What Inspired Emily Brontë to Write Wuthering Heights?

Have you ever wondered what inspired this beloved Brontë sister to write her classic novel, Wuthering Heights? Read on to find out!

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from left to right wuthering heights by emily bronte book cover sketch of emily bronte

Bookstr is back again with more Trivia. Today, we’ll discuss a famous Brontë sister, specifically Emily Brontë! Emily Brontë is a prominent English novelist best known for Wuthering Heights, a Romantic Brit-lit classic. This book is a whirlwind of romance, revenge, and haunted mansions. My first copy of this novel was given to me by my 8th-grade English teacher, and the chaos in this novel changed me ever since.

sketch of emily bronte

But what inspired the shy and reserved Emily Brontë to write this brooding novel? Let’s learn more about her and what in her life could have influenced Wuthering Heights!

Who was Emily Brontë?

As you may or may not know, Emily is one of the three famous Brontë sisters. She was born in 1819 and died in 1848 at 30 (so young!). Not much is known about her as she often kept to herself and only opened up to her sisters within their home. What we do know is that she was a timid girl who was close to her siblings and loved animals and wandering the countryside. She specifically loved walking and daydreaming along the Yorkshire moors.

Through the poetry she published with her sisters and Wuthering Heights, we can determine that she was interested in people’s passions, emotions, and sufferings. These interests make her very emphatic and aware of the existing problems and societal pressures of her era.

emily bronte from Emily movie 2022 played by emma mackey

Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847 under her pen name Ellis Bell; her real name not appearing until 1850 after her death. The passion and violence of the novel convinced readers to think it was written by a man (people of this time would never believe all of that pent-up energy was within a shy woman). It was not immediately popular. Emily died a year later, meaning she never saw its success and never knew it turned into a beloved classic.

What is Wuthering Heights about?

This story follows the tortured love story of Heathcliff and Catherine. It is told 30 years later by Nelly, the housekeeper, to Mr. Lockwood, a neighbor who stays the night at Wuthering Heights (which is the mansion in the novel). This is a very back-and-forth whirlwind of a story, but I will do my best to give you the gist.

SPOILERS AHEAD: I outline the entire plot. If you haven’t read the book and wish to experience it for yourself, skip this section.

Mr. Lockwood stops by the remote Wuthering Heights mansion to visit Heathcliff, the landlord. Instead of meeting Heathcliff, he meets a quiet young woman, Joseph the servant, and an uneducated young man named Hareton. Upon walking into the manor, Mr. Lockwood notices that everyone is inhospitable, unwelcoming, and in dark, dreadful moods. We get the first insight into what life is like at Wuthering Heights.

As mentioned, Mr. Lockwood must stay the night due to a snowstorm. They put him in Catherine Earnshaw’s room, and he falls asleep reading her diary. He awakes from a terrible nightmare where a ghost version of Catherine begs him to let her enter the mansion through the window. The sound of Mr. Lockwood’s screams awakens Heathcliff, who is surprised by the stranger and seems just as solemn as everyone else in the house. After this event, Nelly queues Mr. Lockwood into the history and story of the family.

wuthering heights book cover by emily bronte
a medieval castle with a bridge on a marsh

Heathcliff was an orphan brought into the Earnshaw family by Mr. Earnshaw. He is adored by Catherine’s father but hated by Hindley, Catherine’s brother. Hindley, who no doubt is acting out due to lack of attention, beats Heathcliff, but thankfully, Heathcliff finds a friend in Catherine. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley returns home from college married, and he steps into the role of master of Wuthering Heights. As you can imagine, this is the perfect chance for him to continue his torture of Heathcliff. In his new role, Hindley only lets Heathcliff stay if he becomes a servant, downgrading his class.

