Emily Bronte, The Peerless

Knowing something about Emily Brontë adds to the appreciation of her poetry because the person behind the words was an unusual, iconoclastic, enigmatic individual, and a literary genius.  Further, as a general matter, it is important to get to know the poet to round out the poetry-reading experience, particularly when reading a body of work, rather than a few random poems.  More than prose fiction, poetry is a personal matter that invites the reader to feel a rapport with the author, who can become a compatriot soul and sharer of sentiments.

As for the outward incidents of her life, Emily Bronte lived for twenty-nine years, from 1818 to 1848, which period saw the close of the Romantic era and included the early Victorian era.  Her father, extremely intelligent, caring, and hardworking, was the minister of the Anglican Church in Haworth, having risen from the extreme poverty of his boyhood in Ireland to become an ordained minister and consequently an English gentleman—although, a poor one.  Her mother died when Emily was three, leaving six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.  Her two oldest sisters died in 1825, at the ages of eleven and ten, after a disastrous stay at Cowan Bridge School, a boarding institution for the daughters of poor clergymen, which turned out to be a harsh, cold, and unhealthy place.  Charlotte and Emily were also there at the time their sisters became ill, Emily, at five, being the youngest student on the premises.  Tuberculosis caused the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth and eventually claimed Emily and Anne, who died within five months of each other.  It also most likely caused or contributed to Branwell’s death, three months before Emily died, and Charlotte’s, in 1855.  Mr. Brontë lived to the age of 84.

Except for a very few brief periods when Emily was away at school or at a boarding school attempting to teach, she was at the parsonage, her beloved home, situated at the edge of Haworth, England, and a stone’s throw across a crowded cemetery from her father’s church.  The back door of the two-story brick parsonage opened onto the moors, vast, open rolling, brown earth, tufted with wild grass–a wilderness of hills, masses of boulders, and springs in green valleys bordered by trees, all of which Emily knew like a long-tenured game-keeper.  Her home still stands today, maintained by the Brontë Society, with rooms of Brontë artifacts–a place well-worth the visit.  Emily never married.  None of the Brontë children did except Charlotte, but her marriage ended with her death after only nine months.

When the three sisters were in their twenties, the necessity of making a living preyed upon them.  Once their father died, they would be without a home.  There was no annuity or savings; Mr. Brontë, although frugal, had never had sufficient means to do more than survive.  It might be difficult for the modern mind to imagine the solid and impenetrable lack of opportunity that surrounded the Victorian woman.  Particularly for a “lady,” which Emily would have been considered since her father was a clergyman, there were no paths to pursue except marriage, living as a dependent on a family member, or teaching, whether as a governess or in a boarding school.  These choices were grim for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.  None of the three seemed likely to marry.  In fact, historically, there was a shortage of men in England at the time, and Haworth was not a social hotspot.  Branwell, the son, was not going to support his sisters; his attempts at various careers ended in failure.  Charlotte and Anne had tried to accept the fate of a governess, although with the utmost hatred; but Emily could not bear to be away from home, much less interact with strangers in the subservient role of governess.  They would attempt at one point to operate their own school in the parsonage, but would not receive a single expression of interest.  The Brontë sisters also were not suited to follow the path of women who immigrated, where in the comparative freedom and opportunity of Australia or America they could better make their own way, such as by owning a shop.  One very slight opportunity existed for a few remarkable women–writing and publishing a novel.  Poetry and theater were male bastions, but the novel was fairly new to the time, and women, such as Anne Radcliff, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen had successfully exploited the opportunity.

As the question of their financial future grew desperate, one surprising twist to the plot of their lives occurred.  Their mother’s sister, who had lived at the parsonage since the time of Mrs. Brontë’s death, left, upon her death, a small sum to the three sisters.  It was astonishing to all, and although the sum was not enough to live on for long, it did give them the funds to publish a volume of poetry in 1846, containing poems by Charlotte, Emily and Anne, using their pseudonyms for the first time: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  One reviewer noted the beauty of Emily’s lyrical voice, and Charlotte and Anne acknowledged Emily as the most gifted poet among them.  Despite the merit of Emily’s poems, the volume went unnoticed, selling only three copies.  Poetry was the family hobby; Mr. Brontë had written and had published some poems, many of a religious nature, although he also would include a clever and thoughtful poem to a friend in a letter.  Charlotte and Anne, as noted, had poems handy to contribute when Charlotte discovered Emily’s poems one day and promoted the idea of the volume containing the work of all three sisters.  Branwell yearned to be a poet, but he met with no success in any of his endeavors, owing in large part to his addiction to alcohol and opium.  His presence in the parsonage, frequently raving drunk and in debt, created great unhappiness and tension.

After the failure of the volume of poetry, the legacy left by their aunt also allowed them to attempt to become novelists and be free, at least for a while, of the dreaded prospect of serving as governesses.  Every night after Mr. Brontë went to bed at nine o’clock, the three sisters gathered at the table in the parlor.  With ink wells, nib-tipped pens, and reams of paper, which constituted a considerable expense, they wrote their lengthy novels by the firelight from the grate and the glow of candles.  At the end of 1847, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey appeared in print together as a three-volume set.  Emily and Anne, after numerous rejections by publishers, had paid a large sum of money to publish their novels, greatly diminishing their meager legacy.  Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was not accepted for publication even at her own expense, and she had turned her attention to writing her second novel, Jane Eyre.  It appeared even before her sisters’ novels because Charlotte’s publisher was far more reputable and productive than Emily and Anne’s.  Jane Eyre was a great success, and the financial worries would have been allayed; however, one can wonder how much that mitigated for Emily the failure of Wuthering Heights, as unappreciated as her poetry had been.  Her sisters, critics, and the public disliked and, apparently, failed to understand it.  A year after its publication, Emily died and was laid to rest in Haworth Church under the stone slab that served as the family burial vault

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