Emily Brontë (books by this author) was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England, on this day in 1818. She was the daughter of a clergyman, and the sister of Anne and Charlotte Brontë; there was also a brother, Branwell, who was an artist and poet. Emily’s mother died of cancer when Emily was only three, and because their father was a quiet, solitary man who spent much of his time in his room, the children soon learned to entertain themselves. They read Shakespeare, Milton, and Virgil, played the piano, and told each other stories. Charlotte and Branwell created an imaginary land, Angria, so Anne and Emily came up with the country’s rival, Gondal; the four children wrote histories of their imaginary lands and populated them with a rich cast of characters. Emily never outgrew her fascination with Gondal, and continued to think up stories and poems about it until her death. All three Brontë sisters were writers, and they published under male-sounding pseudonyms: Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell. Emily only produced one novel — Wuthering Heights (1847) — and many critics didn’t like it much, finding it too brutal and dark.
Most of what we know about Emily comes from things other people have written about her. She stayed close to home, mostly just talked to her family and the servants, and didn’t leave behind many personal papers: just two short letters, two diary pages from her teenage years, and two “birthday papers,” written when she was 23 and 27. Some historians try to infer things about her life or personality from Wuthering Heights, but of the three Brontë sisters, she drew the least from her own experience to write her novel, so it’s not a reliable source.
In 1845, Charlotte discovered some of Emily’s notebooks filled with poetry, which she had written in secret, and encouraged her to publish her poems. Emily was angry at the invasion of her privacy, and refused, until Charlotte produced the poems that she herself had written, also in secret. As it happened, Anne had been writing poetry too, so the sisters self-published a volume called Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846. Reviews of the day were not good, but since then, Emily’s work has gained in reputation and she’s now considered one of the great English lyric poets. Emily Dickinson thought so highly of her that she requested Brontë’s “No Coward Soul is Mine” be read at her funeral.
Emily’s health suffered in the months after Wuthering Heights was published, and she wore herself out caring for Branwell, who by this time was an alcoholic and drug addict, and was dying of tuberculosis. She caught a cold at his funeral and refused all medical attention. She died three months later.
From “No Coward Soul is Mine,” which Charlotte later said were the last lines Emily ever wrote:
Though Earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.