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.
Thanks to the work of the last quarter of the twentieth century culminating in Juliet Barker’s massive family biography The Brontës (1994), we have moved past the Brontë myth. Even Barker no longer feels compelled to fend off absolutely the discredited image of three naive spinsters who, despite being cut off from the main currents of Victorian life, produced some of the most impassioned and enduring novels of the nineteenth century. If she had, surely she would not have taken the surprising step of subtitling the second edition of her biography “Wild Genius on the Moors” (2013).
The Brontës in Context, edited by Marianne Thormählen, provides a useful representative collection of post-Brontë-myth scholarship. Like the other volumes in Cambridge’s “Literature in Context” series, the book is intended for both academic and general readers. Its forty-two essays by thirty-six well-respected Brontë scholars, many of whom have elsewhere broken new ground, are lively and short, informative rather than interpretive. The first section includes biographical essays and addresses such topics as the correspondence, the juvenilia, and the path to publication. A shorter middle section quickly traces five periods of reception plus adaptations and translations. Seventeen more essays explore historical and cultural contexts.
Much of the material will be familiar to scholars, but by no means all of it. The sheer number of essays makes it difficult to isolate highlights and surprises, but I’ll mention Stephen Colclough’s illuminating essay on the non-serial modes of distribution at first publication, Victor A. Neufeldt’s contribution about Branwell, and Stephen Prickett’s discussion of Julius and Augustus Hare’s Guesses at Truth (1827) as an introduction to the British intellectual world of the Brontës’ time. In post-Brontë-myth spirit, Michael Baumber confirms the accuracy of Charlotte’s characterization of Haworth and environs as a “remote district where education had made little progress,” though taken out of context it has contributed to the romantic picture of three visionaries writing in splendid isolation (16). And it’s refreshing to read Thormählen’s warning in her introduction about new myths springing up to replace the old. One of these, she notes, is a tendency now to see Charlotte as the bossy big sister who self-servingly misrepresented her younger siblings. She provides a moving and salutary defense of Charlotte as a grieving but courageous survivor, the family “doer” [End Page 111] whose unflagging determination while all three were alive secured their places in posterity (4).
Overall the book is a pleasure to browse, a helpful guide to further reading, and a handy compendium in which answers to questions about, say, the extant Brontë portraits, or the various conjectured originals for Wuthering Heights, Thornfield, and the other houses are conveniently gathered together.
Ian Ward, who contributed the collection’s essay on law, treats the subject more expansively in his Law and the Brontës. A law professor who has published widely on the field’s relation to literature, Ward explains that one oft-cited justification for such work is to awaken an “otherwise dormant ethical sensitivity” in lawyers and law students (3). Because the Brontës were writing domestic fiction about women living under the doctrine of coverture (and, in Heathcliff’s case, about the marginalization of bastards), considering their work alongside the relevant statute and case law can enable us to empathize with those who cannot make law but who nevertheless live, and often suffer, under its strictures.
Many readers will appreciate the brisk, accessible accounts of the juridical contexts that Ward brings to bear on the five novels he discusses (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall , Wuthering...