From The Hairpin:
Charlotte [Brontë’s] biographies are always massive, the most fully fleshed and juicy with lots of first-hand accounts.
Emily’s are skeletal, vague, and full of conjecture, barely sketched.
The real danger in leaving an Emily-sized cache of documents (i.e., almost nothing) is that people will usually mistake you for being exceedingly mysterious, no matter the truth of your day-to-day. In Emily’s case this irresistible penchant for myth-making (egged on by her mystical poetry and horrifyingly beautiful single novel) has led many of her most devoted followers to discard or at least gloss over the few things we do know about her: she was mean as a snake, she liked to cook and clean, and she was a horrific speller.
An understandable distrust of doctors (who in her day were little more than snake oil salesmen) during her final illness (consumption, it’s always consumption) has over time morphed into a death wish. This is a rumor good old Charlotte started not even two years after Emily’s death, in the Biographical Notice that she wrote to introduce an 1850 reprint of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Charlotte wrote, “Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. She had tuberculosis, babe. You think she rushed out the door to the grave to get away from you? Harsh.
Less than two hundred years later, in the hands of biographers and scholars, early Brontë Society goons and her sister Charlotte, Emily Brontë seems to have turned to dust. Because there are so few, the smallest biographical shred transfixes us and leads to all kinds of fanciful yarn-spinning. And though I know a spun yarn when I read one, and though I fancy myself something of a detangler rather than a spinner, one story in particular has always held my attention. One “fact” I’ve “known” for a long time is that Emily Brontë’s coffin was only sixteen inches wide, which was, I knew, very small.
. . .
Emily Jane, the “notoriously elusive one,” born in 1818, was the middle of the three Brontë sisters who lived into adulthood (two died before they became teens, and Emily only made it to age thirty). Her tall, lanky frame, her lack of enthusiasm for food, especially towards the end of her life, has been depicted in later biographies as anorexia.
. . .
The Brontë sisters are a unit and, at least in biography, almost never sold separately. They lived together for most of their lives, broken up only by brief periods of school and (mostly for Anne) work as governesses. Legend tells us they wrote and edited their poetry and their novels together, pacing around the living room of the parsonage in Haworth where they lived, with their father, the widowed curate of the town. They submitted their manuscripts simultaneously to the same publishers. Their books, which have almost nothing in common with one another apart from being very good and being written in English, were conflated and sometimes advertised as the work of one person from their first publication. Between them, and leaving aside their poetry (which is insane, considering how great Emily’s is), they wrote some of the best novels of the nineteenth century.
. . .
One of the reasons the sisters Brontë — originally known by their deliberately androgynous pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell — are often considered as a unit is, quite simply, that Charlotte is the only one who left behind a body of correspondence and personal effects large enough to warrant her own, standalone history. She lived long enough (to the old age of thirty-eight) and published often enough that she travelled to London several times, met famous people, became famous herself, and wrote hundreds of letters.
. . .
Emily Brontë is literally “hard to visualize” in part because we don’t know what she looked like. There is only one confirmed likeness of her, and it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted around 1834, when Emily was fifteen years old, by her brother Branwell. The National Portrait Gallery. Seated, from left to right are: Anne, Emily, a ghost, and Charlotte.
. . .
So what did Emily Brontë look like? A… person. With hair, eyes, and a nose. Beyond that, she seems to have been the tallest sister, at five-foot-seven — everyone (that I can find) agrees on that.
. . .[W]hat are we to make of the story about Emily’s coffin?
. . .
“The village carpenter was sent for to make the coffin. In recording the measurements, he said he had never in all his experience made so narrow a shell for an adult; it was 5 feet 7 inches by 16 inches.”
. . .
Link to the rest at The HairPin