Emily Brontë’s Boring Birthday


Arts & Culture


Emily’s portrait by her brother, Branwell.

It’s Emily Brontë’s birthday, and wouldn’t you know it—of her famously scarce surviving documents, several are letters written on and about the anniversary of her birth. Imagine! Rare glimpses into the thoughts of the most inscrutable Brontë sister! As Robert Morss Lovett wrote in The New Republic in 1928, Emily “was the household drudge … the ways by which her spirit grew into greatness and by what experience it was nourished, remain a mystery.”

And her biography at the Poetry Foundation deepens the mystique:

She is alternately the isolated artist striding the Yorkshire moors, the painfully shy girl-woman unable to leave the confines of her home, the heterodox creator capable of conceiving the amoral Heathcliff, the brusque intellect unwilling to deal with normal society, and the ethereal soul too fragile to confront the temporal world.

Let us turn, then, with not undue trepidation, to the letters themselves, precious reflections from one of English fiction’s brightest luminaries. A note from July 30, 1845, begins:

My birthday–showery–breezy–cool–I am twenty seven years old today–this morning Anne and I opened the papers we wrote 4 years since on my twenty third birthday–this paper we intend, if all be well, to open on my 30th three years hence in 1848–since the 1841 paper, the following events have taken place

Our school-scheme has been abandoned and instead Charlotte and I went to Brussels on the 8th of Febrary 1842 Branwell left his place at Luddenden Foot C and I returned from Brussels November 8th 1842 in consequence of Aunt’s death–Branwell went to Thorp Green as a tutor where Anne still continued–January 1843 Charlotte returned to Brussels the same month and after staying a year came back again on new years day 1844 Anne left her situation at Thorp Green of her own accord–June 1845 Branwell left–July 1845 …

Oh. Hmm.

Well, she probably just needed a little time to clear her throat … Maybe if we just skip ahead a little bit …

Tabby who was gone in our last paper is come back and has lived with us–two years and a half and is in good health–Martha who also departed is here too. We have got Flossey, got and lost Tiger–lost the Hawk. Hero which with the geese was given away and is doubtless dead for when I came back from Brussels I enquired on all hands and could hear nothing of him–Tiger died early last year–Keeper and Flossey are well also the canary acquired 4 years since

We are now all at home and likely to be there some time–Branwell went to Liverpool on ‘Tuesday’ to stay a week. Tabby has just been teasing me to turn as formerly to-‘pilloputate’. Anne and I should have picked the black currants if it had been fine and sunshiny. I must hurry off now to my taming and ironing I have plenty of work on hands and writing and am altogether full of buisness with best wishes for the whole House till 1848 July 3oth and as much longer as may be I conclude

I’m afraid it’s true. Emily Brontë’s birthday letters are totally dull. See for yourself.

Arguably their blandness strengthens—or complicates, at least—the aura surrounding her work. How did such a prosaic diarist produce Wuthering Heights not even two years later? The letters seem to support the popular notion that Emily was some kind of savant, an uneducated, frivolous young woman who wrote, as a fluke, one incredible book. But, as the Poetry Foundation notes, she was also the author of twenty-one poems, all significantly more mature than the birthday letters, and she was working toward a translation of the Aeneid, fragments of which have survived.

None of it adds up to a cohesive portrait. And as trifling as it is, that 1845 letter is shot through with dramatic irony; Emily writes that she and her sister intend, “if all be well,” to revisit the letter “on my 30th three years hence in 1848.” All was not well. That thirtieth birthday was her last—she died of tuberculosis in December 1848. Two years later, her sister, Charlotte—her first “mythographer,” as Lucasta Miller puts it—wrote in the introduction to Wuthering Heights,

My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she know them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but WITH them, she rarely exchanged a word.