Ellis Bell aka Emily Brontë

July 30, 2018

On this day 200 years ago, Emily Jane Brontë was born in Thornton, a village on the outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire.

 

The fifth of six children born to a perpetual curate (an early type of vicar) and his wife, Emily was the younger sister of Charlotte, and the older sister of Anne, making up the famous literary giants, the Brontë sisters.

 

Her father was born Patrick Brunty in Ireland, and he came to England to study. He stayed in England after his studies and changed his name to Brontë. It's not fully understood why, but as an educated man from humble beginnings, it is thought he may have wanted his family name to sound more noble.

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë painted by their brother Branwell. He was originally between Emily and Charlotte, but he painted himself out so as not to clutter the portrait. 

 

 

In 1820, the family moved six miles away to Haworth, still in West Yorkshire. Here Emily was to live, with the exception of a few months away at school or in Belgium, for the rest of her life. The Brontë children were not blessed with long lives. Of the six children Charlotte lived the longest, and she died in 1855, aged just 38.

 

The other Brontë children died at the following ages:  Maria died aged 12, Elizabeth was 11, Branwell, the only son died at the age of 31, Emily died aged 30, and Anne died at the age of 29. To add to the morbid tone, Emily's mother died in 1821 when Emily was just 3 years of age. The death of their mother and two older sisters had a profound effect on the surviving children.

 

Emily was shy. She knew people in her local community and she knew what was happening in their lives. She could talk with her family about events in the locality and about the people in it. She hardly ever though spoke to anyone outside of the family.

 

She went away to boarding school for a short time, but returned home suffering from acute homesickness. At the age of 24, she went with her sister to Belgium to improve their French and German, but again returned home, this time because of the death of her aunt.

 

Once she returned to Haworth, Emily took on the role of housekeeper for her father, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the parsonage. Quiet and reclusive with no known love affairs, she left the family home to walk around the beautifully stark Yorkshire countryside, and she left the house to attend church. Apart from that, she rarely ventured out into the community. 

 

So how did such a quiet, detached isolated soul write a complex, violent and passionate classic?

 

The sisters and their brother Branwell had written poems and stories of military conquests and romance while they were growing up. Over the years they had created fictitious places and storylines so this most likely laid the foundations for Emily's one and only novel.

 

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, just one year before Emily passed away from tuberculosis. As many women at the time did, she published the novel under a male pseudonym, Ellis Bell. The book launched to mixed reviews with the violence and amoral passion causing particular uproar. The book was not a commercial success in Emily's lifetime and it wasn't until much later that the work became considered a classic work of English literature.

 

The Brontë sisters created some phenomenal works of fiction. Charlotte's Jayne Eyre and Anne's Agnes Grey were also published in 1847, with Jayne Eyre proving to be particularly popular. 

 

This short article is designed just to scratch the surface of a fascinating family. If you'd like to visit Brontë country and learn more about them, can I suggest that you look into visiting the Haworth Parsonage museum. There is a sustained programme of events celebrating 200 years of all things Brontë, and the surrounding area is lovely.

 

Now, go and read Wuthering Heights... and then Jayne Eyre... and then...

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Jeremy 

 

 

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