In December 1847, Emily Brontë’s only published novel, Wuthering Heights, hurtled onto England’s literary scene, shocking the public and critics alike with its graphic depictions of violence and psychological abuse.
A reviewer from Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper proclaimed, “The reader is … disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance.” Another critic wrote, “There is not in the entire dramatis persona a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible.”
One word in particular dominated these critiques: “coarse.” Still, beneath this vitriol, a grudging admiration for the novel’s sheer power was apparent. As the Douglas Jerrold’s reviewer noted, “It is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it.”
More than 175 years after its publication, Wuthering Heights is a beloved literary classic. Yet the woman behind the book remains elusive, the details of her short life (she died in 1848 at age 30) shrouded in inscrutability.
Emily, a new film from actress and director Frances O’Connor, attempts to unravel some of these mysteries by exploring the events that inspired its titular character to write Wuthering Heights. A reclusive young woman, the fictionalized Emily (played by Emma Mackey of “Sex Education”) struggles to find her footing both within and beyond her family. While her sisters, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething), accept teaching positions outside of the home, Emily and their brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), are left behind. Soon, Emily begins taking French lessons from her father’s assistant curate, the serious-minded William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). The pair’s secret romance blossoms into an encounter both thrilling and tragic.
Is Emily based on a true story?
Arriving in theaters in the United States on Friday, February 17, Emily merges the drama of Wuthering Heights with shades of biographical truth. As IndieWire critic David Ehrlich writes, “Invented splashes of rebellion and romance only add to the ecstatic truth that Emily brings to its windswept tale of a stultified woman survived by her inner strength.”
O’Connor, who wrote and directed the film, read Wuthering Heights when she was 15 and instantly fell in love with it. Drawn to the rebellious nature of the characters, she appreciated that Emily herself was “a quiet rebel in a lot of ways.” While acknowledging that the movie’s blend of fact and fiction may seem “deliberately provocative” (the relationship with Weightman is particularly ahistorical), O’Connor says she hopes her protagonist’s indomitable spirit resonates with viewers.
“I’m letting her have moments that are very truthfully biographical and moments that are kind of heightened and from my imagination, from my research,” O’Connor adds. “I love that, and I think Emily would love that, because it’s an active creative process, and that’s something she really believed in. You can feel that when you read her book. … She creates this gorgeous, Gothic, dark world, where people are violent and angry and in love and have deep emotions, and that’s very alive. And I wanted to have that same feeling in the film for the audience.”
Born in 1818, Emily was the daughter of Irish clergyman Patrick Brontë and his English wife, Maria Branwell. The fifth of six children, she spent her childhood in Haworth, a village where Patrick served as the resident parish priest.
Emily’s youth was marked by a series of tragedies. When she was 3, her mother died of cancer. A few years later, her two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis, an illness likely linked to the harsh, unsanitary living conditions they experienced at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. Emily and her older sister Charlotte, who later based the Lowood School in Jane Eyre on Cowan Bridge, left the boarding school after Maria’s death in May 1825 and returned to Haworth, where they spent much of their time in the company of their surviving siblings, Branwell and Anne.
Lucasta Miller, author of The Brontë Myth, says the Brontë children grew up isolated in part because of Haworth’s impoverished status. “There weren’t many other families of the Brontës’ social position with whom they could socialize,” she explains.
To combat the bleakness of their early childhood, the four siblings encouraged each other’s creative ventures, crafting stories, poems and art. Charlotte and Branwell invented a mystical realm called Angria, while Emily and Anne wrote intricate tales about an imaginary land known as Gondal.
During this time, the Brontës were deeply influenced by Romanticism and its celebrated writers, including Walter Scott, Percy Shelley and William Wordsworth. Deborah Morse, a literary scholar at the College of William and Mary and a co-editor of A Companion to the Brontës, says, “They loved the poets, both that literary movement and the impulse of that movement toward freedom, liberation [and] non-hierarchical thinking.”
A battle of wills
In the film, a prickly tension exists between Emily and Charlotte, who urges her younger sister to embrace proper feminine behavior. Unwilling to do so, Emily dashes across Haworth with loose hair and immerses herself in the fantastical realm of Gondal. Later, Charlotte chastises Emily for continuing to engage in childish fantasies, telling her not to “speak like that.” She also pushes Emily to become a teacher rather than remain idle at home. Here, two archetypes emerge: Charlotte is the prim, practical older sibling, trying to corral Emily into ladylike behavior. Emily is the wild one, frustrated by her sister’s unsolicited counseling and mundane daily routine.
The pair’s real-life relationship was a nuanced, complex sisterhood. While both Emily and Charlotte studied in Brussels in 1842, it was Charlotte who consistently sought experiences beyond Haworth, working as a teacher at Roe Head and later traveling as a governess. Emily, comparatively, struggled with anxiety and illness, seeking respite in the familiar confines of her small town.
