Adulthood and publication

1832-42: at home and away

Roe Head School plaqueAfter Charlotte’s return from Roe Head School aged sixteen, she taught her sisters what she had learned there, re-joining them and Branwell in the development of the Angria and Gondal writing. Rev. Brontë had recovered his health and the children were happily occupied. The sisters concentrated on their writing, while Branwell began to reveal a genuine talent for painting and drawing and learned to paint in oils. 

Earning a living

By 1835, Charlotte, Branwell and Emily began to think about earning their living. In that year, Charlotte returned to Roe Hill as a teacher, accompanied by Emily (now aged 17) as a pupil. But Emily found it hard to be away from Haworth and became so ill that Charlotte thought she would die unless she returned home. She was replaced by Anne, who was a very successful student at the school. Branwell was hoping to become a student at the Royal Academy in London but never managed to get there, diverted by his increasing dependence on alcohol. 

Career opportunities

The next few years saw the four siblings away from home for longer or shorter periods:

  • Emily had a very short career as a governess, again finding it very difficult to be distant from Haworth; she was always the most reserved of the sisters, seldom sharing her inner thoughts even with them
  • Branwell tried to establish himself as a portrait painter
  • Anne and Charlotte began their careers as governesses. Eventually, Anne found a post in which she remained for five years
  • Branwell also became a tutor in a family, but was dismissed under a cloud and then worked as a railway clerk, a post from which he was eventually dismissed for negligence.

1842-44: Brussels

By 1841, Charlotte was planning to set up a school with her sisters, and it was decided that Charlotte and Emily should improve their French. They went to work at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, but their stay there was interrupted by the death of Aunt Branwell. When Charlotte returned to Brussels in 1843, Emily remained in Haworth. She seems to have found being a ‘Victorian lady’ difficult. She never appears to have made close friends outside the family.

Charlotte returned to Haworth in 1844. However, although the sisters issued a prospectus for their school, no pupils were recruited and the plan was abandoned.

1845-48: Literary success

  • After Charlotte’s return to Haworth, the sisters began to write with a serious view to publication
  • Branwell, meanwhile, was struggling to hold down a job and sinking into a deep dependence on drugs and alcohol. He was often depressed and suicidal, and for some time he slept in his father’s room for fear of what he might do
  • In 1845, Charlotte, by chance, discovered the manuscript of Emily’s poetry and began to persuade her sister to publish them
  • Anne revealed that she, too, had written poetry
  • They eventually decided to publish a joint volume: Poems by Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell was published in 1846.

Meanwhile, all three sisters were writing novels:

  • Charlotte began work on Jane Eyre while nursing her father in Manchester following a cataract operation in 1846
  • Before the end of 1846, Thomas Newby had agreed to publish Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Wuthering Heights
  • The publishers Smith, Elder rejected Charlotte’s first submission, The Professor, but accepted Jane Eyre
  • Jane Eyre appeared in October 1847 and Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights about two months later
  • Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall followed in June 1848. 

The mystery of authorship

There was a great deal of speculation as to the identities of the authors of these new novels. It was suggested that there was only one author responsible for all the poetry and fiction published by the Bells. To put an end to such speculation, Charlotte and Anne travelled to London and made themselves known to George Smith, Charlotte’s publisher.

1848-61: The end of the family

No sooner had the sisters made their dramatic entry into the London literary world than there began a terrible period in the life of the family:

  • Branwell, made seriously ill by his addictions, died in September 1848
  • His death was quickly followed by that of Emily, aged only 30, from tuberculosis, in November 1848; she had spent a total of only about two years away from Yorkshire over her life
  • Anne also died of tuberculosis in May 1849
  • Charlotte now found herself alone with her father, the only survivor of what had promised to be a remarkable literary family. She married Rev Arthur Nicholls, but she caught a chill and her health quickly declined until she died in March 1855. She was in her thirty-ninth year. Her final novel (although the first written), The Professor, was published in 1857.
  • Attended by the Rev. Nicholls, Patrick Brontë stayed on at Haworth Parsonage, having suffered the death of his wife and all six of his children. He died in 1861 at the age of 84.

How are the circumstances of Emily’s life reflected in Wuthering Heights?

Like most great novelists, Emily Brontë wrote about what she knew and understood. We should therefore expect to find links between her life and her writing. However, we must not confuse the two or read Wuthering Heights as a kind of autobiography.

The following links might be made.

  • The main setting of the novel is the moors, which Emily knew well and loved; even Gimmerton is portrayed as ‘outside’ the world of Wuthering Heights
  • Emily did not have a smooth experience of schooling and received much of her education at home; in the novel, learning is seen as important but is not always a comfortable experience
  • Emily had a strict religious upbringing (echoed in Joseph) which she rebelled against as we see in many attitudes displayed in the novel, particularly by Catherine
  • Early death, as for many in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was an ever-present part of life
  • It is possible to connect some of the characters with family members; for example, is Branwell’s wildness seen in Heathcliff, or his decline in Hindley?
  • In particular, the men in Emily’s life (her father and brother) were extreme in nature, and the male characters in the novel tend to be so, too; the female characters arguably have more subtlety.