Emily Bronte: Did the Writer of Wuthering Heights Have Asperger's Syndrome?
When researching an article about 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 Aspergers.
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 routine. Studies have shown anorexia occurring among young women with Aspergers' 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, 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.
Emily Jane Bronte
Intense Interest in Unusual Subject Matter: a Symptom of Asperger's
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 line.
Emily Bronte: 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
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 with starvation came when she was sent away from home, at boarding school, and later in teaching positions. She hated 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 the tuberculosis that 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.