Break all conventions, write with your sisters, befriend animals – create a masterpiece for the ages.
How could it possibly be?
She wrote only one novel, writing by hand for hours at her kitchen table while also baking bread and ironing. She was a terrible speller, painfully shy and preferred animals to people. She shunned marriage, craved solitude and had no close relationships outside her immediate family.
Yet in 1846 at age 27, Emily Jane Brontë completed her dark literary classic, Wuthering Heights. It would be published the following year and become one of the most cherished and popular books of all time.
To this day, Wuthering Heights remains one of the best-selling classic English novels. A recent UKTV Drama survey of 2,000 readers ranked it as the best love story ever written, beating out Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, and Jane Eyre (written by Emily’s sister Charlotte). It also finished ahead of contemporary classics such as Gone with the Wind and The English Patient.
Is there anything we can learn from Emily Brontë on constructing a story that still resonates, disturbs and thrills readers nearly two centuries after she finally laid her pen to rest?
HEA be damned!
If the UKTV Drama survey tells us anything about readers, it may be that the HEA, i.e. ‘Happily Ever After’ ending many romance genres demand, is not required for a long literary afterlife. If you Google Emily Brontë, you get over ten million links, a testament to the fascination we have with her and her writing.
"Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you — haunt me then! Only do not leave me in this abyss where I can not find you." - Heathcliffe
Emily never had a lover as far anyone knows, but she certainly had a profound gift for creating romantic tension. It’s probable she did not set out to write a ‘romance.’ Her goal seems to have been to portray the complex, layered interpersonal relationships between her characters, particularly Heathcliffe and Catherine. They both end up dead and buried beside each other, even though they were married to other partners.
And as if snubbing her nose at the likes of Jane Austen, (who died a year before Emily was born) it is only in death that Heathcliffe and Catherine can truly be together, even if it amounts to tormenting each other in the after life.
There’s no place like home. Or, location, location, location.
Emily Brontë had little interest in any place on earth save her father’s dreary parsonage in West Yorkshire. Her sister Charlotte remarked that Emily’s interest in the world “was no wider than the space between her nostrils.”
Emily did spend brief periods away from the windswept moors she loved to wander. But being away made her so homesick she became depressed. Perhaps to cope she learned German and French and became a proficient musician while away in Brussels with Charlotte.
I'll walk where my own nature would be leading, It vexes me to choose another guide. - Emily Brontë
But it was her attachment to the few square miles around the place where she was born that ran deepest within her and spilled so eloquently onto the pages of her writing. Her daily walks on the moors, with her dog, a huge bullmastiff named Keeper, proved her most productive incubator of ideas. She walked him rain or shine, on the coldest winter mornings and the warmest summer afternoons. Keeper was no doubt a good listener, as she worked through her ideas with him, bounding through the moors together.
As Charlotte observed, “My sister's disposition was not naturally gregarious: circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church, or take a walk in the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of a home.”
Rather than limiting Emily, this immersion of place seemed to fuel her writing. You don’t just read Wuthering Heights, you experience it viscerally. The setting is not only the backdrop of the story, it has its own moods and personality.
Virgina Wolfe speculated that Emily Brontë made use of the natural setting so heavily because she wanted “more powerful symbols of the vast and slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can convey.”
Your editor, your friend – your sister
Emily was closest to her youngest sister, Anne. Along with her older sister, Charlotte, the three Brontë girls wrote together in what must have been a lively exchange of ideas, or jealously guarded secrets – especially by Emily, the most secretive of the three.
Emily’s died an untimely death from tuberculosis, refusing medical help and remedies from any “poisoning doctor.” until a few hours before she died on December 19, 1848 when she finally whispered to Charlotte, “If you send for a doctor, I will see him now.”
"Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be." - Poet laureate, Robert Southey's advice to Charlotte Brontë
After Emily died, Charlotte revised some of the Yorkshire dialogue in Wuthering Heights, to make the thick accent spoken by a few characters easier for readers to penetrate. That she understood Emily better than any other person, save sister Anne, made her the perfect editor. Charlotte allowed Emily’s genius to shine through, shaving just enough of the dialect to make it accessible to non-Yorkshire readers.
Charlotte also revealed to the world the true identity of the author of Wuthering Heights, which was originally published under the pseudonym ‘Ellis Bell’ even though Emily was reluctant to reveal herself. Charlotte also arranged payment of £50 to Thomas Newby who refused to publish without payment.
Charlotte’s own masterpiece, Jane Eyre, proved she had the credentials as possibly one of the few people who truly understood and appreciated the work her sister created.
