Emily Brontë: Misanthrope or Literary Genius (or Both)?

An accomplished poet and the author of one of the best novels of the nineteenth century, Emily Brontë’s life and legacy have invited both speculation and celebration.

May 1, 2024By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

emily bronte life


Part of an illustrious literary family, Emily Brontë was arguably the most spectacularly talented of all the Brontë family. It was, after all, her remarkable poetry that first fanned Charlotte’s ambition that she and her sisters should pursue publication to a flame. Yet Emily herself did not share Charlotte’s burning desire for fame and is often considered something of a socially awkward recluse by her modern biographers. Alternately vilified as a misanthrope and celebrated as a genius, here we will take a closer look at the life and work of one of the greatest writers of all time.


Early Years: Birth, Bereavement, & Cowan Bridge

emily bronte getty portrait
Known as the Getty Portrait, this (supposed) portrait of Emily Brontë is widely contested. Source: IMDb


Emily Jane Brontë was born on July 30, 1818 in Haworth, West Yorkshire. By the time of her birth, her parents, the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Brontë (née Branwell), had already had four children: her elder sisters Maria (born late 1813 or early 1814), Elizabeth (born 1815), and Charlotte (born 1816), as well as her brother, Branwell (born 1817). Around eighteen months later, a younger sister, Anne, was born on 17 January 1820, and in April of that year, the family moved to the parsonage in Haworth with which they are so closely associated.


The children’s mother, however, developed uterine cancer. A year after their move to Haworth, her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, arrived at the parsonage to nurse her. She died later that year on September 15, 1821. Her sister, known to the children as Aunt Branwell, remained at the parsonage to care for them.


emily bronte portrait
Reproduction of the profile portrait of Emily (originally part of a group painting of the Brontë siblings) by Branwell Brontë, c. 1833-34. Source: Encyclopedia of Trivia


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On November 25, 1824, Emily was sent to board at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, where Maria and Elizabeth had been sent in July of that year, with Charlotte following them in August. This was her first time away from home, and Charlotte would later immortalize the school as Lowood in her 1847 novel Jane Eyre. While conditions were typically miserable, in 1824-25, a typhoid epidemic at the school killed many pupils.


It was not typhoid, however, but tuberculosis that Maria and Elizabeth caught. Maria was sent home to Haworth in February 1825 to recover but died on May 6. Three weeks later, Elizabeth returned to Haworth, also with tuberculosis, and died on June 15. Charlotte and Emily were then brought home the day after Elizabeth returned to Haworth in fear that they might succumb to the same fate if they remained any longer at Cowan Bridge.


Education & the Creation of Imaginary Worlds

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Photograph of Charlie Murphy (who played Anne), Chloe Pirrie (who played Emily), and Finn Atkins (who played Charlotte) in the 2016 BBC dramatization of the lives of the Brontës, To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Brontë Sisters. Source: IMDb


After returning home from Cowan Bridge, Charlotte and Emily remained at Haworth to be taught at home alongside their two remaining siblings. She therefore received little by way of formal education, though her father’s evening oral lessons in history and religious teachings also far exceeded the educational lot of most middle-class girls of the period. Later, in 1829, the children would also receive art lessons from John Bradley.


While their father attended to the needs of his parishioners in the afternoon, the children would go for walks on the moors. In September 1824, Emily, Branwell, and Anne were accompanied by the family’s servants, Nancy and Sarah Garrs, for one such walk when a bog at Crow Hill (located behind the parsonage) erupted, creating a seven-foot-high wave of peat, mud, and water that catapulted boulders into the air.


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Emily Brontë’s diary page, 26 June 1837. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The moors proved to be a place of lifelong inspiration for the children – and for Emily in particular. On June 5, 1826, Patrick returned home from a clerical conference in Leeds with presents for each of his children: ninepins for Charlotte, a toy village for Emily, a dancing doll for Anne, and a box of toy soldiers for Branwell. It was the latter present, however, that most delighted all four siblings. In a diary paper from three years later, Charlotte writes:


“I snatched up one and exclaimed this is the Duke of Wellington it shall be mine!! When I said this Emily likewise took one and said it should be hers. When Anne came down she took one also. […] Emily’s was a grave looking fellow [and so] we called him Gravey. Anne’s was a queer little boy thing much like herself. He was called Waiting-Boy. Branwell chose Bonaparte.”


emily bronte gondal poems
Extract from Emily Brontë’s “Gondal Poems” notebook. Source: DP Traduction


In fact, Anne’s toy soldier went on to become Ross – after John Ross, the Arctic explorer – and Emily’s became Parry, after Sir William Edward Parry, John Ross’ companion-turned-nemesis and fellow explorer who led five expeditions to the North-West Passage. Emily thus made Parry King of Parry’s Land, which geographically resembled the wild moors of West Yorkshire and was one of the four islands that made up the siblings’ fictional city of Glass Town, the capital of Angria.


Charlotte and Branwell, however, as the two oldest children, dominated the stories the siblings played out in this imaginary world. Therefore, when Charlotte left Haworth to attend Roe Head School in January 1831, Emily and Anne created their own imaginary kingdom of Gondal – somewhere Emily would imaginatively return to for the rest of her life and would never cease writing about.


Charlotte remained at Roe Head (where she made two lifelong friends in Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor) until June 1832. She later returned to Roe Head as a teacher, taking Emily with her as a pupil on July 2, 1835 (Miss Wooler, who ran the school, offered Charlotte the position on the suggestion that her wage would subsidize Emily’s tuition fees).


