Deciphering the Diaries of Anne and Emily Brontë


Keeping a diary, by Dianne Lacourciere. Reproduced under CC BY-SA-2.0 licence.

Keeping a diary, by Dianne Lacourciere. Reproduced under CC BY-SA-2.0 licence.

The diaries of Anne and Emily Brontë provide a tantalising glimpse into their thoughts and literary inspiration. In a series of three posts, Sophie Franklin reads between the lines of their intermittent entries to reveal the inner life of the Brontë sisters. In this first entry she identifies the links between their journals and their novels.

The Brontës were prolific writers. Yet, unlike many of their fellow authors, neither Anne, Charlotte, nor Emily were dedicated diarists. The limited collection of journal entries written by Charlotte can be ameliorated by the three sizeable volumes of her letters, many of which contain highly personal glimpses into her interior life. Yet Anne and Emily remain comparatively and frustratingly unknown to us, as they only wrote six diary papers and fewer than ten letters between them (that we know of). These fragments offer only a limited view into their innermost thoughts as individuals, and were written sporadically with as much as four years between each piece.

The gap in Anne and Emily’s personal writings has been filled by all sorts of speculation, largely drawn from their poetry and prose, as well as the anecdotes propagated in Elizabeth Gaskell’s influential The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Recently, Claire Harman, the latest biographer of Charlotte Brontë, referred to Emily Brontë as “Asperger’s-ey”, a rather contentious diagnosis largely based on Gaskell’s account of Emily’s violent temper.

Deciphering the mystery of the absent author is a difficult and controversial business.

Deciphering the mystery of the absent author is a difficult and contentious business.

Anne and Emily themselves often introduced their fictional world of Gondal and its characters into their diary papers, blurring the line between their imaginations and “reality”. Charlotte’s Roe Head Journal, written from 1836–7 during her time working at Roe Head school, similarly slides – sometimes disturbingly – from an account of her everyday life as a teacher into visions of her fictional realm, Angria. This switching between fact and fiction is fundamental to the development of the Brontës as authors, particularly as their later novels often bring together dichotomies such as realism and the Gothic.

While the Brontës were not devoted diary-keepers themselves, several of their novels use the journal form as inherent to the narrative.

While the Brontës were not devoted diary-keepers themselves, several of their novels use the journal form as inherent to the narrative. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) places Helen Huntingdon’s diary at its centre. The reader is given access to Helen’s journal by her eventual husband, Gilbert Markham, whose own record of events is based on an old diary of his. Helen’s diary gives her the freedom to express her grievances; yet it is a private account which, without Gilbert’s decision to share its content with his brother-in-law, would never have been made public.

Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) adopts a similarly complex structure and the outer layer of the novel’s “Chinese box” layout is Lockwood’s diary. Everything described is mediated through Lockwood’s private writings. Yet, instead of being a free-flowing, unfettered account of life at the Heights, Lockwood’s diary does manipulate the story; he even writes that, though Nelly was a “fair narrator”, he has “condensed” some of her words. Ultimately, through his journal, he controls the narrative – what goes in and what is left out. Both Anne and Emily’s uses of the diary form reflect the imaginative possibilities available in the act of journal writing, while also raising the questions: to whom am I writing? And for what purpose?

Diaries are not merely mundane accounts of someone’s day. They provide a private space in which to divulge secrets, explore alter-egos and alternative lives, and create and re-create one’s identity. The Brontës’ blending of fact and fiction in their diary entries shows the expansive possibilities of journal writing – and gives us invaluable access into the daily lives of the sisters, as well as revealing the proximity between their domestic duties and literary processes.

Read Sophie’s other posts in this series on The Brontë diaries. You might also like to listen to this podcast celebrating the Brontës.

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