Emily Bronte is arguably the most famous of the Bronte sisters; certainly only Charlotte gives her any serious competition. Her fame, like Charlotte’s, rests primarily upon one single work of fiction, her gothic novel Wuthering Heights. But why should that novel serve to elevate Emily to more fame than Charlotte when her sister’s own novel Jane Eyre has retained its popularity alongside Emily’s book? Interestingly, the key to Emily’s ascension to the near-unanimous acclaim as the premier woman of letters in her family may be found in the keen observation made by Charlotte that Emily had in Wuthering Heights created a novel that was both disturbing and fascinating to the reader simultaneously.
This dichotomy in the novel may also be viewed as being part of the reason that Emily Bronte the person—as opposed to the novelist—has come to have such a firm grasp on the consciousness of her readers. If the reader is fascinated by her novel because there is a certain unpleasant element contained within, might there not also be that typical fascination the public has with the tragic artist who dies quickly following the creation of her signature work. Emily Bronte died in 1848, just one year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. Her early death leaves readers with the always unanswered question of what more might she have accomplished? Much in the way that contemporary readers of A Confederacy of Dunces cannot help but wonder what brilliance might have followed this novel by John Kennedy Toole if he had not committed suicide before it was even published, or how fans of James Dean cannot help but watch one of his movies without wondering what he might have done had he not died in a car crash, the readers of Wuthering Heights have had a shadow peering over their shoulder every time the book has ever been cracked open. Just as there is a significant unpleasantness to the character of Heathcliff while there is also an unrelenting interest in him, so is there a natural conflict while reading Emily’s novel between a gripping interest in her story and a subdued, almost melancholy sense of loss.
Because so little about Emily Bronte is known, readers have naturally tried to find something autobiographical in her only novel and that disturbing quality that Charlotte mentioned has led many to extrapolate an equally disturbing interest in Emily. In fact, reading Wuthering Heights for many is perhaps not unlike listening to the music of Joy Division or Nirvana before the lead singers of those bands committed suicide; searching for clues about artists about whom fans may know little else.
But just how much validity is there to such an extrapolation? Can the listeners of the music of songwriters who kill themselves really get a true glimpse into the psychological depths of a suicidal person? Obviously, in the case of Emily Bronte this analogy isn’t perfect; after all, she didn’t kill herself. On the other hand, a novel typically contains more possibility for autobiographical efforts to slip in whether consciously or not due to the nature of the media. Clearly, many academics have looked to textual clues in Wuthering Heights to give some
sort of insight into Emily Bronte herself. Just as clearly, it is human nature to expect that artists reveal themselves through their work. Several critics assert that not just Emily’s masterpiece, but all the novels of the Bronte sisters can be read as subconscious attempts to come to terms with the repression enforced upon the family by an authoritarian father. This reading of the novel also touches, once again, upon that disturbing quality in the novel first expressed by Charlotte Bronte. Indeed, perhaps it was Charlotte’s own repressed feelings toward her father that she found so peculiarly distressing and familiar in her sister’s novel.
An equally possible explanation for why both Emily Bronte and her novel have risen to a higher level of interest among readers than those of her sisters might lie in the fact that both are subjects of stark contrasts. Even accepting that subconscious autobiography naturally slips into every creative work, there is still no denying that nothing in her novel even remotely resembles the facts of Emily’s life. The circumstances surrounding Emily’s life bear no relation to the story she tells, yet clearly there must have been violent emotions at play within her. Equally so, the novel itself ranges unsettlingly between scenes of utter calm and scenes of almost frightening intensity.
Could it be the contrast that draws readers to Emily Bronte? Obviously, her sisters experienced the same outward circumstances as Emily, yet although there an intensity in the character of Rochester in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, for the most part is an even-tempered book. Emily’s novel, on the other hand, is anything but even-tempered. Readers, of course, are often drawn to fiction for the opportunity to safely enter a world that isn’t safe and cozy, and the events that unfold in Wuthering Heights more than satisfy that desire. When combined with the possibility that reading her novel offers a glimpse into the soul of Emily Bronte, there may be little wonder that she is the Bronte sister who most seems to captivate readers throughout history.
And yet there may be one more reason for Emily’s enduring fame that once again harkens back to her sister’s discomfort with her novel. If it can be assumed an element of the autobiographical is at work in the novel, that disturbing element may be located specifically within the character of Heathcliff. Although it is surely pure coincidence that Emily died so quickly upon the publication of her novel, it is also sure that the average life expectancy for women during Emily’s life was atrociously short. In fact, the average life expectancy for a woman in England born at the time Emily Bronte died was just over 43 years. Early death and tragically short lives were the norm. Contrast this fact with Heathcliff’s death in Wuthering Heights which seems less an end than a beginning. There is a definitely disturbing element to the death of Heathcliff which may lead the reader to suspect that it is not meant to be taken as a tragic end to one story, but more as an optimistic beginning to another; to another story Emily chooses not to tell. Again, the contrast is between the characters in the novel and the author herself. If the shadow of what Emily Bronte was not able to accomplish due to her tragic death hangs over the every reader of her novel, then it is also true that the shadow of what happens to Heathcliff and Cathy after death hangs over their tale. The suggestion is certainly that death is not meant to be seen in terms of absolute finality.
And perhaps that is why Emily Bronte continues to haunt the consciousness of readers more so than her sisters. The reason for Emily Bronte’s lasting fame may be that there is a sense that her story did not experience absolute finality with her own death.