Disputed portrait of Emily Brontë, circa 1848.
“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women…their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman is almost always a fiend.” –Shirley, Charlotte Brontë
The personality in the voice of headstrong Shirley Keeldar is perhaps most accurate portrait we will ever find of Emily Brontë. In the process of grieving the death of her sister, Charlotte immortalized Emily in her writing – confiding in Elizabeth Gaskell that indeed, Shirley was exactly what Emily would have been “had she been born into wealth and prosperity.”
Needless to say, only the residents of the Haworth Parsonage could have fully understood Emily, just as only they know what she really looked like. Aside from some rather impersonal poetry, a few surviving diary entries, and a single novel not nearly as autobiographical as Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, there is very little Emily produced that can give us a clear picture of what she was like – aggravating, of course, to Brontë enthusiasts everywhere.
And what continues to circulate amongst contemporary readers are a few scraps of information: that Emily’s life was dreadfully short but packed with violence and passion, that she was deeply in love with the stormy moors and wildlife, and that she largely retreated to herself.
This outline is far too vague.
Elizabeth Gaskell, after Charlotte’s death, conducted detailed interviews with the Brontës’ then surviving father, friends, servants, and former love interests. We have some surviving accounts of Emily Brontë’s existence, thanks to Gaskell. But we also have her to thank for creating what we today understand to be mere legends, elaborately painted from foggy recollections of Emily to provide some substance to a published work – only then to be blown up further by future historians and enthusiasts. The trouble is, we aren’t sure which stories are the romanticized ones.
We are lucky, still, to be able to accompany our largely skewed understanding with some truthful anecdotes.
A diary entry from sixteen-year-old Emily does much to reveal character traits, ranging from the way she pronounced potato to her train of thought.
“November 24th, 1834 I fed Rainbow, Diamond Snowflake Jasper pheasant (alias) this morning Branwell went down to Mr. Driver's and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to be invited to stand for Leeds Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte to make us an apple pudding and for Aunt nuts and apples Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly and she was of a quick but limited intellect. Taby said just now Come Anne pilloputate (i.e. pill a potato) Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said where are your feet Anne Anne answered On the floor Aunt papa opened the parlour door and gave Branwell a letter saying here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte–The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine Sally Mosley is washing in the back kitchen It is past Twelve o'clock Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bedwork or done our lessons and we want to go out to play we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef, Turnips, potatoes and applepudding. The Kitchin is in a very untidy state Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O dear I will directly with that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling (finished) pilling the potatoes papa going to walk Mr. Sunderland expected. Anne and I say I wonder what we shall be like and what we shall be and where we shall be if all goes on well in the year 1874–in which year I shall be in my 54th year Anne will be going in her 55th year Branwell will be going in his 58th year And Charlotte in her 59th year hoping we shall all be well at that time we close our paper Emily and Anne”
The final thought expressed in the letter is chilling when we know that Charlotte did not live to see her forties, let alone the other Bronte siblings, who had not even grazed their thirties. Emily’s innocent optimism, usual musings in the mind of a teenager, and simple, isolated life are evident from this entry. Her later diary entries, of course, reveal greater complexity – reveal her aggravated social anxiety, for example, when she is placed in more challenging public situations.
It’s interesting to note that Emily’s development is reminiscent of the way she develops her characters in Wuthering Heights – most notably Cathy and Heathcliff’s journey to adulthood developed through glimpses into their daily routines and activities. Emily heeds her youth in her work entirely; the importance of the maid Nelly Dean, the foundation of the novel’s narration, is parallel to Emily’s intimate lifelong relationship with the Parsonage maid Tabby Aykroyd.
It is useful, therefore, to treat Emily’s personal diary entries as a supplement to Wuthering Heights.
We can then study Emily’s lone work, her seemingly impersonal novel, for her daily influences in little behavioral details, colloquial phrases, local folklore, and unique speech patterns. Hints of her personality can be connected between the awkward dynamic of the Wuthering Heights family household, Charlotte’s jottings of Emily’s outbursts of anger when her sisters went through her things, and Anne’s letters to Emily that revealed she preferred her dogs to her students.
Making inferences about her personality makes it a little easier to picture Monsieur Constantin Hegér’s memories, so many years later, of one of his most memorable students at the Belgian Pensionnat boarding school. “She should have been a man,” he said, “a great navigator…her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have been given way but with life. She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman…[but] impairing this gift was her stubborn tenacity of will which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned.”
Emily and her teacher were known to have faced great difficulty in getting along. Hegér even recounted to Gaskell her coldness, her bitter distaste for being away from home, her remarkably controlling nature that she exercised even over Charlotte – the controlling nature that never let her settle for anything less than what she wanted. Even from her earliest lesson, Hegér was struck by Emily’s directness when she called out his methods of teaching writing for restricting students’ originality, creativity, and style. And he discovered through narrative essays he assigned her (they spoke personally hardly at all, as it can be concluded the majority of their interactions was dominated by awkward silence or spats) her highly unique perspective and rigid value system, her “pessimistic and cynical view of mankind and shrewd understanding of the cruelty in the world around her”.
Some contemporary Brontê readers and enthusiasts, grossly dissatisfied with the lack of concrete details, are hungry to take away more perspective-altering conclusions from existing evidence. They choose take Emily Brontë’s noted social awkwardness a little more seriously.
Her poor social skills were extremely defined, considering her disinterest in making friends and the fatal nature of her homesickness whenever she left town for boarding school or teaching. Her sisters, furthermore, noted sudden outbursts of anger for small things (that often drove her to abuse her dogs), inability ever to let go of childhood fantasies, extreme academic intelligence, and her irrational stubbornness all the way from refusing to meet her publishers to refusing treatment as she was dying. All of these signal, some believe, characteristics of mental illness or personality disorder. One of Emily’s biographers is even certain she had Asperger’s syndrome. Dissenters say her strange personality is a product of her strict upbringing, lifelong isolation, and frequent acquaintance with death in her family.
I say the only stories we have of Emily are these extreme, likely exaggerated tales, the ones worth writing down, Wuthering Heights, an ultimately impersonal novel, and a few personal diary entries from her teenage years. She is as mysterious as the disputed images of her that exist. Emily is such an enigma that there’s evidence in Charlotte’s letters of more diary entries in existence, along with a possible complete (unpublished) manuscript. But these were destroyed, lost to history forever. Reclusive, largely out of the public eye, face concealed behind her raw prose, hidden well in the cemented vault beneath the St. Michael and All Angels’ Church – Emily Brontë still gets exactly what she wants: to continue being a secret.
Much of our understanding is a mirage of poorly sewn, loose ideas of Emily’s character and some incidences, the gaps filled in with our own fabrications.
Maybe Emily lived a life as theatrical as her iconic antihero Heathcliff – filled with passionate lovers and episodes of violence we could never know about. Maybe there was a remarkable showdown between Monsieur Hegér and Emily that was all the talk at the school. Maybe she was not truly as averse to social interaction as evidence suggests. Maybe she had Asperger’s. Or maybe she just had highly unusual character traits.
Emily Brontë is the Brontë we know the least about, of the famous three. These gaps of information leave room for Brontëmaniacs to speculate, to let their minds roam wildly the way the Brontës inspired them to. Emily is the most self-centered; she demands the most attention, drives her devotees thousands of miles across the world to find out if her coffin was really only eighteen inches wide, or if it was just legend (it was fact!).
But Emily also allows for the most creative freedom in the minds of her enthusiasts. Not only has she quenched our readers’ thirst – she nourishes the writers in us.
All information is drawn from The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Brontës by Juliet Barker, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum.