No Coward Soul Is Mine

On the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth, a man plays a violin in a field of lavender. The stalks are high enough to brush his severely trimmed beard, and he tilts the instrument upwards to evade the sky-seeking flowers. His face, low beetling brows and prolific sideburns, stares directly at its neck. The body is sycamore, from an age-old tree felled close to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. He thinks it might even have been there during her lifetime. In an artistic sense, he says, the wood he spent three months labouring over has now come back to the moors.

While Steve Burnett has made violins for a number of historical figures, Brontë seems uniquely suited to this treatment. Burnett sees music as an extension of the literary world – and indeed, her literary world is almost all we know for sure of Emily Brontë. Independent and mysterious, our conception of her life has been shaped by the assertions and aspersions of biographers and laypeople alike and has given rise to a number of strongly-held beliefs which remain, despite little to no proof, foremost in many people’s minds.

If one thing about Emily Brontë is certain, it is that she never had it easy.  Educated and impoverished, she was motherless and her parson father absent. Her dream, to start a school with her sister Charlotte, never eventuated. Brontë died of tuberculosis at 30, a year after her only book was published, on the same estate where she’d lived since the age of. As improbable as it seemed, that book would become one of the foremost in the English literary canon, and after Brönte’s death a million and one myths would spring up around her life. What better occasion than the 200th anniversary of her birth to re-examine them?  

Brontë was a weird homebody and a loner

A recent book by academic Claire O’Callaghan argues that while it is clear that Brontë was shy and reserved, this doesn’t make her weird. Charlotte claimed in her preface that Emily rarely spoke to people in her village. However there is evidence that Emily was in fact quite well-known, and records remain of many people visiting her house. While Emily was boarding at Roe Head, Charlotte says she “felt in her heart that [Emily would] die if she did not go home,” but later historians suggest this was hypochondria brought on by the deaths of two members of the family from tuberculosis. And while Charlotte described the position Emily took at Law Hill as “slavery” in letters home, it is clear that Emily had no great love of teaching and this is just as likely to have been the cause of her resignation. Reports from her teachers at Heger’s School remember her as a “darling child” who was both intelligent and loved, and only left upon the death of her aunt. So while Charlotte might have constructed Emily as a weird homebody, this seems to be a way to excuse the unorthodox nature of her writing rather than the truth.

Her approach to writing was not intelligent or disciplined

In Charlotte’s preface to Wuthering Heights, she portrays it as “wrought with a rude chisel” and suggests that Emily was unable to control her artistic gift. In her biographical notice – a prelude to Wuthering Heights written after Emily’s death –  she outright describes her sister as having “no worldly wisdom.” However these statements are widely seen as an attempt to protect Emily’s reputation, which was at risk due to her highly unconventional novel. Additionally, Charlotte regularly left Emily in charge of the whole family’s financial affairs, and her teachers remembered her as very learned, making it very unlikely that any of her sister’s statements were true.

She willed her own death

Charlotte’s biographical notice stated that her sister “did not linger” over her own death and grew mentally stronger even as her flesh perished. This hypothesis was supported by Charlotte’s declaration that the poem No Coward Soul Is Mine – a sort of elegy to one who may never be destroyed as they live on in God – was Emily’s last. However this poem was written much earlier on – before Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, in fact. Additionally, the tuberculosis which has been well-recorded to have claimed Brontë’s life had previously claimed those of several members of her family, and it was well-known that doctors were powerless to stop it. Perhaps Emily simply wished to live out her last few months in peace.

She had a secret lover

Several of Brontë’s biographers have been convinced that she couldn’t possibly have imagined Heathcliff and Catherine’s love story without having had one of her own. However, despite the sordid love stories of several of her siblings being immortalised in letters and lawsuits, none of Charlotte’s letters or the interviews conducted with Brontë’s acquaintances after her death have managed to turn up any evidence of a lover. The assumption that her poems show evidence of a lover are similarly flawed. Most of them have been well-established to relate to fictional characters, rather than Brontë herself. It has been noted that assuming Bronte couldn’t have written these stories without a lover is even somewhat belittling of her creative talent.

Emily Brontë’s life is immortalised in artefacts: a violin, gloves, letters, and perhaps most importantly the book she is most known for. While it is irresistible to delve into the personal life of our most celebrated authors as well as the literary, it is more than valuable to critically consider the myths that spring up. And while Brontë may be long dead, her courageous soul lives on.