Novelist Charlotte Brontë was devastated when her sister Emily died from tuberculosis on December 19, 1848.
Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, had been published just a year earlier. In a letter to her publisher, composed on Christmas Day, Charlotte wrote that Emily was:
Rooted up in the prime of her own days, in the promise of her powers … sweet is rest after labour and calm after tempest.
The popular account of Emily’s last day envisions her dying on the sofa in the family’s dining room (now the home of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire), stubbornly refusing to take to her bed. But ambiguity surrounds the precise details of her death.
Because there is no writing by Emily about her illness, Charlotte’s account has become the dominant one. In letters from October to December that year, she documented Emily’s decline in detail.
Accepted at face value, they suggest that Emily was stubborn in sickness. Charlotte describes trying to persuade her sister to permit medical assessment and treatment and writes of Emily’s consistent refusal.
Besides a “mild aperient – and Locock’s cough wafers” (a product that claimed to offer “instant relief” to “all disorders of the breath and lungs”), Emily rejected all other forms of medical intervention, dismissing at least one proposed treatment (homeopathy) as a “form of Quackery”. She declared that “no poisoning doctor” should come near her.
To many biographers, Emily’s behaviour has not only been interpreted as stubborn, but as evidence of a “violent display of denial” about her illness and as “brittle contempt” for her sister tantamount to “a subtle emotional blackmail”.
But there is another way to understand Emily’s resistance to aid and refusal to speak with Charlotte?