Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, by their brother Branwell (c. 1834). He painted himself among his sisters, but later removed the image so as not to clutter the picture. This version restored, By Unknown. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons (Cropped)

Of the three Bronte sisters, it is said that Emily was the truly great one. All three shared a passion for literature and fantasy, and all three were strange young people and ill adapted socially. After some brief adventures in the feminine work environment of her time, Emily decides to return to her house and becomes her father’s housekeeper. The bicentennial of her birth is a good time to remember this great author.

The Brontë sisters have become icons of English literature: for their impressive novels, for their literary efforts in a society in which publishing books was men’s business, and for being three literary sisters. Emily, in addition, had a recognized talent for poetry and is considered by many the greatest of the Brontës. She had a short life, and for the most part it was spent in her home in Yorkshire. She could not stand being far from home, especially from its landscapes, the moors and the wild nature of this region. She died in 1848, at age 30, of tuberculosis.

Her circumstances did not prevent her, however, from writing one of the most surprising and exciting novels in world literature, Wuthering Heights. Under the pseudonym Ellis Bell (her sisters were publishing their own novels at that time under masculine pseudonyms), she gave birth in 1847 to her first and only novel. Wuthering Heights employs gothic themes to reveal the disturbing inner life of her characters.

How was it possible for a young girl away from all literary circles, in a parish house in the countryside, and dedicated to household chores, to be able to write such superior prose and verses? The great Virginia Woolf considered it was nothing less than “a miracle” that, given the marginalisation of the feminine at that time, the Brontës had to confine their talents to “make puddings and sewing socks”. Woolf says this shows that the sisters’ writing would have been even better “if they had had 300 pounds a year”, because they would not have had to move away from the world and practical experience.

Freedom to read and write

But Woolf loses sight of precisely why Emily and her sisters are so great. Their economic and social disadvantages gave them subjects and a specific vision to explore in their books. Even when they had brief (and unsuccessful) attempts to carve out a profession (Emily once told her students that she preferred the school dog to them), they decided to return to the tranquility of their home. In fact, it is their precise circumstances, with all the imperfections, that give their works that incomparable richness. Only a woman of her class and her time — educated, with modest resources and probably destined for singleness — could have shaped such characters.

The life the Brontës led gave them the freedom to read everything they could, spend their afternoons inventing stories and intrigues and producing works that only they would see. Emily was not a slave to her sex or her time: she knew how to make the best of her circumstances and translate it into her works, works independent of her feminine condition. She was able to observe the world that surrounded her, masculine and feminine, with magnificent objectivity and understanding. She gave her characters complexity and moments of grace, even the most unhappy.

Emily always preferred anonymity to advertising. Her most surprising character is a domestic servant, Nelly Dean, who watches everyone without anyone ever noticing her. Something like that happened to her too: invisibility was her favourite state (she was furious at Charlotte when she found her notebook of poems and wanted to publish it). She did not want her readers to discover her; she preferred to hide and observe behind housework (her servants said that whatever she was doing, she always had her pencil in her hand).

The complexities and limitations of her life as a middleclass woman in the 19th century made her a writer. Emily was perhaps the greatest of the Brontë sisters, but what we know about her is little, probably due to her quiet and reserved personality. Charlotte said that her sister had “a power and a secret fire”; this she used in her literary work and it allowed her to write, from the hidden precinct of her home, a scandalous and extraordinary novel for her time and also for ours.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:

    It vexes me to choose another guide:

Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;

    Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

From “Stanzas” by Emily Brontë

Translated from the Spanish and republished from Aceprensa with permission.