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Celebrating Emily Brontë

Only one birthday is “celebrated” in Wuthering Heights. It doesn’t go well. The young Catherine Linton begins her 16th birthday with a modestly optimistic plan to buck the established family pattern of solitary mourning to mark the date when she came into the world (“a puny, seven months child”), but her mother died two hours later. “On the anniversary of [Miss Cathy’s] birth,” Nelly reports, “we never manifested any signs of rejoicing, […]. Her father invariably spent that day alone in the library; and walked, at dusk, as far as Gimmerton kirkyard, where he would frequently prolong his stay beyond midnight.”

There is no suggestion that this is bad parenting, and Catherine does not seem to resent it. On this particular birthday, Catherine extracts permission to ramble with Nelly on the edge of the moor, promising to be back within an hour. In what Nelly thinks of as a miniature morality tale, the “happy creature” bounds ahead, running back to heel and going off again, like a “young greyhound” enjoying its freedom while keeping its human companion in view—until she strays too far. Eager to check on a colony of moor-game, Catherine comes within two miles of Wuthering Heights and crosses paths with Heathcliff, a man whose existence she has never yet heard of and who quickly forms a plan for manipulating her into marriage with his son and completing his revenge on the Linton family.

Emily Brontë’s own birthday seems to have been, by preference, a day for routine familiar pleasures. A diary paper written on the Wuthering Heights author’s 27th birthday, 30 July 1845, is cherished by biographers for the glimpse it offers into her temperament. It expresses an emphatic wish to keep going in the quiet patterns of home. Badly bruised by her short attempt at working as a teacher at Law Hill School near Halifax in 1833, she was more than happy to abandon the recent, short-lived scheme of starting a school in Haworth: “I am quite contented for myself, as idle as formerly, altogether as hearty, […] and merely desiring that every body could be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding.” This birthday was spent fending off teasing demands from the debilitated family servant Tabby to “pilloputate” (peel a potato), and it would have included blackcurrant picking with her sister Anne had the weather been sunnier. Even without that seasonal, task there was plenty of work needing doing: “turning” (another word for peeling, though it is possible that it here refers to rotating the position of clothes drying in the sun); then “ironing” and “writing.” The sole evidence of special birthday activity is the opening of birthday papers written by herself and Anne four years earlier (on her 23rd birthday) and reviewed with curiosity in the morning—only for Emily to realise halfway through her new report that they had got the date wrong. This was the 31st not the 30th. But no matter, “Yesterday was much such a day as this…”

Unsurprisingly in a house where, for many years, there was little money to spare for luxuries, presents are sparely recorded in the Brontë archives. Birthdays seem to have been marked on some occasions by literary gifts (a story from eldest sister Charlotte to Anne, written at Roe Head School), and probably by other home “crafted” presents, such as paintings and sketches. A birthday, it is worth remembering, could be an occasion for giving not receiving: one year their father Patrick Brontë gave a copy of his Cottage Poems (1811) to their servant Martha Brown.

Image credit: Bronte Museum by Jay Sands. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Given the general elusiveness of descriptions of gifts, one present from Charlotte to Emily stands out. A Book of Common Prayer, now in the possession of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, contains a book plate dedication in Charlotte’s hand, pasted inside the front cover and dated 1st February 1842—the month in which the two sisters travelled to Belgium. Intended, presumably, as a way of keeping Emily in touch with her own church practices as she entered a foreign school environment dominated by Catholicism, the book bears very few signs of use. Only one inside page has obviously been handled: the recto opening of the “Order for Evening Prayer,” which carries the dark brownish-grey imprint of a right thumb near the base of the spine. Assuming for a moment (it is not a very safe assumption) that the thumb print is Emily’s—a material residue of sebum, sweat, or dirt of the kind intensely attractive to modern historians and theorists of the “material object,”—it suggests various possible meanings: that her religious observance was minimal (the most vivid eyewitness account of her irregular appearances in church recalls her sitting with her back to the pulpit in a “solid stoical manner, bolt upright in the corner of the pew”); that she saw no reason to turn the pages because, like most of the congregation, she knew the service by heart; that she valued it as an keepsake, but not a book she much cared to spend time with. Like everything else about Emily Brontë, the perspective it suggests on her inner life is tantalisingly limited.

Featured image credit: “Bronte sisters in Haworth, England” by Immanuel Giel. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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