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Did the Emily Bronte Have Asperger's Syndrome?

Long time Bronte fan, Dolores shares information and insight into the lives and works of the famous literary sisters.

Could the Author of "Wuthering Heights" Have Had Aserberger's?

While researching Emily Bronte, I became interested in the little bit of information that is known about her behavior and personality traits. Born in 1818, Emily Jane Bronte produced a single novel: Wuthering Heights. Unappreciated in Emily's time, Wuthering Heights eventually became a must-read novel in English literature classes.

Emily Bronte herself became an intriguing figure, beloved by many young girls with a love of Victorian English literature, the dark hero, and the Gothic novel. In my reading, I could not help but wonder if Emily Bronte had Asperger's syndrome. Her self-imposed isolation, difficulty with social situations, and her ongoing obsession with the fantasy kingdom created in childhood reminded me of some of the symptoms of Asperger's.

Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte

What Is Asperger's Syndrome?

Asperger's syndrome is a form of autism that does not cause developmental disabilities or language problems. Defined and described by Hans Asperger in 1944, Asperger's syndrome symptoms include social and communication problems that can lead to social isolation; an intense interest in unusual topics; and an obsessive need to follow a routine. Studies have shown anorexia occurs among young women with Asperger's with greater frequency than in the general population.

Most of us remember kids with Asperger's syndrome back in high school. They were often those students who had social anxiety problems—the brightest science student with the pocket protector who said strange things or the kid whose fascination with a particular subject made him far more knowledgeable than the teacher. The single-minded, intense interest in unusual topics is often a hallmark of people with Asperger's syndrome.

Social Isolation and Apparent Rudeness in People With Asperger's

Emily Bronte had few, perhaps no, friends outside of her family. Her older sister, Charlotte Bronte (writer of Jane Eyre) seems to have been a guiding force in the life of the motherless child. Emily followed Charlotte into boarding schools and later into teaching positions at girls' schools.

Each of her forays away from home met with failure. She objected to the grueling schedules and missed her lack of liberty and her time spent alone with nature.

In her final teaching position at a school in Belgium, her supervisor, M. Heger, claimed that she was one of the most brilliant people he had ever met. Yet, this job, too, was met with failure. The homesick Emily returned to Haworth in Yorkshire, England.

Emily's attitude toward other people was often perceived as rude and the few stories of her relationships with neighbors and townsfolk come down to us as being aggressive and confrontational in nature. Such apparent rudeness is often associated with Asperger's.

She was a forceful presence in her own family. Charlotte referred to Emily as one of the strongest people that she ever met.

Disputed portrait. Claims have been made that this is Emily but many think it is Anne

Disputed portrait. Claims have been made that this is Emily but many think it is Anne

Intense Interest in Unusual Subject Matters

Emily took her pleasure in long, solitary walks in the moors. Accompanied by her constant companion, a frightening and reputedly vicious mastiff named Keeper, and occasionally by her pet hawk, Emily spent an inordinate amount of time engrossed in nature.

As a child, Emily and her sisters and brother created the fantasy kingdom, Angria; populating their fictional world with interesting characters, romances, wars, and political intrigue. Feeling that Charlotte and Branwell dominated the game, Emily and her younger sister, Anne created the rival kingdom of Gondal. Long after her siblings moved on, and well into adulthood, Emily wrote poetry, took notes, and worked on the fantasy saga until her death at age 30. An intense interest in unusual subject matter is a familiar Asperger's behavior trait.

Wuthering Heights features topics that were unusual for Victorian female writers and was published under the pen name, Ellis Belle. Domestic abuse, romantic obsession, and generational revenge were prominent themes. Shocked reviewers were aghast at the singular nature of the novel, while modern readers note the complicated relationships and complex plot lines.

Asperger's and Routine

Emily Bronte appeared to be hardworking in her domestic duties and was recalled by Charlotte as being extraordinarily strong, both physically and mentally. Emily spent much time in the kitchen and was an excellent cook. So intent was she on her domestic chores, that she performed homemaking tasks even while dying of tuberculosis. Mere hours before her death, Emily was at work on a sewing project. At one point, she dropped something near the fire but was too weak to retrieve it and had to call for assistance. When her sisters sprang to her aid, they found her unable to walk on her own. She died shortly after.

Path through the Moors near Haworth

Path through the Moors near Haworth

Emily Bronte and Anorexia Nervosa

Studies have found that anorexia nervosa occurs more frequently in people with an autism spectrum disorder than in the general population. According to one study by the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust Eating Disorder Unit, one in five anorexic young girls met the criterion for an autism spectrum disorder. Other studies suggest that 18-25% of teenage girls diagnosed with anorexia nervosa met some or all of the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome.

Some scholars claim that Emily Bronte was a lifelong anorexic. Her early bouts of starvation came when she was sent away from home, at boarding school, and later in teaching positions. She hated formal employment, the grueling routine set by others, and pined for the liberty she found at Haworth and on her long hikes through the moors.