The friendship between Catherine and Heathcliff slowly escalates to love, yet based on class, they cannot be together. After years of Hindley’s abuse, Heathcliff makes his life goal revenge; this changes his entire character. Though Catherine loves Heathcliff, she becomes engaged, and he runs away for three years because he misheard a conversation. During that time apart, Catherine gets married, becomes pregnant, and Heathcliff becomes a wealthy man. But she gets very ill during her pregnancy and dies shortly after she has her daughter, Cathy. In anguish, Heathcliff begs her ghost to haunt him for the rest of his life (my romantic heart is swelling).

wuthering heights 2011 movie adaptation with Kaya Scodelario as Catherine Earnshaw

Heathcliff has his own son, Linton, and becomes the master of Wuthering Heights in the following months. Years later, Heathcliff schemes to set his son up with Catherine’s daughter. However, Linton dies, leaving Cathy lonely at Wuthering Heights. She was the unwelcoming woman Mr. Lockwood met at the start of the novel. Now, back in the present, months later, Mr. Lockwood learns that Heathcliff is slowly losing his mind and is later found dead in Catherine’s room. Nelly expresses that the locals claim to see the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff walking together, now no longer bound by class or separated by miscommunications.

This story breaks my heart because it is one of misunderstanding and years of misplaced revenge when it could have been one of blissful love. The entire time, you so desperately wanted Heathcliff and Catherine to be together, but it just wasn’t in the cards. It almost seemed they were too in love, so they couldn’t see straight and set things right; it was agonizingly bittersweet.

What Inspired the Novel?

There are believed to be three main contributors to this novel. Let me walk you through them.

Emily Brontë’s Personal Life and Family History:

Was this novel a self-reflection? Emily lost her mother at three years old and her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, a few years later. They died of tuberculosis while at a boarding school with Charlotte and Emily. She was also 27 when she wrote Wuthering Heights, so we can only imagine how many people have come and gone from her life, especially during this time period.

Portrait of Anne Bronte, Emily Bronte, and Charlotte Bronte. Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), circa 1834

This novel revolves around death. Though Catherine’s demise is at the center, the other deaths in the book also move it along. Mr. Earnshaw’s passing put Hindley in charge, further harming Heathcliff. Hindley’s death made Heathcliff the master of Wuthering Heights, and Heathcliff’s own passing allowed him to be with Catherine again. I think Emily saw death as a progression of events pushing her forward whether she wanted it to or not, putting her own emotions about the deaths in her life into her characters.

The First Half of the 19th Century Was the Height of Gothic Novels:

Ah, yes, the Gothic Novel! Emily used tactics from this genre, like placing protagonists in environments where ordinary people would feel out of place and depressed. These protagonists instead see the beauty in their surroundings, but I would also call these people not normal themselves. The Earnshaw family was completely content with living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by moors (Emily’s favorite) in the English countryside, depressed in a dreary home with the ghost of Catherine, who wasn’t just Heathcliff’s love but also Cathy’s mother. Why they didn’t relocate is beyond me.

Emily probably also gravitated to the Gothic structure due to its blooming success and popularity. She wanted this novel to succeed, and I am so sad to know that she never saw it happen.

Wuthering Heights, the Manor, as a Character In the Novel:

This gauntly manor is the heart of the novel. Most of the main events, both present-day and 30 years prior, are contained within the walls of that house. How it was described and now portrayed in pop culture can be attributed to multiple places Emily would have been to herself. Blogger David Castleton walks us through the three main buildings Wuthering Heights got its features from.

High Sunderland Hall was by Law Hill School, where Emily was working as a teacher. She was incredibly unhappy there and would often take walks on the surrounding grounds, possibly running into this building.

from left to right
door at High Sunderland Hall with columns and statues
High Sunderland Hall from the outside deicting its height and windows

This building was known for its ghost stories, statues, and carvings. These attributes were very similar to Wuthering Heights, along with the floor plan of the Hall itself.

Ponden Hall was not the only inspiration for Wuthering Heights but also Thrushcross Grange, another home in the novel. This was a place that the Brontë family would frequent and had a connection with. The most significant correlation between this home and the one Brontë created is the box bed and window. My mind immediately goes to the infamous scene between Mr. Lockwood and the ghost of Catherine as she begs to be let inside.

box bed and window at Ponden Hall

Last but not least, Emily was inspired by Top Withens for its vastness and, once again, abundance of moors. This was a later connection that came to be from Wuthering Heights’ description after the novel was published.

zoomed out picture of Top Withens sitting on the side of a hill surrounded by marsh, moors, and grass.

Whenever I think of Wuthering Heights, I think of its desolation and remote energy. All of this misery was happening so far away from other people. Though other families were involved in the novel, the misery felt private, contained within the walls of the house, encouraging its isolated feel.

Fan of the Brontë sisters? Click here and here to read more!

To find out why Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, click here!