A few years back now, I subscribed to the History Today magazine, which is a great magazine to subscribe to if you are a history fanatic (like me) and want to develop your knowledge surrounding international history. It also gives us history nerds something to look forward to each month. Upon rearranging my living space (I mean who hasn’t during lockdown), I found a copy of the August 2018 edition which featured an article written by Claire O’Callaghan about Emily Brontë named ‘The Weirdest of The Weird Sisters’.
Claire O’Callaghan is an English Lecturer at Loughborough University, who in 2018, released a book named Emily Brontë Reappraised: A View from the Twenty-First Century. The History Today article followed on from her book release and seemingly aimed to briefly unravel the many myths surrounding Emily Brontë. As I have created a new book club dedicated to reading classics, I thought it would be interesting to share the main points that Claire explores. Emily, to me, is such an interesting figure in history, who has been and continues to be so widely discussed by literary scholars.
In her essay, O’Callaghan claims that many have tried (and failed) to understand who Emily really was. It seems that across various scholarly work, Emily is remembered less fondly and rather unfairly than her novel, Wuthering Heights. Countless Brontë biographies portray Emily in a number of unflattering ways and she is widely considered to be ‘the weirdest of the weird sisters’ (As a side note, this phrase originated from a Ted Hughes poem in which he goes on about the Brontë sisters being ‘weird’ *eye roll*).
Old-fashioned. People-hating. Spinster. Socially-awkward. These are just some of the words used to describe Emily, with author Muriel Spark even labelling her as ‘no normal being’. O’Callaghan claims that our understanding of Emily is limited because there was little left behind which was written by Emily herself and therefore scholars have had to rely on alternatives to try and understand who she was. These alternative narratives usually include Charlotte’s reminiscences, along with anecdotes of the family, servants and acquaintances which has ultimately resulted in the creation of Emily’s ‘obstinate’ character.
Wuthering Heights in today’s society is celebrated as a well-loved classic text but responses from early reviewers and critics weren’t exactly thrilled with the publication of her only novel. For example, a critic writing in Graham’s Magazine in July 1848 stated:
“There is an old saying that those who eat toasted cheese at night will dream of Lucifer. The author of Wuthering Heights has evidently eaten toasted cheese. 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.”
‘Vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.’ I love this description, and I love the cheese on toast comment even more! It’s funny how this critic uses the ‘never eat cheese before bed’ theory to try and explain how Emily could have created such a nightmarishly text. Another critic writing for Britannia in the same year simply wrote: “Read Jane Eyre, but burn Wuthering Heights”. Ouch.
O’Callaghan states that after Emily’s death, a number of reviews were found in her writing desk, and it makes me wonder what Emily made of reviews like these? Perhaps she loved that people hated her writing. I really hope that she looked down on critics like this for simply not being open-minded enough to admire and understand the true message behind her writing.
O’Callaghan also explores in her article how critics over the years have labelled Emily to suit their preconceptions and in doing so, she splits them into subsections which I will attempt to briefly discuss below for you. I hope this will open your eyes to how Emily has been treated over previous decades and how it differs from the treatment given to her sisters, and other writers (both male and female).
Charlotte Brontë wrote a short ‘Biographical Notice’ after the death of Emily and Anne with the intention of clearing up the confusion surrounding her sisters’ work. Yet in doing so, she created this image of Emily as being impenetrable, stubborn and difficult. She discussed how Emily was ‘unadapted to the practical business of life’, explained how she was ‘not naturally gregarious’ and stated that her sister much preferred seclusion. Nice of her, ey! O’Callaghan argues that over time, however, cultural historians have disregarded Charlotte’s portrayal of Emily, claiming it as over-exaggerated. For example, biographers such as Juliet Barker and Lucasta Miller have shown in their work how Charlotte’s biographical notice was in actual fact part of her own strategy to control the narratives of her sisters and therefore, herself.