It’s all about character
Some argue about whether plot or character development is the most important aspect of a novel. Emily Brontë certainly wove a dark, beguiling plot. But it is her characters, their struggles, their depth and their flaws that elevate Wuthering Heights to a rarefied plain.
"I'm too happy, and yet I'm not happy enough. My soul's bliss kills my body, but does not satisfy itself." - Heathcliff
After its publication in 1847, critics didn’t know what to make of such a strange book. It was widely despised, but there was also grudging acknowledgement that its characters still burned within a reader’s mind even after the book was closed.
Here's a sampling of the first reviews:
Literary World: "In the whole story not a single trait of character is elicited which can command our admiration. In spite of the disgusting coarseness of much of the dialogue, and the improbabilities of much of the plot, we are spellbound.”
Examiner: ”This is a strange book. It is not without evidences of considerable power: but… the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages ruder than those who lived before the days of Homer.”
Douglas Jerrold: “The women in the book are of a strange fiendish-angelic nature, tantalising, and terrible, and the men are indescribable out of the book itself. Wuthering Heights is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about.”
Some critics however, saw no redeeming value in the book at all.
Graham's Lady Magazine: "How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors."
The Atlas Review: “There is not a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible ... Even the female characters excite something of loathing and much of contempt.”
No doubt many who read such reviews rushed off to buy a copy of a book that features ‘fiendish-angelic’ terrible, women who excite loathing and men who are indescribable vulgar savages.
Writing is a job
Strange as it may be (and the story of the Brontë sisters and their family is a one for the ages) Emily, Charlotte and Anne took up writing novels as a job. Their primary motivation was financial independence, not literary fame.
As such, they set-up shop in their fathers parsonage, using a small inheritance from their Aunt Branwell to fund their enterprise. They first tried to establish a school, but given their remote location and one presumes, lack of marketing, no one enrolled.
In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte stumbled upon a notebook of poetry secretly written by Emily. Charlotte proposed they pay to have it published. Emily refused, flying into a rage that her privacy had been invaded. But when Anne revealed that she too had been writing poems in secret, Emily relented and Charlotte arranged to have poems from all three sisters published in one volume. They sold only three copies of the resulting book, but Emily’s work was singled out, with one critic calling it the ‘presence of genius.’
Other reviews were also encouraging, so with no other prospects, they each launched into writing their first novel as a means of financial support in case their aging father Patrick, who was going blind, might either lose his position as pastor of Hayworth or die. (In fact he outlived his wife and all his six children.)
"A person who has not done one half his day's work by ten o'clock runs a chance of leaving the other half undone." - Nelly Dean, Wuthering Heights
Each sister worked in secret, although they discussed their work with each other at the dinner table, often late into the night. Charlotte, Emily and Anne each produced a novel: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Only Charlotte’s Jane Eyre would become a best-seller upon publication.
Sadly, both Emily and Anne died within two years of their books’ publication. But Anne did write her own best seller, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, before she died. Charlotte realized both financial and literary success with Jane Eyre, a brilliant novel based in part on her own traumas and those of her family.
Who needs sex?
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same,” - Catherine Earnshaw, Wuthering Heights
One last note on Emily’s book of tricks for achieving literary immortality: create two characters so passionate over each other, they seemingly die from the agony of not being together. And then ensure these two characters have little or no physical contact.
There are only the most oblique hints of anything sexual in Wuthering Heights and perhaps the restrictive Victorian age constrained the narrative from going much further. But it could be that these restrictions, also drove Emily to find deeper ways to represent the passionate, aggressive, irrational, animalistic nature of lust and sexual pleasure. Charlotte did describe Heathcliff's feelings as "perverted passion and passionate perversity.”
And yet I cannot continue in this condition! I have to remind myself to breathe — almost to remind my heart to beat! - Heathcliffe
Rather than physical love, various essayists have tried to categorize the love between Heathcliffe and Catherine in forms such as an addiction, as a religion, as a way to create meaning from the inherent separateness of the human condition or as a life-force relationship.
It seems no one can quite put a finger on it. Whatever their loves was, it did not include them being together in bed. In fact, they barely even kissed.
Putting it all together
What strikes me most from Emily’s lessons is that for a story to have the kind of impact that Wuthering Heights has exerted on readers for nearly two centuries, you cannot be afraid to dig deep – very deep into the dark recesses of human emotion, and then to keep digging further still.
It's because the novel is so fiercely set among the Yorkshire moors, and the characters are driven with a passion that still disturbs some with its rawness, that it remains fresh each time it's read.
And for this book to still be ranked as one of the greatest love stories every told, even though it surely is not one by most definitions of the word, reflects on the power of exploring what lies under the surface – what is never realized and what is never consummated.