Emily Brontë acted with pragmatism, courage and kindness in her last illness and the received wisdom that she was a “stubborn”, self-destructive patient is grossly unfair, according to an academic.
The Wuthering Heights author — one of the three celebrated Brontë sisters who were novelists and poets in 19th-century Yorkshire — left no account of her experience of tuberculosis. However, her older sister Charlotte’s letters chart Emily’s rapid decline, and her rejection of medical help, in the autumn and winter of 1848.
A new study claims that over-reliance on the letters by successive biographers and historians has fuelled a “mythic idea” of Emily’s death, aged 30, that fails to consider her predicament and point of view.
Writing to her friend Ellen Nussey and publishers George Smith, and William Smith Williams, Charlotte described repeatedly urging Emily to seek medical advice and treatment — and Emily’s dogged refusal. Charlotte said that Emily would only take Locock’s Pulmonic Wafers — popular cough lozenges — and an occasional mild laxative. She rejected Charlotte’s suggestion of homeopathy as “quackery” and declared that “no poisoning doctor” should come near her.
According to one of Charlotte’s letters to Williams, on November 22, Emily had “refused medicine [and] rejected medical advice” and no reasoning or entreaty would persuade her to see a doctor. The next day, Charlotte complained to Nussey that Emily “resolutely” refused expert help and would “give no explanation of her feelings”.
Only two months after the onset of visible symptoms, Emily died at home in the Haworth parsonage on December 19, 1848. Her sister Anne’s health also deteriorated that winter and, although she willingly accepted treatment, she also died of tuberculosis the following May, aged 29.
Dr Claire O’Callaghan, lecturer in English at Loughborough University, said Charlotte’s exasperated letters and her Biographical Notice of Emily and Anne Brontë, published in 1850, had created an enduring false impression of Emily’s attitude and behaviour. She said biographers had followed Charlotte’s lead in suggesting that Emily was “stubborn” and a bad patient. In addition, they had painted her as, alternatively, in denial, suicidal or wilfully cruel.
“Biographers after biographers have followed Charlotte’s line about her ‘stubbornness’,” she said. “It tends to be biographers of Charlotte or Emily who talk about Emily being a sulky teenager, being very nasty to her siblings, and not knowing what was best for her — shunning medicine in her naivety. You get these mixed interpretations where some people say she didn’t realise how ill she was and others say she was being incredibly stubborn in the face of knowing how ill she was.”
She added: “Emily’s first biographer, Mary Robinson said that, after their brother Branwell died in September, Emily lost the will to live and that’s why she died. She said that if she had only taken care of herself in the first few months of our illness, she might have survived it — which is just a complete misunderstanding of tuberculosis. It all adds to the mythic idea of Emily Brontë as this very difficult, very stoic woman who didn’t know what was good for her.”
O’Callaghan said her analysis, drawing on previously overlooked evidence and putting Emily’s own perspective front and centre, indicated that she was not only acting rationally but also bravely and compassionately.
In the study, in Women’s Writing, she argues that Emily had almost certainly read the description of tuberculosis, or “consumption”, in her father’s copy of Graham’s Modern Domestic Medicine. The manual would have made it clear to Emily that, after the onset of diarrhoea in mid-to-late November, she was in the “melancholy and distressing” final stage of the illness and beyond any hope of effective treatment or recovery.
O’Callaghan, author of the book Emily Brontë Reappraised, said Emily would also have attained practical knowledge of tuberculosis — and the limitations of 19th-century medical intervention — from the loss of three siblings to the disease. She had nursed her brother Branwell before his death weeks earlier, on September 24.
However, she said the biggest insight into Emily’s mindset could be found in a neglected passage in her masterpiece Wuthering Heights. In the novel, published in December 1847, Emily draws attention to the character Hindley Earnshaw’s futile response to his wife’s failing health from tuberculosis. Hindley rejects the doctor’s view that she is near death and declares: “Damn the doctor! . . . Frances is quite right: she’ll be perfectly well by this time next week.”
Nelly Dean, the narrator, describes how Hindley “persisted doggedly, nay, furiously, in affirming her health improved every day” and ignored the doctor’s warning that his medicines were useless at that stage. According to Nelly, Hindley makes things worse for himself by rejecting Dr Kenneth’s diagnosis and clinging resolutely to the false hope of Frances’ recovery.