Charlotte wasn’t the only one to speak ill of Emily. Despite actually never meeting Emily in person according to records, Elizabeth Gaskell declared a dislike to her, noting that she had not gained a pleasant view of Emily, in comparison to Charlotte who she described as ‘genuinely good, and truly great’. Gaskell claimed that Emily was just plain rude, but it is well known by the literary community that Gaskell had the tendency to interlace fact and fiction within her writing, so some have dismissed her sour comments. Nevertheless, the image of Emily being a ‘free, wild, untameable spirit’, who was also a ‘hater of strangers’ was born, and perhaps even influenced by the responses to the publication of Wuthering Heights.
Perhaps one of the most well-known but bizarre myths surrounding Emily that O’Callaghan explores is the claim that she made herself ill. Biographer Virginia Moore, who wrote The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontë, demonstrates this, as she claims that Emily’s mysticism ‘led her to commit suicide by self-neglect’.
If you were unaware, Emily was diagnosed with tuberculosis aged 30 and is believed to have refused medical help in the final months of her life. In September 1848, a month before Emily herself passed away, her brother Branwell sadly died from tuberculosis, with her sister Anne dying from the same illness a year later. So let’s picture this for a moment; a young girl surrounded by dying and suffering family members. Is there any wonder she battled with the decision to receive medical assistance? Perhaps seeing her family suffer, as well as suffering from the illness herself, made her feel helpless. Yet inevitably, the image of a stubborn Emily ‘willing herself to death’ was born and has since been acknowledged by many who have studied her.
Additionally, in 1990 Katherine Frank in her work titled Emily Brontë: A Chainless Soul claimed that Emily was anorexic:
“If Emily were alive today…she would most certainly be diagnosed as suffering from anorexia. Not merely her refusal to eat and her extreme slenderness and preoccupation with food and cooking, but also her obsessive need for control, her retreat into an ongoing interior fantasy world, and her social isolation are all characteristics of the ‘anorexic personality’.”
The poor girl can’t catch a break. Elsewhere, other critics have claimed that Emily was, in fact, agoraphobic; which means to have an extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult.
These perceptions stem from comments made by the Brontë family friends who stated that Emily was always shy and reserved. Yet, there is no clear-cut historical evidence that Emily experienced any symptoms of agoraphobia, but we do know for certain that she did leave her home on several occasions with her sisters. So who knows if any of the above is true?
O’Callaghan also explores claims that Emily suffered from autism. In 2015 (yes, that recent!) biographer Claire Harman reported that Emily was ‘an Aspergers-ey person’ due to her ‘apparent’ behaviours associated with autism. Perhaps because she was known by family and friends to be shy and prefer solitude, Harman has quickly christened her as autistic.
It is safe to say, Harman received quite a lot of backlash over her comments, one, in particular, reflecting that it is dangerous to take such a ‘freewheeling approach to characterising what it means to be on the autistic spectrum’. O’Callaghan argues that what many biographies about Charlotte tend to have in common is that they are not very sympathetic to Emily and portray her as quite a contrast to her beloved sister. Yet although various reports show that Emily was unhappy in different ways and display evidence that she preferred to be alone, there are other, more defining symptoms of autism that we have no historical evidence of and therefore, it would be simply ignorant to speak of her as having a disability simply because she preferred her own company.
To conclude, what we know for certain is that Emily was the sister most adamant about concealing her identity under a pseudonym so perhaps instead of naming and shaming her, we should just respect her need for privacy? Perhaps, instead of using her reclusivity as a way to make it easier to disregard her literary work, we should be celebrating her quirks and treating her with the respect that her sisters so often receive.
I agree with O’Callaghan when she states that biographers and historians need to start approaching Emily more ethically, but sadly due to the gaps in our knowledge about her and the lack of first-hand writing by Emily, it inevitably means that it has become increasingly easier to stretch the truth too far and use it to push Emily into the eerie, reclusive and odd image that has been so often used. I think Emily, out of all the sisters, would have fitted in well with today’s society and the fact that she is so misunderstood by all who study her, makes her my favourite Brontë.