In Wuthering Heights, both Catherine and Heathcliff starve themselves. In a time of powerlessness, the only way to exercise control was through power over the self. In Emily's case, this manifested in a refusal of nourishment. Anorexia probably contributed to her death, weakening her system in the face of tuberculosis (which killed her). The carpenter who built her casket claimed that it was the narrowest coffin he had ever made for an adult and measured only 16" wide.

The Enigmatic Emily Bronte

Of course, we will never really know Emily Bronte. She was a private person and an amazingly creative individual. How ironic that this standoffish, reclusive woman, who called solitude liberty, who lived her life mostly friendless, came to be so beloved by so many today. If Asperger's syndrome made Emily the unique individual and gifted writer that she was, the condition, though it caused her suffering during her life, was a gift to literature and humanity.

Questions & Answers

Question: Who was Dr. Nicholls in relation to the Bronte sisters?

Answer: Charlotte Bronte married her father's curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854. Patrick Bronte was at first opposed to the marriage but later relented. The marriage was short-lived as Charlotte died from complications of pregnancy before their first anniversary.

Nicholls held the copyrights on Charlotte's work, and stayed at Haworth, the Bronte family home, until the death of Patrick. Nicholls then moved to Ireland, the country of his birth.


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on January 31, 2017:

Grand old lady - yes it is rather complicated especially once children come into the story. But the best thing is to reread the book rather than depending on movie versions. Film makers often reduce complicated plots or create their own devices that they feel make for better viewing. Many people who reread the novel later in life find themselves with a different perception of the characters. Thanks!

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on January 25, 2017:

I found Wuthering Heights so complicated, as opposed to Jane Eyre. I had to watch four different movie versions of the book to truly understand the entire book clearly, but it was well worth the effort. Your article was most interesting, as it helped me understand Emily Bronte and learn more about Asperger's syndrome as well.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on January 24, 2017:

johngreen - not to be unfair to Emily in any way. I was just interested in the idea and can't see how the suggestion would take anything away from her. So little is known about her that one can't help speculate. She has, in the past, been thought of as a nature goddess, an anorexic, a lesbian, a mad genius, the inventor of role playing, the list could go on and on. It's a shame that her sister burned all her papers. on January 20, 2017:

Speculation on the state of Emily Bronte's health with no definite facts to go on is pointless and in my opinion not fair to the memory of Emily. Emily was a private person who by all accounts was socially awkward but there is no evidence she suffered from the complaints alluded to in this article. I think it's best if people admire Emily's genius and keep to known facts about her disposition.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 29, 2016:

Hi Ronald, according to the National Portrait Gallery, UK, Emily is the one in the center with Charlotte on the right, Anne on the left. Thank you for commenting.

Ronald on July 28, 2016:

Nice article, had the same hunch about her personality. The first picture is not Emily Bronte but her sister Anne. In the painting of the three sisters, Emily is on the right hand side.


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 26, 2014:

Lou Woods - I love the Brontes but love Emily the best. She is such an enigma, there is so little known about her. I am so sorry that there is not more out there. I recently saw some odd little sketches that were attributed to Emily. They were humerously morbid.

I can see where you say that Patrick maybe but never thought of Branwell that way. He was very social, spending most of his time out drinking in the local bars. I think he was just a jerk.

Thank you for sharing your observations, especially coming from someone who has Asperger Syndrome. I think that in the past, we all knew people with Aspergers but just said they were a bit different. God bless the different - what would the world be without them!

Lou Woods on May 23, 2014:

I have always been fascinated by Emily and her family. I have recently been reading the book by Katherine Frank (Emily Bronte), and I also began to suspect Asperger Syndrome from the many observations, comments regarding her behaviour in letters by people who knew her, and her great need for control and liberty. Her extraordinary artistic and musical talents. Her love of nature and animal life. Her inability and seeming refusal to conform to others rules. Her difficulties at social interaction and apparent rudeness. Her eccentricity and dress sense. Her painful struggles when away from the security and comfort of home. (Including hunger strikes). Her love of dogs. Her need for fantasy and escape. It all makes perfect sense to me. Asperger Syndrome is also hereditary. I suspect autism may well have run through other members of the family also, especially her Father and poor Branwell. I really enjoyed reading your theory, as I thought the very same thing! By the way, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome aged 42. ;)

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on November 08, 2011:

Lorna - well thank you so much. I think that Katerine Earnshaw sowed a lot of sympathy for Heathcliff and that Nelly Dean appeared to show sympathy for both Katherine and Heathcliff. But there is an oddness to Nelly's care - an undeercurrent of manipulation. Maybe she does not like her world upset and her advise is an attempt to bring order to the chaos. That's a real good point.

Lorna on November 07, 2011:

Another sign may be Emily's reaction to her brothers alcoholism. She seems to have appeared to be less affected by it than the rest of the family, to be more removed and dispassionate, more observational. This was seen as being more sympathetic but it may be that she wasn't able to empathise in the same way. It would be interesting to look at empathy in Wuthering Heights, I wonder if there is much ( can't remember!)