“She couldn’t have written that scene without knowledge,” said O’Callaghan. “In Haworth and the surrounding areas, tuberculosis was rife. She would have seen this. Her father was a curate performing lots of funerals, visiting lots of houses. And for me, when you place that knowledge with Dr Graham’s book and Wuthering Heights, it gives a very compelling and logical understanding of why she might have refused the very limited medical options that were available to her at that time — because they were not going to do anything for her.”
Rather than pursue a cure, Emily sought comfort in continuity and — as Charlotte quoted her words — to let nature “take her own course”. O’Callaghan said: “She was insisting on doing all of her normal routines, pretty much right up until her last week. She wanted to feed her dogs. She wanted to get up and sit by the fire . . . By the week before she died, she was moving between being very, very unwell, and a little more lucid. Charlotte was reading to her and they were reading together as a family.”
The “pulmonic wafers” that Emily took may have provided some general pain relief. Although the manufacturers emphatically denied that they contained morphine, a letter published in the Association Medical Journal —a forerunner of the British Medical Journal — in 1855 claimed to have found the drug present in the soluble lozenges.
O’Callaghan suggests that Emily may have felt that agreeing to Charlotte’s plans for medical aid would not only have been futile but would ultimately hurt her loved ones. She said: “In Wuthering Heights, Hindley maintains an investment in false hope when there is not going to be any cure. The outcome is something that everybody else in the room can see, apart from him. So Emily was very attuned to that and that gives us a logical reason why she was trying to stop Charlotte repeatedly seeking out various remedies, and trying to push her to take things.”
A letter from Charlotte to Williams on December 7 shows that she persisted in hoping for the best even after Patrick Brontë, the siblings’ father, was resigned. Charlotte said she could give no favourable report of Emily’s state, but continued: “Yet I argue that the present emaciation, cough, weakness, shortness of breath are the results of inflammation now, I trust, subsided, and that with time, these ailments will gradually leave her, but my father shakes his head and speaks of others of our family once similarly afflicted, for whom he likewise persisted in hoping against hope”.
In O’Callaghan’s analysis, Emily may have failed to give Charlotte any “explanation of her feelings” because she was still coming to terms with her own fate. Furthermore, she may have feared that Charlotte would break her confidence and share her words with others. She had previously invaded Emily’s privacy by reading her notebook and disclosing her author’s pseudonym of Ellis Bell beyond the family circle.
O’Callaghan said claims that Emily allowed Charlotte to call for a doctor in her final hours have been widely misinterpreted. “It was first reported by Elizabeth Gaskell in her  biography of Charlotte. We don’t know that it ever happened. However, assuming it did, some biographers have seen it as another example of ‘silly Emily’ — that she left it too late and if she had only called for the doctor earlier, all could have been averted. I think that if she did indeed call for a doctor or agreed to see him, it was partly simply for pain relief. And that’s fair enough. People seem to want to deny her that, because of this idea that she had been stubborn. There is a tone in biographies that seems to imply, ‘Well, you haven’t called a doctor until now, so you’re not really entitled to do it, you silly girl’.
“But I also think it would have given Charlotte something to do. So, it could either have been calling for pain relief, or benevolently giving Charlotte what she wanted — to feel that she was doing something in those final moments.”
She hopes people will view Emily’s actions more sympathetically in light of her findings.
She said: “Attributing that attitude of stubbornness, or the idea that she was trying to be deliberately cruel to her family, is a reductive shorthand for not thinking through what it might have meant for a woman to be suffering with a terminal illness at a young age. I’d like people to have some more compassion for her, and more empathy. Not only would she have been grappling with her own mortality, but her brother had just died and her family was traumatised by tuberculosis, which she now had. That’s a lot for anyone to bear.
“Just think about how courageous she was — it can’t have been easy to be resisting any form of medical intervention. To think that’s simply stubbornness doesn’t do her justice and doesn’t serve the complexity of the situation.”
Nevertheless, she said the actions of Charlotte Brontë — who died in 1855, aged 38 — should also be viewed sympathetically. “I wouldn’t want people to respond by hating Charlotte and thinking she did something deliberately cruel . . . It’s understandable that she wanted to do everything to save her sister. Who wouldn’t?”
The top image shows actress Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in the 2022 film Emily, directed by Frances O’Connor. Photo: Tempo Productions Limited/Album/Alamy