In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emily Brontë

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Sources and Manuscripts
  • Editions of the Poetry
  • Editions of Wuthering Heights
  • Poetry Criticism
  • Wuthering Heights Readers’ Guides
  • Afterlives
  • Education
  • Religion

Victorian Literature Emily Brontë
Elisabeth Jay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0009


The reputation of Emily Jane Brontë (b. 1818–d. 1848) rests on one published novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), and some two hundred extant poems and fragments, produced between 1836 and 1848. In 1846 she contributed twenty-one poems to a volume, produced jointly with her sisters, Charlotte and Anne. Poems (1846) by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, as the sisters styled themselves, sold only two copies. It is difficult to tell how many of her poems are autobiographical in origin and how many originally belonged to prose narratives, composed by Emily and her younger sister, Anne, successively recounting the chronicles of two imaginary kingdoms, Parrysland and Gondal. Wuthering Heights, initially greeted as an eccentric and amoral study of uncouth characters inhabiting an uncivilized setting, has subsequently been recognized as one of the most original novels of the 19th century. Emily’s extreme reserve and the destruction of almost all her private papers mean that a few incontrovertible facts, woven together with interpretations of her extant output have been molded into highly mediated accounts by biographers and critics alike from the very first. Modern criticism’s predilection for the ambiguous and the unresolved has found the absence of any indication of authorial intention an additional attraction. If this makes Emily Brontë’s work appear passively enigmatic, a kind of Aeolian harp from which every passing theoretical tendency can extract its own tune, it is as well to remember the strong impact that her novel in particular has made on the wider culture and the creative responses it has generated by way of “afterlives.”

General Overviews

Emily Brontë left startlingly little evidence, outside her work, of her intellectual opinions, spiritual beliefs or emotional preferences, and her short life yielded little more than a brief curriculum vitae and a clutch of anecdotes. The paucity of evidence has served to make her particularly attractive to novelists as a subject for treatment. This tradition started with the account of her sister Charlotte (Brontë 1976), and was continued in Gaskell 1997, which constructed a portrait of Emily as a foil for delineating Charlotte’s character. Spark and Stanford 1953 is also more character sketch than biography. Barker 1994 is likely to remain the most comprehensively researched account, although readers wanting a stronger focus on Emily will find Gérin 1971 useful. Chitham 1987 and Frank 1990 agree in finding Emily’s behavior in her final years eccentric, although Chitham attributes this to early psychological trauma and Frank to the grip of anorexia. Ingham 2006 provides an accessible guide to aspects of the Brontës’ lives and work that have most interested modern readers.

  • Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994.

    Monumental work using unpublished archives and contextual material. Constructs a self-absorbed Emily, indifferent to her siblings’ sufferings, and psychologically dependent on her fantasy life.

  • Brontë, Charlotte. “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” In Wuthering Heights. Edited by Hilda Marsden and Ian Jack, 435–441. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

    Written to counteract the rumor that Currer, Ellis, and Acton were in reality one author. In describing Emily as “stronger than a man, simpler than a child,” Charlotte set her apart from contemporary norms of female behavior, while the adjectives “unsophisticated” and “unworldly” suggested the educational innocence of a primitive.

  • Chitham, Edward. A Life of Emily Brontë. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

    Locates the source of Emily’s increasingly singular behavior in guilt derived from her childhood exposure to family deaths. Wuthering Heights revisits intense feelings of childhood and adolescence.

  • Frank, Katherine. Emily Brontë: A Chainless Soul. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990.

    Talks of “awesome autonomy of her existence.” Believing Emily Brontë “almost certainly” suffered from anorexia, considers the impact on her life and writing.

  • Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Edited by Elisabeth Jay. London: Penguin, 1997.

    Introductory essay suggests that Emily, presented as unsocialized and unrestrained in her passions, is made the scapegoat for these tendencies in her sister Charlotte.

  • Gérin, Winifred. Emily Brontë: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

    Gérin, an experienced Brontë biographer, for a time enjoyed unrivaled access to much source material. Emphasizes Emily’s gradual development into the adult woman and visionary of the last three years.

  • Ingham, Patricia. The Brontës. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Comprehensive account of the Brontë sisters’ lives; literary and social context; treatment of gender; nationality and race; religion; social class; the psyche; and the afterlife of their work. Reviews contemporary Brontë scholarship.

  • Spark, Muriel, and Stanford, Derek. Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work. London: P. Owen, 1953.

    Spark claims Emily’s concept of love was that of a celibate mystical union not afforded by her own solitary life. Suggests Emily may have been mentally unbalanced toward the end of her life, so that she was unlikely, had she lived longer, to have produced more. Critical analysis by Stanford.

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