2018 marks 200 years since Emily Jane Brontë was born in Thornton near Bradford.
There have been many celebrations of her life and work around the world, especially at the Brontë Parsonage where she lived and died along with her two sisters who, together, produced novels and poems that resonate down the centuries. Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, a passionate, disturbing and dramatic Gothic tale of love, desire, rejection and class. You could argue that she was the first writer to introduce the idea of the anti-hero. She also wrote beautiful poetry. Emily was talented but seems to have been shy, a home-body who loved animals and the outdoors and hated the idea of going anywhere else.
Although she, Charlotte and Anne are all extremely famous, it is difficult unpick their lives and discover who they were, perhaps except for Charlotte who outlived all her siblings (and was the only one not to die of tuberculosis) and was an avid letter writer. We know Charlotte much better than Anne or Emily because, when we read Charlotte’s letters, they are in Charlotte’s voice. Charlotte speaks directly to us. Emily, on the other hand, barely even kept up with the ‘diary papers’ which were part of an ongoing tradition among the family, written on one sheet of paper and opened every four years to compare and contrast what had happened and what was happening at that time.
We know Emily struggled with intense homesickness and that she hated to be constrained either by clothes (she didn’t wear a corset) or by the expectations placed on her to behave as a 19th century middle class woman. She appears to have been most content in the home; baking, cleaning, reading and writing, and at her very happiest on the moors walking with her dog. She was an animal lover and had a hot temper, she was tall and slim. Other than that it’s all somewhat of a mystery.
What we know is scraped together from the diary papers, Charlotte’s letters and anecdotal evidence. As readers we feel we know her through her poetry and her prose, we think we see slices of her portrayed as wild Cathy or in the verse which so passionately evokes the wild, freedom, and the moors. We know that all three sisters were incredible writers, we know that they did something amazing when, as women, they chose to not rely on their father or brother for their livelihoods. We know they didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into governess or teacher, and longed to be a part of the newspapers and books they had been reading since childhood. To them, it seemed wrong that three bright, articulate women should be wasted in the roles that society had chosen and, having been well educated in everything from Greek and the classics to art and literature, politics and military history by their father Patrick Brontë, they struggled to go out into a world where women were taught only enough to make them capable of teaching children and getting married. They were all extremely bright.
So why isn’t that enough? Why do we, in the 21st century, look back and try to place Emily in a box beneath a label? Why are we so set on defining her in a way that explains her writing and personality?
This says, I think, more about our own society and its need to clarify and identify than it does about Emily’s. It has been suggested by several of Charlotte and Emily’s biographers that she may have had Asperger’s syndrome, a theory which is often based, in part, on Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography in which she stated that Emily had punched her own dog in the face so hard that it had been “half blind and stupefied”, all because it had dirtied the white bed covers that Emily had diligently washed. It’s extraordinary to imagine her doing this, and it must have been a distressing thing to witness. But is this and her homesickness, her quietness and her need to play childish games enough to suggest Asperger’s? Perhaps she just had a temper and wasn’t good at handling her frustrations? Perhaps when she wrote Heathcliff as the brutal protagonist, she was writing a side of herself that had to be repressed in a way that a man’s personality needn’t be? She certainly excelled when writing from the male point of view; there’s even a suggestion that she was gay or bisexual because of this talent.
Who knows? She was an intensely private person, which leaves even less of a personality paper trail to follow.
It’s easy to look at behavioural traits and see them as fitting in to one category or another based on our modern-day knowledge of conditions such as autism, our greater awareness of the spectrum of sexuality, and our need to identify in order to avoid discrimination. Modern society has given us the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and has led to an obsessive analysis of these three great writers. But looking at Emily in context, it strikes me that we are in danger of falling into the trap that these women were trying to escape.
It was assumed that middle class women only had two options when it came to work: governess or teacher. Your talent was irrelevant, as was your level of education. Imagine that. Three highly educated, incredibly talented writers unable to do what they needed to do. And imagine the pressure on Branwell Brontë, the only son, to make something of himself so that he could support his sisters in the event of his father’s death, because that was his role. And what of the frustration of the sisters as they watched Branwell crumble into alcoholism and finally death, leaving them with even more limited options? Nevertheless, the Brontë sisters broke through the barrier. In order to do this, they wrote under pseudonyms to have any sort of chance of their work being read seriously by publishers.
I visited the parsonage in early summer in order to write an article about Emily’s love of nature and how that affected her creativity. I walked around the wonderful Brontë Parsonage Museum and saw Emily’s writing box, her tiny handwriting, her pens and keepsakes. I saw the collar of her beloved dog, Keeper. I looked at the dress she wore and I was entranced because, like any other Brontë fan, I am desperate to get under her skin.
I walked the moors around Haworth and imagined Emily being there. I want to think that her poetry and Wuthering Heights is enough for me, that I don’t need it shaped by the idea of who she was. But there just isn’t enough. I want to inhale the Brontë world that has given me so much as a woman writer, but I recognise that we might be in danger of losing the image of the women as writers and seeing instead the conditions, psychological, physical or otherwise, that caused them to be who they were.
Whether she was autistic or not isn’t the amazing thing, the amazing thing is that these women are the foundations that women writers have built their creative houses on, and that’s enough. They secured incredible accomplishments at a time when women were deemed too sensitive to do anything of the sort. And these three brilliant, isolated, wild and tragic writers managed to kick the door through for us all, with or without a recognised physical or psychological impairment.