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Picture of Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights; nineteenth century British Literature / English Literature


 
December 19, 1848
Emily Bronte   (1818 - 1848)
 
Emily Bronte: Same and Singular
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1848 Emily Bronte died at the age of thirty. Of all the death and drama in the Bronte household over the surrounding eight months -- events which now stand as famous and poignant as any in the Bronte novels -- none seems to impress or import more than Emily's. In September, thirty-one-year-old Branwell had died in his exuberant manner, the last stages of his dissolution and tuberculosis expressed in delirium tremens cursing and despair. The following May, twenty-nine-year-old Anne would die in her co-operative, affirmative manner, also of tuberculosis. Squeezed between the two, also tuberculosis but typically as if on her own mysterious terms, came Emily's death.

Charlotte described Emily as having a "powerful and peculiar" character in life, one which inspired "an anguish of wonder and love" in death. She never left the house after Branwell's death, never spoke of her condition or allowed others to, never gave up her work routine even on the last day, never allowed a doctor until literally the eleventh hour -- telling Charlotte just before noon, "If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now," and then dying at two o'clock. This was the same sort of scoff Emily had given fame some months earlier when, as the first waves of admiration and protest were arriving over Wuthering Heights, she refused to accompany her sisters on their historic trip to their London publishers to disclose the true identity of "Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell."

Only the family and servants were in the funeral procession -- and Emily's dog, who had sat in the Bronte pew during the service, and would sit and howl by Emily's door for a week afterwards. Writing about all this in a letter on Christmas Day, Charlotte tried not to hear Emily's constant "deep hollow cough," and to bite her tongue: "So I will not ask why Emily was torn from us in the fullness of our attachment, rooted up in the prime of her own days. . . why her existence now lies like a field of green corn trodden down.... I will only say, sweet is rest after labour and calm after tempest, and repeat again and again that Emily knows that now."

Although Charlotte was no Nelly Dean, that might sound like it. In the middle of Wuthering Heights Nelly looks on in head-shaking wonder as the dying Catherine overwhelms Heathcliff with thwarted passion: "'I wish I could hold you,' she continued, bitterly, 'till we were both dead! I shouldn't care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn't you suffer? I do!'" Perhaps the better parallel is Lockwood at the end, mulling over the row of three headstones in the kirk -- Catherine's, Edgar's, Heathcliff's -- in various states of reclamation by heather and moss:
    I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

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