However, after spending three months at Roe Head, Emily returned to Haworth in October, and Anne took her place at the school. Many reasons have been suggested as to why Emily left the school relatively soon after arriving, including her shyness, homesickness, and (as Robert Barnard suggests) that she may well have found the level of teaching at Roe Head to be “childish and unstimulating” after the informal but far more advanced education she had received from her father (see Further Reading, Robert Barnard, p. 27).


The World of Work

bronte sisters dramatisation walk invisible
Photograph of Chloe Pirrie (who played Emily), Charlie Murphy (who played Anne), and Finn Atkins (who played Charlotte) in the 2016 BBC dramatization of the lives of the Brontës, To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Brontë Sisters. Source: IMDb


Whatever her reasons for returning home, Brontë was nonetheless determined to earn a living. In September 1838, she took up a teaching position at Law Hill School in Halifax. She had forty pupils, of whom she said that she preferred the school dog (Emily Brontë was an animal lover and had a particularly strong bond with her dogs Grasper and, later, Keeper). She returned home in March 1839 as her health deteriorated. Once back at the parsonage, her lessons with her father resumed, during which she read the Four Gospels and learned Latin.


As the daughters of an impoverished clergyman, however, all three of the Brontë sisters had been educated with a view to them going on to earn their livings as teachers or governesses. Led by Charlotte, the three sisters planned to open their own school. In pursuit of this aim, Charlotte asked their Aunt Branwell to finance further education for Emily and herself in Brussels to improve their language skills. Aunt Branwell consented, and in February 1842, Charlotte and Emily made their way to Brussels to attend the Pensionnat Héger.


Here, Emily made quite the impression on the school’s master, M. Constantin Héger, who would later recall her “stubborn tenacity of will” and that Emily “strongly – and vocally” expressed disapproval of his pedagogical methods. Nonetheless, he also recognized her genius.


However, the sisters’ time in Brussels was cut short when they learned that Aunt Branwell was ill. They prepared to make the journey back home, arriving in early November, by which time, however, Aunt Branwell had already passed away. The siblings each inherited £350 from their aunt. As her inheritance relieved some of the pressure on her to earn a living by teaching, Emily decided to stay behind, taking on housekeeping duties for her father at the parsonage.



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Title page of an 1858 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Source: Jonkers Rare Books


Back at home, Emily began learning German, and in 1844, she began dividing and transcribing her poems in two notebooks: one titled “Gondal Poems” and the other untitled, though it is now known as the “Honresfeld manuscript.” One year later, Charlotte opened the drawer of Emily’s writing desk and found one of these notebooks open. On reading the poems, Charlotte was amazed by their quality, immediately noticing “that these were not common effusions” but “condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine.”


Convinced that the poems merited publication, she approached Emily – who was (understandably) furious that Charlotte had invaded her privacy – with this suggestion. Charlotte, however, persisted, and when Anne offered some of her own poems to form part of a joint publication, Emily relented.


Between September 1845 and January 1846, she systematically reviewed her notebooks to select and refine the poems for publication. Using the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, the collection – containing 21 poems by Emily, another 21 by Anne, and 19 by Charlotte – was published (at the sisters’ own expense) in 1846. Despite receiving some favorable critical reviews, the collection only sold two copies in the first year of publication.


This convinced Charlotte that the sisters should turn their attention to the more lucrative business of writing novels. In December 1847, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were published in a single edition by Thomas Cautley Newby. Wuthering Heights scandalized readers with its portrayal of fierce love and equally fierce hatred, with one reviewer advocating for “burn[ing] Wuthering Heights.” Nonetheless, in one review kept by Brontë herself, her writing was deemed “better in its peculiar kind than anything that had been produced since the days of Fielding.”


Illness and Death

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Anatomical drawing of the lungs of a patient who died of pulmonary tuberculosis, Plate V, by Samuel George Morton, 1834. Source: Wellcome Collection


A year after the publication of Wuthering Heights, her brother, Branwell (who had become an alcoholic and an opium addict), died on September 24, 1848. His cause of death was listed as “Chronic bronchitis” and “Marasmus” (meaning emaciation), though it is likely that he died of tuberculosis, as four days after his death, Emily caught what was thought to be a cold at his funeral.


Despite her family’s concern, she carried on with her household duties as her tuberculosis “galloped.” She refused to see a doctor until, at midday on December 19, 1848, she relented. She died later that day at two o’clock, aged 30, with her dog, Keeper, by her side.


At the time of its publication, Wuthering Heights (and, by extension, its author) was widely vilified by the critics. Even Emily Brontë’s sister, Charlotte, would go on to disparage the novel, albeit in an attempt to mitigate some of the criticism being leveled at her sister posthumously, casting Emily as a “nursling of the moors” – that is, as an innocent who knew not what she did.


“Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff,” Charlotte wrote in her 1850 preface to Wuthering Heights, “I do not know: I scarcely think it is.” Today, however, Wuthering Heights is celebrated as a masterpiece of English fiction, and Brontë’s achievement is all the more remarkable when one considers that she was not yet thirty when she wrote it. Despite her untimely death, therefore, Emily Brontë’s legacy as one of the greatest English writers of all time is assured.


Further Reading:


Barnard, Robert, Emily Brontë (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

O’Callaghan, Claire, Emily Brontë Reappraised: A View from the Twenty-First Century (Salford: Saraband, 2018).

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.