While Charlotte left Angria behind to make way for a version of herself that better fit her reality, Emily never stopped believing in Gondal. During her brief tenure as a student at Roe Head in 1835, Emily became so homesick that she had to return to Haworth.
“Charlotte excuses this by saying that she misses the moors,” says Juliet Barker, author of The Brontës. “It’s quite obvious when you look at what’s left of Emily’s writings, it wasn’t the moors she missed. It was her Gondal and the imaginary world she’d created.”
Emily remained tethered to Gondal into adulthood. The boundaries between her daily life and her imagination were seemingly porous. As Barker notes, one of Emily’s surviving diary entries (many of which she wrote with Anne) lists the everyday events unfolding around her, mentioning that the family’s housemaid is in the kitchen before bluntly stating, “The Gondals are invading.”
“She swaps from one very commonplace thing that’s happening within the household to her imaginary world that she had created with Anne,” says Barker. “And for her, throughout her life, her imaginary world was as real to her as what was going on around her. And it had a more powerful hold over her and her imagination than anything else that she ever encountered.”
The Bell brothers
In October 1842, the Brontës’ surrogate mother, their maternal aunt Elizabeth Branwell, died unexpectedly. Charlotte and Emily, who had been studying abroad in Brussels, returned home for the funeral. But while Charlotte resumed her studies in the new year, Emily remained at Haworth, taking over as manager of the household.
While the film implies that Emily resented the drudgery of housework, the real-life author enjoyed performing domestic chores.
“Being at home, being the housekeeper, having her hands busy, cooking, cleaning, doing whatever, her brain was free,” says Barker. “And she was free to explore and think and do what she wanted and to create and live with these imaginary characters who dominated her life since childhood. And that, to me, is the key to Emily’s character.”
Back in familiar surroundings, Emily—who reached “the peak of her poetic powers” in 1844 and 1845, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—started writing “hauntingly elegiac lyrics in a spare, natural style.” When Charlotte came across a book of Emily’s poems in 1845, she was struck by their rich language and intellect. Emily, however, was enraged that her sister had read her work without her permission; it was only after much discussion and disagreement that she agreed to publish a volume of poetry with Charlotte and Anne.
The sisters released their poetry collection in 1846, using the androgynous pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. According to Miller, the book was a total “commercial failure.” Still, the act of publication inflamed the sisters’ ambitions. A year later, Charlotte published Jane Eyre. Two months after its release, Anne published Agnes Grey, and Emily put out Wuthering Heights.
Emily depicts the author proudly holding a copy of Wuthering Heights, with her full name printed on its cover. In truth, Emily released her novel under the same pseudonym she used for her poems, and she fiercely objected to any attempts to identify her as its author.
Of the sisters’ three novels, Jane Eyre was the most popular and well received. But Charlotte’s book was not without controversy. It, too, garnered reproach for its supposed “coarseness.”
As Miller writes in The Brontë Myth, “The ‘coarseness’ to which so many critics objected was a catch-all moralistic term which encompassed a range of elements considered unfeminine and indecorous.” Much of this critical disparagement rested on reviewers’ distaste that both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre openly portrayed romantic desire and violence—topics considered unsuitable for modest, high-class women. The vivid nature of the Brontës’ prose, as well as their use of pseudonyms, led some contemporary critics to conclude their books could only have been written by men.
By 1848, speculation over the Bell brothers’ true identities was rampant, with one persistent rumor alleging that Currer, Ellis and Acton were all the same person. That July, Charlotte and Anne traveled to London to refute the charge (Emily stayed at home), identifying themselves to Charlotte’s publisher, George Smith, for the first time.
Shortly after the sisters’ London visit, tragedy struck the Brontë family once again. Branwell died on September 24, 1848, at age 31, likely of tuberculosis exacerbated by opium addiction and alcoholism. Emily caught a cold at his funeral but refused to seek medical treatment, even as her illness deteriorated into tuberculosis. She died on December 19, just five months before her younger sister, Anne, succumbed to the same disease at age 29.
In 1849, Charlotte, the only surviving Brontë sibling, wrote a letter describing her grief: “I could hardly let Emily go—I wanted to hold her back then—and I want her back hourly now. … Papa has now me only—the weakest—puniest—least promising of his six children—consumption has taken the whole five.”
Charlotte takes charge
In her writing, Charlotte challenged societal expectations of womanhood, creating a protagonist who spoke plainly about autonomy and self-respect. In public, however, she quietly tried to mold herself into an approved image of class and femininity. She wanted the artistic validation and respect of her chosen profession, but she shrank from readers’ attempts to classify her as a fiery, rebellious woman author. Deeply affected by the criticism aimed at Jane Eyre, Charlotte sought to establish a dignified persona that undermined lingering gossip of the Brontës’ incivility.