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 13, 2011:

JP - so glad that you left a comment. And that you agree with me, haha. While I was researching Emily, I was reading a book about a character with Asperger's, so did some research on that for my own information, and that light bulb went off. And it's one of those topics that if I bring it up to my friends or family, they say, uh huh, and could not care less. It was good to hear from someone such as yourself. I hope things are working out well for your daughter. Special children bring us special blessings. I know, my own daughter has Down syndrome. Thanks again.

JP on April 13, 2011:

I have a daughter with Asperger's, so I am quite familiar with it. I was recently reading a Bronte biography and wondered the same thing about Emily for many of the same reasons: need to be alone or with just a few familiar people; social reclusiveness/awkwardness; seeming inability to read (disinterest in reading) others' emotions; fixed 'special' interests; extreme creativity/genius. I definitely buy this theory.

Gailo on August 21, 2010:

I would suggest a good short read of "An Enigma of Brontes" by Maureen Peters. Its a wonderful history of the Brontes and I found I felt, after reading how Charlotte's life ended, very close to her. I'd always loved Jane Eyre and enjoyed WH also but the strangeness of it was less attractive to me. I guess I love a happy ending and wish that Charlotte could have lived out her life with her Rodchester also.. alas it was not to be. I am currently reading "Charlotte and Emily" by Jude Morgan, a fair book also. I'd like to know if her child(Charlottes) lived and if there are any relations of hers alive yet today? Very interesting hub Delores!!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 13, 2010:

thecarrielynn - very interesting! I was told, and read, that a lot of people with Asperger's have trouble with imaginary story telling, but have also heard that female's with Asperger's are a whole different bunch. Just like everybody else! Good to hear from a literature nerd!

thecarrielynn on July 13, 2010:

I found this fascinating for many reasons. One, I'm a complete literature nerd. Two, I am someone with Asperger's. One thing that is interesting is that while most boys with it are obsessed with facts and figures, many girls (like me) become obsessed with literature. I've spent much of life reading and writing. Of course, we'll never know for sure, but I'd be willing to bet that she was somewhere on the spectrum.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on June 08, 2010:

Cathy - thank you very much for your thought provoking comment. Not too long at all, dear. I hope that your anorexia is under control. Maybe, the very idea of charts and routine could be of help to you in a systemised plan for a healthy diet.

When I first suspected that Emily Bronte may have has Asperger's syndrome, I wondered about someone with Asperger's ability to write fiction as well and, in fact, read that the creation of such work would be difficult for someone with Asperger's. But, and I may be wrong here, there are many conditions that vary. When we were involved with a study on autism, as a control group because my daughter has Downs syndrome, one of the things about Downs that came in handy as a control, was that a person could not have a slight or mild case of Downs. The psycologist explained that a person could have a milder form of autism. Could not a person have a milder form of Asperger's?

From my reading, I found that Emily created Wuthering Heights in a very organized manner, with charts, lists, and outlines. Of course, I could be wrong. But I thought it was such an interesting observation, I just had to write about it.

Emily's anorexia came from a need to control her life when it spun out of her control. Several times, she refused nutrition in order to have herself sent back home. Some think that all 3 sisters were anorexic. The powerlessness of women in Victorian times affected them (as shown in their fiction) and this was a way to gain some power over their lives.

Cathy on June 08, 2010:

I have Asperger's syndrome and a long history of anorexia nervosa. In fact, it was only through treatment of my anorexia nervosa (and accompanying social anxiety, OCD and depression) that my psychiatrist recognised that Asperger's syndrome explained many of my mental health difficulties.

It is often said that anorexia nervosa is caused by cultural pressure to look a certain way (e.g. like a model or skinny celebrity). My anorexia had NOTHING to do with desiring a thin or 'perfect' body. Rather, it was a means of trying to 'disappear' from the stressful, adolescent world that I felt I didn't fit into. I never tried to lose weight, but developed an obsession with counting calories and all nutrients in foods. I made charts and tables of everything I would eat and all the exercise I would do because it made me feel more in control of my existence.

Anorexia nervosa is all about rules, routines and rituals. In some people those rules, routine and rituals are borne out of a fear of weight gain and body dissatisfaction, for others, like me, it is the routines that are important. I was not terrified of getting fat, but terrified that without my anorexic routines the world would be a chaotic and unpredictable place, just as it felt to be in the months before I became anorexic.

Sorry about the long comment... I thought I might be able to 'shed some light' on the relationship between anorexia nervosa and Asperger's syndrome by explaining my own experiences. It does sound as if Emily Bronte had many symptoms of Asperger's syndrome and anorexia nervosa; however, people with Asperger's syndrome tend to find it difficult to write fiction. I certainly do. This is because social imagination is limited in Asperger's syndrome.