Emily Bronte wrote only one novel, Wuthering Heights, and poetry (which has been for the most part marginalized). That body of work is frustratingly small for anyone fascinated by her, as I am. Also, I have noted in earlier posts the astounding dearth of biographical information about her: she did not write letters, she did not keep a diary; few people knew her and those that had met her had no reason to pay her particular attention. We have some description of her by Charlotte, who did write letters, have acquaintances, and was even famous enough at her death to be the subject of a biography. However, even her references to Emily are not numerous, and I have always been slightly skeptical about Charlotte’s view of Emily.
In searching for more of her work and information about her, one comes upon something that, perhaps for a more prolific writer, would not be so exciting: homework. Emily studied French at a girls school in Brussels with Charlotte, who had conceived of the necessity of studying in Brussels in order to learn French well enough to teach it in the school that Charlotte (and to some degree the other two sisters) were planning to open. It was hoped to be the way out of becoming governesses.
Their teacher, Constantin Heger, assigned essays on various topics for them to write. What a fabulous coincidence that he was asking them to write, with no notion that he was face to face with two of the greatest writers in English literature. On that note, he did come to suspect that they were beyond the norm. So here we have Emily Bronte, writing on assigned topics, in a foreign language—one that she did not know well at all at the time of her arrival at the school.
I have translated and include, below, an essay that she wrote that demonstrates several hallmarks of Bronte as the author of Wuthering Heights, but most notably her proclivity for insights that are ahead of her time. I will explain how this essay reveals her innate grasp of human nature after the essay. Here it is.
The Palace of Death
In the past, when men were few in number, Death lived frugally and with limited means. Her only minister was old age, who guarded the door of the palace and introduced from time to time a single victim to appease the hunger of her mistress: this abstinence was soon repaid; the prey of her majesty grew prodigiously, and Old Age began to find that she had too much to handle.
It was at this time that Death decided to change her manner of living, to appoint new agents and take a prime minister. On the day appointed for the nomination, the silence of the somber palace was broken by the arrival of the candidates from all sides, the arch ways, the rooms and the hallways resonated with the sound of the footsteps coming and going, as if the bones strewn on the paving stones were suddenly animated, and Death looked from above on her throne, and smiled hideously to see such a multitude running to serve her.
Among the first to come were Anger and Vengeance who went before her Majesty, arguing loudly about their respective rights; Envy and Betrayal took their places in the shadows; Hunger and Pestilence, assisted by their companions Laziness and Greed obtained comfortable spots among the crowd and threw disdainful glances on the other guests; however they found themselves forced to make way when Ambition and Fanaticism appeared; the entourage of these two persons filling the council room, and they demanded imperiously a prompt audience.
“I do not doubt” said the first, “that your majesty will be just in her decision so why waste the time in vain disputes when a quick glance is sufficient to determine the only one worthy of the office in question? What are all these pretenders who besiege your throne? What do they think they would do in your service? The most able among them could not govern your empire any more than a soldier who has no qualification except his bravery could command an army. They know how to strike down a victim here and another there, they can catch the feeble prey, men on whom your mark is visible from birth and that is the extent of their usefulness; whereas for me, I will lead to your doors the elite of the race those who are the farthest from your power; I will strike them in full flower and offer them to you in entire groups all at once. Then, I have so many methods; it is not only spears that win me victories; I have other helpers, secret, but powerful allies; Fanaticism her-self is only one of the tools that I will employ.”
In hearing these words, Fanaticism shook her savage head and rose up toward Death with a burning and maniacal eye and began: “I know that this glorious one will easily borrow my weapons and march under my standards, but is that a reason that she would presume to compare herself with me? Not only will I be as powerful as she in overthrowing states and destroying kingdoms, I will enter into families; I will create opposition between son and father, daughter and mother; inspired by me, faithful friend will become mortal enemy, the wife will betray her husband, the servant his master; no feeling can resist me; I will travel the world under the light of the sky, and crowns will be like stones under my feet. As for the other candidates, they are not worthy of your consideration; Anger is irrational; Vengeance is partial; Hunger could be defeated by hard work; Pestilence is capricious. Your prime minister must be someone close to men and possess them; decide then between ambition and me, we are the only ones you should consider.”
Fanaticism fell silent, and her Majesty seemed in doubt as between these two rivals when the doors of the gallery opened and a person entered before whom everyone recoiled in surprise for she had an appearance which radiated joy and health. Her step was light as the wind and Death herself seemed uneasy at her first approach; however, she soon felt reassured. “You know me” said the stranger, “I come later than the others, but I know that my cause is certain. Certain of my rivals are formidable I admit and it is possible that I could be surpassed in striking feats that attract the admiration of the vulgar, but I have a friend before whom everyone in this assembly would be forced to succumb; she is named Civilization. In a few years she will come to live on earth with you and each century her power will increase. In the end she will turn away Ambition from your service; she will throw on anger the brakes of the law; she will uproot the weapons of the hands of Fanaticism; she will hunt down Famine among the savages. I alone will increase and flourish under her regime. The power of all the others will expire with their supporters– mine will exist even when I am dead. If at one time I knew the father, my influence will extend to the son, and before men unit to banish me from their society I will have changed their entire nature and rendered them a type entirely at the mercy of your Majesty, so effectively, that Old Age will have a sinecure and your palace will be filled up with victims.”
“Speak no more” said Death descending from her throne and kissing Intemperance (for it is thus that the stranger was named). “It suffices that I know you; for the others I have valuable and important offices, they will all be my ministers, but to you alone is reserved the honor of my prince.
Intemperance is the old-fashioned word for alcoholism. Hindley, in Wuthering Heights, is an alcoholic, as was Emily’s brother, Branwell. Maybe the latter fact explains why the topic appears in her novel. However, when she wrote about it in the essay, she had not yet witnessed her brother succumb to drinking as he would later. What is not explained is how she understood alcoholism in a way that was not current at her time or even suggested and would only start to surface in our present age, as inherited and running in families; an infliction, not a personal defect or failure; an insidious evil that kills.