Determined to rehabilitate her sisters’ posthumous reputations, Charlotte published a “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” in 1850. In this statement, she reworked the duo’s image, emphasizing that both Emily and Anne were innocent, naive women who had been raised in an isolated region.
“Neither Emily nor Anne was learned,” wrote Charlotte. “They had no thought of filling their pitchers at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass.”
This was far from an accurate representation of the Brontës’ upbringing. Well-versed in and passionate about literature, particularly Romantic poetry and novels, Emily and Anne grew up in a household that nurtured their intellectual curiosity.
“Many scholars think that Charlotte was trying to protect her sisters. And that’s what I believe,” says Morse. “I mean, she was in mourning. She’d been traumatized repeatedly. She was trying to protect her sisters, but in protecting them, she kind of sanitized their work.” As part of this publicity campaign, Charlotte suppressed the reprinting of Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and possibly destroyed the manuscript of Emily’s second novel, which was mentioned in a letter from her publisher but has never been found.
Over time, readers became fascinated by the legacy—and mystery—of the Brontës. Charlotte’s insistence that Emily was an inexperienced young woman who rarely left Haworth led observers to question how she could have written such a forceful, turbulent tale. As the years passed, every new narrative that cropped up about the sisters harbored a competing agenda.
Adding to the confusion was Charlotte’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell, an author in her own right. Soon after Charlotte’s death in 1855 at age 38, Gaskell sought to defend her companion from what she considered slanderous claims of impropriety. She threw herself into writing Charlotte’s biography, cobbling together half-truths, real-life incidents and pure fiction. While Morse “loves” Gaskell and teaches some of her books in her class, she also says that Gaskell “relied on negligent and unreliable sources.”
Repeatedly, Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë underscored the hardships of the sisters’ youth. She described Haworth as a cold, unrelenting wasteland that left the young girls isolated and unworldly. She also highlighted the sins of the Brontë men, spotlighting Branwell’s affair with a married woman (true) and Patrick’s callous, domineering behavior (not true) to chart how the women of the family were unfairly influenced by their grim household. In the end, Gaskell positioned Charlotte—and, by extension, her sisters—as proper ladies dedicated to domesticity and grace above all else.
Who was Emily Brontë?
While Charlotte left behind diaries, letters and juvenilia, the majority of Emily’s writings no longer survive. “If you think of Charlotte, the hundreds, literally hundreds, of letters that she wrote, they give you a real insight into her mind and her way of thinking and what she was doing,” says Barker. “With Emily, you simply don’t have any of that.”
In attempting to draw parallels between key moments in Wuthering Heights and its author’s life, Emily perpetuates myths that have followed the Brontës for the better part of the past two centuries. Notably, two relationships serve as the film’s centerpiece: Emily’s devoted friendship with her brother, Branwell, and a fictional romance between Emily and Weightman. While some critics have interpreted the shy author and the brooding assistant curate as stand-ins for Cathy and Heathcliff, the ill-fated lovers of Wuthering Heights, O’Connor approached the narrative from a different angle: Her Branwell and Emily allude to the novel’s central characters, while Weightman represents Cathy’s future husband, Edgar.
Cathy’s quest to achieve independence from Heathcliff mirrors Emily’s dynamic with her brother. “[She wanted] to be released from him so she [could] individuate and become her true self,” O’Connor says, “and that’s in the book, too.” Like Gaskell and many others, the director links Branwell’s allegedly chaotic persona to the eventual construction of Emily’s magnum opus.
Simultaneously, the film similarly leans into the idea that an all-encompassing, doomed love intensely colored Emily’s creative expression.
While Weightman was a real person (and “a notorious flirt” who attracted the attention of both Anne and Charlotte, according to Barker), nothing suggests he and Emily engaged in a romantic courtship, much less a torrid affair. Emily never married, and there’s no evidence she participated in any kind of romantic entanglement. Weightman, meanwhile, devoted his life to his religious work and caring for the poor. He died of cholera in 1842 at age 26.
“He was a pious young man,” says Miller. “I mean, [he was] really not a Byronic hero who’s going up and having wild sex on the moors in an abandoned cottage.”
To this day, Emily Brontë intrigues and obfuscates. Poetically, it is her writing that speaks above all else. Though she and Charlotte viewed their burgeoning careers differently, both ultimately wanted the meaningful weight of their fiction to supersede any interest in their personal lives.
On her deathbed, Emily asked to be taken upstairs so she could look out the window at the moors. “It still makes my heart ache,” says Morse. “I’m so invested in them. … My students are, too. They cry. The Brontë class, you know, people have to bring Kleenex.”
Morse quotes a passage from Wuthering Heights:
“Nelly, do you never dream queer dreams?” [Cathy] said, suddenly, after some minutes’ reflection.
“Yes, now and then,” I answered.
“And so do I. I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: They’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.”
Morse pauses. “You know, my students always say, ‘Can you read that one more time?’”