The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe—I know that ghosts have wandered on earth.
— from Wuthering Heights
She lived a short life and wrote one really good book. Emily Bronte may have been the most talented writer of the three Bronte sisters. Wuthering Heights was a milestone in Victorian romantic literature, with influence on narrative structure that we benefit from as readers today. The novel’s themes of doomed love, passion and its elements of mystery and social commentary have made it an enduring masterpiece. Unfortunately, when Emily was alive, she didn’t get the credit she was due. Many critics believed the work was undisciplined and lacked effective control of the narrative. The novel’s structure was viewed as thoughtless rather than complex. Other critics, recognizing the power and passion of the work, claimed Emily Bronte could not possibly have written the book. Skeptics of her capabilities credited the pseudonym under which the novel was published, Ellis Bell, to Emily’s brother Branwell. Talk about a being in a no-win situation!
Emily suffered greatly by comparison to her own sisters. Charlotte’s novel, Jane Eyre, was an immediate success. Anne’s novel Agnes Grey, while considered a lesser work, was given favorable attention. Emily’s work came under almost immediate critical attack. Francis King, a critic of the time, wrote, “Unlike Charlotte she is often technically maladroit.” Nonetheless, Francis King acknowledged Wuthering Heights very favorably overall, calling it a work of “extraordinary genius.” It seems the passionate tone of the book was overwhelming to many. Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper reviewed Wuthering Heights on January 15, 1848, stating, “There seems to us to be a great power in this book, but a purposeless power, which we feel a great desire to see turned to better account.” Another review in Atlas the same month called the novel a “strange inartistic story” and claimed the raw power of the novel was never used to the “best advantage.” Why were critics so hard on Emily?
Anne and Charlotte Bronte wrote fictional autobiographies by singular, reliable narrators. Emily employed multiple, unreliable narrators. Emily left more up to the reader to discern and contemplate, in terms of what events actually occurred and their implications. While unreliable narrators and multiple perspectives have since become commonplace in modern literature, there was almost no frame of reference for this writing technique at the time. Except for, perhaps, the Holy Bible, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the nearest comparison and a possible model for Bronte’s layered narrative. Critics scrutinized Emily’s unreliable narrator, and some critics interpreted Wuthering Heights’ convoluted timeline as evidence of lack of narrative control. Charlotte later edited a second edition of Wuthering Heights with commentary aimed at correcting some of the misunderstandings about the novel, however, this did nothing to address the misconceptions about Emily herself.
Emily died of tuberculosis in solitary retreat from critical attack and false accusations, hiding from people who either belittled her work or denied her credit. The misconceptions about her artistic abilities endured for nearly a century after her death. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was a commonly held belief that no woman, especially from a circumscribed, conservative background such as Emily’s, could write with the kind of passion demonstrated in Wuthering Heights.
Times, however, change and in 1896 Clement Shorter wrote that Emily Bronte was the “sphinx of our modern literature.” Even so, a century after Emily died, critics were more likely to discuss Emily’s work as an “inexplicable natural phenomenon,” than “self-consciously fashioned art.” During her lifetime, Emily lived under critical scrutiny that made it impossible to envision a world in which her work would be regarded as the genuis it is now. Emily seemed not to believe in her own abilities, and retreated into solitude, appearing ashamed of her work rather than proud of her accomplishment. Her talent, however, triumphed over her death.
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, ‘Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!’
— The Old Stoic, a poem by Emily Bronte