Happy Birthday to Emily Brontë, A Very Nasty Woman

(On Losing the Sequel to Wuthering Heights)

This month marks the 200th birthday of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights. Brontëphiles can be sorted into Team Charlotte and Team Emily. Those on Team Emily champion one of the nastiest novels in the English language. But even people who haven’t read Wuthering Heights are familiar with its main characters Catherine and Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s name has come to evoke a smoldering, love-obsessed romantic hero. Attentive readers know he’s a toxic cesspool of bad feeling who hangs a dog from a bridle hook, hurls a knife at his wife, and desecrates Catherine’s coffin. Wuthering Heights is also famous for its singularity. Unlike her voluble sister Charlotte, who cranked out four novels, Emily wrote a single masterwork which English teachers would forever after assign to balky students. Or at least that’s the way we think of Emily Brontë—as belonging among the ranks of one-book novelists. However, tantalizing evidence suggests that she almost certainly wrote a second novel that someone denied to posterity.

“I shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel,” Brontë’s publisher Thomas Newby wrote. He warned her against hurrying it to completion, saying, “If it be an improvement on your first you will have established yourself as a first rate novelist.” Newby wrote these words in February 1848, ten months before Emily Brontë’s death. His letter still survives. The loss of Brontë’s second novel—in whatever form it existed—likely resulted from someone’s deliberate decision to destroy it.

Here all eyes turn to Charlotte, the last surviving Brontë sibling. Charlotte joins the ranks of family members who have earned the gratitude as well as the wrath of literary historians. Works of art often survive or perish at the whim of reluctant estate managers. Some of us will be called on to determine the fate of Uncle Stan’s duck paintings. We’ll be forced to decide whether Grandma Rose was a mute inglorious Milton or a bland memoirist who put Bic to kitchen pad.

Let us all praise Thelma Toole, who rescued the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces from an armoire in her dead son’s bedroom. Let us all scorn Ted Hughes, who destroyed the last volume of Sylvia Plath’s diary. Let us forget to mention Nabokov’s son who, after long dithering, published his dead father’s index cards.

We know that Charlotte Brontë had misgivings about Wuthering Heights. “Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is,” she wrote in an 1850 preface to her sister’s novel. She frankly acknowledged the malevolence of Emily’s protagonist. “Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition.” And yet she recognized a cultural need for her sister’s grim novel. “In its storm-heated and electrical atmosphere,” she wrote, “we seem at times to breathe lightning.”

Emily Brontë’s siblings shaped her posthumous legacy to an unusual extent. As part of the year-long 200th birthday celebration, the Brontë Parsonage Museum has welcomed home Branwell Brontë’s painting of his sisters: a family portrait in which Emily gazes stonily into the middle distance.

The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë)
by Patrick Branwell Brontë
oil on canvas, circa 1834
NPG 1725
© National Portrait Gallery, London

As one of few surviving Brontë images, the portrait is reproduced in nearly every book on the Brontës, and it has traveled as far as Japan. What Elizabeth Gaskell called a “rough, common-looking oil painting,” depicting Emily as a girl of sixteen with “cropped hair, and sad dreamy-looking eye,” has become indelibly associated with the author of Wuthering Heights.

We owe the second wife of Charlotte Brontë’s husband our thanks for saving Branwell’s portrait. She discovered the painting, folded in four like a washcloth, on top of a wardrobe. Arthur Bell Nicholls had meant to destroy it, perhaps in keeping with his first wife’s wishes. Charlotte once claimed, untruthfully, to possess no portrait of her dead sisters.

But in other ways, Emily was nudged before the public by the more aspirational Charlotte, who, recognizing the “wild, melancholy, and elevating” quality of her sister’s poems, ushered them into print. Emily persevered in the writing of Wuthering Heights even as the poetry collection languished in the literary marketplace. Four months after her novel was published in England, it was wrongly identified in the first American edition as having been written by the author of Jane Eyre. Seven months later, Emily Brontë was dead.

What little we know of Emily Brontë’s short life suggests that she valued and exercised her privacy, perhaps to degrees inconsistent with marketplace success and fandom development. She was out of step with powerful cultural forces in her day; she seems especially so in our own moment when a first-time novelist is exhorted to ramp up her social media presence.

Emily Brontë is the Harper Lee of British literature, but probably thanks to Charlotte, it’s unlikely anyone will discover an early draft of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff turns out to be a really nice guy. As Brontë fans celebrate Emily’s birthday by composing song cycles, short stories, and films inspired by her work, Wuthering Heights stands alone, in Charlotte’s words, “colossal, dark, and frowning.”

Judith Pascoe’s most recent book is On the Bullet Train with Emily Brontë: “Wuthering Heights in Japan” (2017). The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is also the author of The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice, which received the 2012 Barnard Hewitt Award from the American Society for Theatre Research. Pascoe is the George Mills Harper Professor of English at Florida State University. She can be found on Twitter as @JudithMPascoe.



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