Tuesday, December 19, 2023

This Day in Literary History (‘Wuthering Heights’ Author Emily Bronte Dies of TB)

Dec. 19, 1848— Only a year after the publication of Wuthering Heights, the single novel that assured her literary immortality, Emily Bronte died at age 30 in her family’s Yorkshire parsonage of tuberculosis, the same disease that had taken her older and troubled brother Branwell only three months before.

To my knowledge, there has never been a set of talented creative siblings quite like the Brontes. The closest might be the Jameses—philosopher William, novelist Henry, and diarist Alice. But the three Jameses managed to survive well into middle age, enabling them to achieve a prolific output even individually.

In contrast, Emily—along with older sister Charlotte, younger sister Anne, and even Bramwell—died while still young; and the melodramatic plots and Gothic settings of their works—what biographer Juliet Barker calls “Wild Genius on the Moors,” and what contemporaries often labeled “coarse”—could not be more removed from the refined intellectual, urban content of the Americans.

One aspect of Wuthering Heights that especially fascinates me is how, even with its complex, multi-generational plot, it still leaves space on important matters that has invited considerable speculation.

(For instance, who were the orphaned Heathcliff’s parents when Mr. Earnshaw discovers him on the streets of Liverpool? And what was Heathcliff doing in the years away from Wuthering Heights that enabled him to become rich and return to wreak vengeance?)

In the same way, Emily, perhaps the least documented of the three writing Bronte sisters (two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, also died of TB in 1825), also had gaping holes in her history that biographers sought to fill—with perhaps even more speculation than has revolved around Heathcliff.

Most of what we know about Emily came via Charlotte, either directly (in her "Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell," two pseudonyms adopted by Emily and Anne to circumvent sexist publishers and book reviewers of the time) or indirectly (novelist Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte relied heavily on her friend’s reminiscences about her sister).

At the time, Emily had endured fierce criticism from critics (e.g., “The reader is … disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance”).

Charlotte, desiring to protect the posthumous memory of the younger sister she loved, depicted her, in a preface she wrote for Wuthering Heights after Emily’s death, as a homebody who preferred seclusion, and thus “had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates.”

Recent scholars, like Juliet Barker in her epic biography of the family, have pushed back against such well-intentioned but one-dimensional portrayals. Some have theorized that Charlotte, not content with creating a genteel image for Emily, may have taken matters a step further and burned a manuscript that was intended to be Emily’s follow-up to Wuthering Heights.

(Emily’s publisher wrote her at one point to agree that she shouldn’t send her the manuscript for her second novel until she was satisfied with it. But the manuscript has never been found after Emily’s death.)

Charlotte might have been the driving force in the publication of the sisters’ work, and, as I wrote in a prior post, she certainly upended Victorians’ notions of what women could do with Jane Eyre.

But Emily’s genius is no less astonishing. As vivid and evocative as the film adaptations (1939, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon; 1970, starring Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall) of Wuthering Heights are, they don’t prepare viewers when they encounter the novel for the first time.

Only full exposure to the source material enables one to see how dexterously Emily Bronte handled its plot, setting, and the flawed, selfish soulmates Heathcliff and Cathy who form its passionate center.

In addition, 175 years after the death of its author, contemporary readers are likely to be more aware of themes that have become even more relevant since the novel’s original publication, including inequality, domestic abuse, social constraints versus the freedom of nature, and the agony of displacement.

(The image accompanying this post comes, if you haven’t guessed it already, from William Wyler’s classic adaptation of the story, showing Laurence Olivier’s tormented Heathcliff visiting Merle Oberon’s Cathy at her deathbed.)

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