintance with him. He was garrulous, boastful, coarse, and thankless. He spared his sisters nothing. He gave them in full detail the story of his debaucheries evidently with gross exaggeration so far as his own victories were concerned. They had to hear him, however reluctantly the listening might be, and it is plain that they believed the very worst. Of the monstrous theory that Branwell Brontë had anything to do with the books of his sisters, I can scarcely trust myself to speak. Those who hold it outrage all decency in bringing, as they virtually do, a charge of the basest untruthfulness against Charlotte Brontë. Can any one read what she has written about her sisters and believe for a moment that the honours of their achievement can be divided? Happily we have the explicit statement of Charlotte Brontë, in her letter to W. S. Williams, announcing Branwell's death: 'My unhappy brother never knew what his sisters had done in literature—he was not aware that they had ever published a line. We could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied.' It is not only possible, but likely, that much of Branwell's foul talk was put into the mouths of certain among his sisters' characters. In Wuthering Heights we read: 'Two words would comprehend my future—death and hell; existence after losing her would be hell. Yet I was a fool to fancy for a moment that she valued Edgar Linton's attachment more than mine. If he loved with all the force of his puny being, he would never love in eighty years as much as I could do in a day.' In one of Branwell's letters we find these words: 'My own life without her would be hell. What can the so-called love of her wretched, sickly husband be to her compared with mine?'
But those who read with care the works of the three sisters will perceive that Branwell did not affect them in the same way. Charlotte Brontë, in one of her letters, contrasts Huntingdon (in Wildfell Hall), Rochester, and Heathcliff. She says that 'Heathcliff exemplifies the effects which a life of continual injustice and hard usage may produce on a natural, perverse, vindictive, and inexorable disposition, while Huntingdon is a sensual man, who never profits by experience, and Rochester lives for a time as too many other men live, but he does not like the degraded life, and is not happy in it.' The truth is that the more earthly side of passion is ignored by Emily. Anne Brontë takes facts as they are, and in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall gives a nearer rendering of Branwell and his associates as she conceived them than either of her sisters. Mr. Swinburne unerringly puts his finger on the place, and says that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 'as a study of utterly flaccid and invertebrate immorality bears signs of more faithful transcription from life than anything in JaneEyre or Wuthering Heights.' It is not easy to state the contrast without doing injustice to Charlotte and Anne Brontë, but it is a very real difference. Emily Brontë's mind was as virginal as that of Di Vernon. 'Os virginis habitumque gerens et virginis arma.' To quote Mr. Swinburne again, the unique quality of Wuthering Heights is the special and distinctive character of its passion. 'The love which devours life itself, which devastates the present and desolates the future with unquenchable and raging fire, has nothing less pure in it than flame or sunlight. And this passionate and ardent chastity is utterly and unmistakably spontaneous and unconscious. Not till the story is ended, not till the effect of it has been thoroughly absorbed and digested, does the reader even perceive the simple and natural absence of any grosser element, any hint or suggestion of a baser alloy in the ingredients of its human emotion than in the splendour of lightning or the roll of a gathered wave. Then, as on issuing sometimes from the tumult of charging waters, he finds, with something of wonder, how absolutely pure and sweet was the element of living storm with which his own nature has been for a while made one; not a grain in it of soiling sand, not a waif of clogging weed.' It is the author's 'passionate and ardent chastity' that marks most deeply the character and the work of Emily Brontë.
For unquestionably her novel and the best of her poems are more unmistakably works of genius than even the books of Charlotte Brontë. Wuthering Heights is, from beginning to end, a pure and purifying tragedy. It excels in its pictures of dreamland and delirium. The writer is most secure when she is treading the path of a single hair. With the ordinary things that make up the personality of an author she has nothing to do. The only quotation I remember in her writings is very characteristic:—
'It was far in the night and the bairnies grat,
The mither beneath the mools heard that.'
It is very hard to extract any lessons from the book, and the preferences expressed in it are simple and enduring. Above all are the passion for liberty and the belief that death makes peace. It is dangerous to conclude that a writer is ignorant of certain facts and relations of life. She is not ignorant; she could hardly be ignorant, but she rises above such things.
As to her personal faith or unfaith, many questions have been asked, and will continue to be asked. The mere fact that she was apparently unconscious of any jarring between the very feeble and conventional Agnes Grey and her own grand and daring work shows, I think, that she had no disposition to take up arms against the prevailing faith. She was apparently quite satisfied in her round of duties and conformities, though she would suffer no one to impose upon her fresh yokes. It is amazing that the critics of the time could have believed that the little tale of the mild affection of a curate for a governess, or rather of a governess for a curate, and their safe establishment in a parsonage, with three hundred pounds a year, could have come from the same hand as that which drew Heathcliff and Catherine. In her poems she speaks at times the language of her surroundings. But now that her life is closed by death and rounded by the past, it is evident that her strong vivid personality found rest in a form of stoicism. She wrote nothing after Wuthering Heights, save the fine lines, 'No coward soul in mine.' This has been interpreted by good critics as signifying that life and sin and punishment end with death, and with every soul being absorbed in the infinite. But Mr. Swinburne is of another mind. He says: 'Belief in the personal or positive immortality of the individual and indivisible spirit was not apparently, in her case, swallowed up or nullified or made nebulous by any doctrine or dream of simple reabsorption into some indefinite infinity of eternal life. So at least it seems to me that her last ardent confession of dauntless and triumphant faith should properly be read, however capable certain phrases in it may seem of the vaguer and more impersonal interpretation.' It is obvious that she was attracted neither by the rude fervours of the Yorkshire chapels nor by the bigotry of the clergy, and there we must leave it. Mr. R. B. Haldane says, 'It contains the teaching of Aristotle transferred from the abstract to the concrete.'
Of the verses which follow a few are entitled to rank with the finest of English lyrics. The best are bursts of irrepressible feeling, the expression of a single overruling mood. Many of those printed for the first time were written in connection with that unmapped country the Gondaland, about which the sisters wrote and talked so much. Among the noblest lyrics are 'Remembrance,' 'Death,' 'The Visionary,' and 'A Little While.' The last stands alone for its vehement nostalgia. Mrs. Humphry Ward calls attention more than once to the extraordinary fact that this poem was written by a girl of sixteen. It is true Charlotte Brontë says that the poem was 'written in her sixteenth year.' But this is manifestly an error. Born on 30th July 1818 Emily when she went to Roe Head on the 29th July 1835 was just completing her seventeenth year. Even so the achievement would be very remarkable. But Madame Duclaux, who had a manuscript copy of the poems in which Emily has written the dates, assigns the piece to the Brussels period, and this is much more probable. The 'alien firelight' suits Brussels much better than the Yorkshire hearth of 'good, kind' Miss Wooler. In fact the literary genius of the Brontës was comparatively late in developing. Though they wrote incessantly from their earliest days, none of them wrote anything of importance till after twenty, and the early stories of Charlotte show no signs of promise.
What would Emily have been if life had been kind? Charlotte's answer to that question will be found in Shirley. Shirley Keeldar was, Charlotte Brontë said, what Emily might have been had she been blessed in health and prosperity.
Emily Brontë was born on July 30th, 1818, the 5th child of the Reverend Patrick Brontë, a stern Evangelical curate, and his wife Maria. When Emily was three years old, her mother died of cancer, and her Aunt Branwell, a strict Calvinist, moved in to help raise the six children (another daughter, Anne, was born soon after Emily). They lived in a parsonage in Haworth with the bleak moors of Yorkshire on one side and the parish graveyard on the other. When Emily was 6 years old she went to a boarding school run by charity, the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, where her older sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte were already enrolled. The school was in no sense a material improvement over her home environment: it was run with the intention of punishing the pupils' bodies that their souls might be saved. The students were kept hungry, cold, tired, and often ill: Maria in particular, who at her young age did her best to mother her sisters, was treated extremely harshly. In 1825 Maria and Elizabeth both died of tuberculosis, the disease that was later to claim Emily's own life, and that of her younger sister Anne. Following these new bereavements, the surviving sisters Charlotte and Emily were taken home, but they would never forget the terrors and the hardship of their lives at school. Charlotte made it the model for the charity school Lowood, which figures so prominently in her novel Jane Eyre.
Life at home was much better for Emily and her siblings: in their isolated childhood on the moors, they developed an extremely close relationship partly based on their mutual participation in a vibrant game of make-believe. In 1826 their father brought their brother Branwell a box of wooden soldiers, and each child chose a soldier and gave him a name and character: these were to be the foundation of the creation of a complicated fantasy world, which the Brontës actively worked on for 16 years. They made tiny books containing stories, plays, histories, and poetry written by their imagined heroes and heroines. Unfortunately, only the ones written by Charlotte and Branwell survive: of Emily's work we only have her poetry, and indeed her most passionate and lovely poetry is written from the perspectives of inhabitants of "Gondal." For Emily, it seems that the fantastic adventures in imaginary Gondal coexisted on almost an equal level of importance and reality with the lonely and mundane world of household chores and walks on the moor. One would be mistaken, however, to conclude that the poetic beauty of Gondal was essentially different from that which Emily saw in the world around her. This becomes clear in her novel Wuthering Heights, in which her familiar Yorkshire surroundings become the setting for a tragedy whose passion and beauty is equal to anything that could be imagined elsewhere. Passion is in no way inconsistent with empty moors, cold winters, and brown hills.
As might be imagined from her intense emotional and artistic attachment to the country of her childhood, Emily Brontë very rarely spent any time away from home: indeed she could hardly do so at all. In 1835, at the age of seventeen she went to school at Roe Head where Charlotte was teaching, but became so pale and thin that her sister was convinced she would die unless she returned home. She left home again to be a governess in 1837 (a failure) and to study in Belgium in 1842, but both times she found she was unable to bear being away from home and her beloved, wild countryside. She could not adapt to playing the role of a genteel Victorian lady, or deal with the intrusion of strangers into her life––she could never fit in. Emily never made any close friends outside of her family circle.
In 1845 Charlotte came across Emily's Gondal poems and read them, which made Emily furious when she found out. However, the discovery led to the publication of a volume of Charlotte, Emily, and the youngest sister Anne's poetry under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. They sold only two copies, but did not give up writing: Wuthering Heights was probably written in 1845-6, while Charlotte was working on The Professor and Jane Eyre, and Anne wrote Agnes Grey. Wuthering Heights (by Ellis Bell), was published in 1847, and attracted considerable critical attention: many people were shocked and horrified by the sheer violence of Emily's novel.
While his sisters were on their way to becoming famous authors, Branwell had failed as a painter and lapsed into alcoholism and drug abuse. He died in September of 1848, and his death marked the beginning of Emily's own illness. Tuberculosis killed her rapidly, perhaps because she stoically refused to make any concession to her ill health, continuing to get up early every day to feed her numerous animals even when she could barely walk. She died with heroic fortitude on December 19th, 1848, at the age of 30, and did not have time to appreciate the last flowering sprig of heather which Charlotte had found on the moors for her wild sister. Emily Brontë's stern self-discipline and passionate creative vision have continued to entrance modern readers through her poetry and especially her masterpiece, Wuthering Heights.