A reader of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights may find him or herself asking how an introverted young woman of little worldly experience could have come up with such a passionate and psychologically layered story - especially in the face of the various contradictory disclaimers made by her sister, Charlotte, who, after Emily’s death, made excuses in her grief-stricken state to silence what she, Charlotte, perceived as a barrage of criticism that came with the publication of the novel. These disclaimers were unnecessary, however, because “literary critics repeatedly acknowledged its originality, genius and imaginative power – if they also complained about its moral ambiguity” (Murfin, 334).
What some readers may not know is that, while Brontë may have spent most of her life in Haworth, a small town in the Yorkshire moors of northern England, she also studied French in Belgium, was more educated than most of the men with whom her family associated, even had a stint teaching and for a time had plans with Charlotte to open up a school. She could read and write in several languages – including Greek – she wrote poetry and stories from an early age and she had an innate understanding of the most bizarre aspects of human nature.
Along with an obsession she had with her father’s “Irish tales of violence and horror” (Robinson, 18), Brontë witnessed the emotional instability of her brother, and it is likely because of these things that she “cared more for fairy tales, wild, unnatural [and] strange fancies” (Robinson, 27). This is clearly evident in her novel, Wuthering Heights, which centers around several characters, some of whom could be seen as aspects of one of the most important people in her life, her brother, Branwell Brontë. It is “as if the novel, like an illustration of Freud’s ‘Das Unheimlische,’ were about ‘the danger of being haunted by alien versions of the self,’” only instead of herself, they are of her brother (Gilbert, 381). Although possibly as a result of her repressed feelings, Brontë’s “strange fancies” emerged in a creative form – the act of writing.
Aside from her father, the closest man to Emily was her brother. While Charlotte was away at school, Emily and Branwell were the eldest two of the surviving siblings, and they spent most of their days together. Theirs was a yin-yang type of relationship, as “Emily and Branwell…were most to each other: bright, shallow, exacting brother; silent, deep-brooding, unselfish sister, more anxious to give than to receive” (Robinson, 45). When his lover abandoned him for financial security and a good reputation, and he went over the edge and persisted in killing himself with alcohol and laudanum, “it was [Brontë] who, more than the others, became familiarized with the agony, and doubts, and shame of that tormented soul” (Robinson, 126).
Although Brontë acted as her brother’s unselfish guardian angel – consistently dragging him home from the pub after nights of drinking, saving him from dying in the bed he drunkenly set on fire in his sleep (Robinson, 127) and showing him patience when nobody else would – she was, perhaps unwittingly, storing up information to be used for several characters in one of the most studied books in literary history.
Branwell treated his family cruelly during this time, but Emily was forgiving and stood by his side with compassion when nobody else did; “it was she who saw most of her abandoned brother, for Anne could only shudder at his sin, and Charlotte was too indignant for pity” (Robinson, 147). From the very beginning of Wuthering Heights, we can see the idea of forgiveness of one’s brother, as when Lockwood dreams of the “First of the Seventy-First” (Bronte, 41), which is an allusion to “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” in the Bible:
"Then Peter came unto him, and said, Lord how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I shall forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times: but until seventy times seven” (NIV Bible, Matthew 18: 21-35).
If we look closer into Brontë’s life and at her relationship with her brother, we will find that, while Wuthering Heights may come off as morally ambiguous, Emily herself was a courageous and charitable woman who “had a place in her heart for all the wild children of nature, and to despise them for their natural instincts was impossible to her” (Robinson, 147). It was because of this unconditional love Brontë had for Branwell that she was able to create a villain such as Heathcliff, a character too unnaturally cruel for some, but redeemed as a sort of Byronic hero for others.
Heathcliff cares for nothing else other than a woman who left him for money and security. As long as he lives without her he will suffer bitterly, poisoning everyone else around him in the process. Heathcliff is ultimately found redeemable by many readers because of this unconditional love for Catherine, the woman he literally could not live without.
Branwell, too, agonized over the woman he could not have and “Emily did draw upon her experience of her brother's suffering” (Robinson, 161). In a letter that Branwell wrote about his ex-lover, he stated that his “own life without her will be hell. What can the so-called love of her wretched sickly husband be to her compared with [his]” (Robinson, 162)? Bronte reworks this statement deftly for Heathcliff, who says, “…existence, after losing her, would be hell,” and then, speaking of Catherine’s husband, Edgar, Heathcliff goes on, “…if he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years, as I could in a day” (Bronte, 141).
Through further acts of displacement, Emily also creates the character of Hindley Earnshaw, Catherine’s brother, who likewise succumbs to severe alcoholism when he loses the woman he loves and, like Branwell, “died true to his character, drunk as a lord” (Bronte, 169). Heathcliff’s son, Linton, could also be seen as a symbolic substitution who, like Branwell, was a small and sickly fellow who spent much of his time whining and trying to manipulate others with his ailments.
Bronte’s whole life seemed to be devoted to her brother, and when he died she grew “thin and pale and [said] nothing” (Robinson, 222). After Branwell’s funeral, Emily, who thrived in nature and who loved the moors as if they were a cherished friend, “never went out of doors” again (Robinson, 222). All of the passion she witnessed, the emotional wreckage her brother became, the tragedies she lived through – these are the things that fueled Wuthering Heights, “not her inexperience, but rather her experience, limited and perverse, indeed, and specialized by a most singular temperament, yet close and very real” (Robinson, 157).
There is not a whole lot known about Emily Bronte and the solitary life she led on those wild Yorkshire moors. What is available – the countless accessible essays, biographies about Emily and her family and our own close reading of Wuthering Heights with a psychoanalytical perspective – enables us to extrapolate enough information to understand that not only was Emily’s life clearly affected by her brother, but she was also a thoughtful and very interesting human being.
Her sister, Charlotte, claims, in one of her disclaimers about Emily and Wuthering Heights, that she “had no worldly wisdom,” but she also states that inside “lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero” (C. Bronte, 20). These are character traits that gleam like lightning through the personalities of the deplorable and degraded human beings Emily created for Wuthering Heights, a novel so rich and powerful that, in spite of its moral ambiguity, by its very nature it must announce the utterly capable, unconditionally loving and inspired mind of the woman who wrote it.
Brontë, Charlotte. “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.
Brontë, Emily. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M. “Looking Oppositely: Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell.” Wuthering Heights: A Norton Critical Edition: London: W.H. Norton & Company Ltd., 2003. Print.
Murfin, Ross C. “A Critical History of Wuthering Heights.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.
Robinson, A. Mary F. Emily Bronte. London: W.H. Allen and Co., 1883. Print.