"Wuthering Heights is a strange sort of book — baffling all regular criticism; yet, it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it." This review, from Douglas Jerrold's Weekly Newspaper, was one of the first receptions to Emily Brontë's novel, and concluded with the line, "we must leave it to our readers to decide what sort of a book it is." The conclusion in this review, which is the extent of praise the novel received on its publication, pertains not only to the novel Wuthering Heights but to Emily Brontë herself; it is up to readers to determine what type of writer Brontë was: Besides Wuthering Heights, only a few poems of hers exist and precious little of her personal history exists to complement those writings. Thus, in order to ascertain what type of writer Brontë was, critics must speculate based on a limited family history, some poems, and one excellent novel.
Brontë was one of six children born to Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. Born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England, on July 30, 1818, she was the sister of Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Anne, and Branwell. Her family moved to Haworth when she was two years old, and here she first experienced the moors, a part of the Pennine Chain of mountains, andhere she lived until she died 30 years later.
A variety of conflicting influences shaped her life. Her father, of Irish descent, was known for his poetry and imagination even though he was the cleric. Her mother, a staunch Methodist, died when Emily was only three years old, so what she knew of her she learned from her siblings and her Aunt Elizabeth (Maria's sister), who raised the children after Maria's death. Elizabeth brought a religious fervor to the house that Brontë soon rejected.
Brontë's environment shaped her life and her work. The village of Haworth was isolated and surrounded by moors; thus, the one world she knew and lived in became the setting for her only novel. Paralleling her own life, she creates motherless characters in Wuthering Heights.
Writing was a means of amusement for the Brontë children. After the two oldest sisters died, the remaining siblings began writing plays and poems, creating a world called Angria and Gondal. These worlds became little books and the sources for later poetry and prose. Emily Brontë went to school, but she was unable to stay there. Possessing a reclusive nature, she had longings and desires for her home on the moors, which prompted her return home after a scant three months.
In the following year, 1837, she attempted to teach school. This endeavor lasted eight months, but she could not handle the stress and again returned home. In 1842 she went with Charlotte to Brussels to study foreign languages and school management in order to open a school in Haworth. Brontë had success there. One of her professors stated that she "had a head for logic and a capability for argument, unusual in a man, and rare indeed in a woman," but she returned to Haworth when her aunt died in 1843. Living with her father at the parsonage in Haworth, this became a period of creativity. Although the earliest dated poem is from 1836, the majority of her poetry that survives was written during this time.
Like most authors, Emily Brontë was a product of her environment, and this directly influenced her writing. During her life she had no close friends, was interested in mysticism, and enjoyed her solitude outdoors. All of these elements grace both her poems and Wuthering Heights. In fact, many contemporary critics praise Emily Brontë first and foremost as a poet, marveling at the poetic nature of Wuthering Heights.
In 1845 Charlotte found some of the poetry that Emily had been writing and eventually persuaded her sister to attempt to publish her work. Charlotte and Emily, along with their sister Anne, eventually published a collection of poems under the male names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Each pseudonym begins with the same consonant as the writer's name. The sisters paid to have the collection published, and even though it only sold two copies, they were undaunted and continued to write. This time each sister wrote a novel.
Evidence suggests that Emily Brontë began writing Wuthering Heights in December 1845 and completed it the next year. A year after that, in July of 1847, Wuthering Heights was accepted for publication; however, it was not printed until December, following the success of Jane Eyre.
Although Wuthering Heights did not meet with the critical success Jane Eyre received, contemporary critics tend to consider Emily the best writer of the Brontë sisters. Emily Brontë's highly imaginative novel of passion and hate was too savage and animal-like and clumsy in its own day and time, but contemporary audiences consider it mild.
The fall following publication, Emily Brontë left home to attend her brother's funeral. She caught a severe cold that spread to her lungs, and she died of tuberculosis on December 19, 1848.
Following the publication of poems, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Anne's novel Agnes Grey, audiences considered all three "Bells" to be one author. Confusion continued as Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Wuthering Heights was reissued with poems and a biographical notice by Charlotte. By this time, both Emily and Anne had died, and Charlotte succinctly stated how and why she and her sisters assumed the name of Bell. Charlotte Brontë also provided insight into the life of her sister.
Long after its initial publication and subsequent death of its author, Wuthering Heights has become one of the classics of English literature. After the reissue of Emily Brontë's text, the editors of the Examiner commented upon Charlotte's introduction. Their words and sentiments are often echoed by admirers of Wuthering Heights: "We have only most unfeignedly to deplore the blight which fell prematurely on sure rich intellectual promise, and to regret that natures so rare and noble should so early have passed away."