Emily Jane Brontë was an English novelist and poet who is best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, now considered a classic of English literature. Emily was the third eldest of the four surviving Brontë siblings, between the youngest Anne and her brother Branwell. She wrote under the pen name Ellis Bell.
Emily Brontë remains a mysterious figure and a challenge to biographers because information about her is sparse, due to her solitary and reclusive nature. She does not seem to have made any friends outside her family. Her sister Charlotte remains the primary source of information about her, although as Emily’s elder sister, writing publicly about her shortly after her death, Charlotte is not a neutral witness.
According to Lucasta Miller, in her analysis of Brontë biographies, “Charlotte took on the role of Emily’s first mythographer.” In the Preface to the Second Edition of Wuthering Heights, in 1850, Charlotte wrote:
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 on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but WITH them, she rarely exchanged a word.
The only poems by Emily Brontë that were published in her lifetime were included in a slim volume by Brontë and her sisters Charlotte and Anne titled Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell(1846), which sold a mere two copies and received only three unsigned reviews in the months following its publication. The three notices were positive, however, especially with respect to the contributions of Ellis Bell—Emily Brontë. The writer of the review in the 4 July 1846 Athenaeum, for example, noted her “fine quaint spirit” and asserted that she had “things to speak that men will be glad to hear,—and an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted.” It seemed in 1848, the year of Emily’s death, as if this potential were never to be realized. However, Brontë’s twenty-one contributions to Poems represented only a fraction of the nearly two hundred poems collected by C. W. Hatfield in his noteworthy edition, The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë (1941). Several factors combined to delay the publication of a complete, accurately edited collection of Brontë’s poems: her sister Charlotte, who in her heavy-handed revision of seventeen unpublished poems by Brontë to accompany the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847, went so far as to add lines and whole stanzas; the wide dispersal of Brontë’s manuscripts after their sale in 1895 by Charlotte’s widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls; and finally the difficulty in reading the manuscripts, some of which Brontë wrote in a tiny, crabbed script on irregular bits of paper. Ranging from 1836 to 1846—fortunately, Brontë dated all but about a dozen of her poems—these verses reveal that she had indeed reached the heights attempted in the poems in the 1846 volume.
Emily Brontë had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes – kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you; she was too reserved. Their colour might be said to be dark grey, at other times dark blue, they varied so. She talked very little. She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.