Reimagining Emily Brontë’s state of mind dying of tuberculosis

It has almost been 175 years since Emily Brontë, the English novelist best known for ‘Wuthering Heights’, died of tuberculosis (TB) on December 19, 1848 at the young age of 30. She had been sick for two months, but refused medical care and she brushed it off as “quackery,” saying she wanted “no poisoning doctor” near her. But it wasn’t until recently that Dr Claire O’Callaghan, of Loughborough University, questioned whether Emily’s refusal of aid was as ‘stubborn and silly’ as people have been saying.

Starting October 9, 1848 Charlotte Brontë, Emily’s sister, wrote a series of letters, recommending her to seek medical help. Emily refused this consistently. Apart from a “mild aperient – and Locock’s cough wafers”, Emily rejected all forms of medical intervention, as stated by Charlotte. The treatments available for TB back then were not effective in curing of preventing TB.

The letters between the two sisters are often used to gain insight into Emily’s state of mind and train of thought during her final weeks and days, which is often viewed as bitter and lacerating.

Reimagining Emily’s point of view during her illness

After having analyzed the letters between the sisters, Dr Claire O’Callaghan says ‘Charlotte’s letters offer alternate ways to understand Emily’s experience of tuberculosis and her behavior in her final months’. She argues Emily’s way of thinking was more rational and compassionate then was originally thought.

“In December, Charlotte writes that Emily had developed diarrhea two weeks prior, which, according to her father’s copy of Graham’s Modern Medicine, is a marker for the final stages of the disease.” O’Callaghan goes on to say it is reasonable to assume Emily consulted this book as well. In her novel, ‘Wuthering Heights’, three characters, Francis, Edgar, and Linton die of ‘consumption’, known today as tuberculosis. Their suffering is described with accurate medical detail.

In addition, three of Emily’s siblings had died of TB. Her brother Branwell, whom she allegedly nursed through his illness, died in September 1848. Just two weeks before Emily fell ill herself.

According to O’Callaghan, this provides a very clear reason why Emily refused aid. She understood the disease and the symptoms as good as anybody could at that time. O’Callaghan writes: “It is possible to understand Emily’s behavior in more complex and compassionate forms as a self-preserving tactic for both herself and her sister in the traumatic context of suffering a fatal disease”.

Now TB is much more treatable

To this day, tuberculosis still claims the lives of 1.6 million people every year. Emily Brontë saw no reason to seek medical attention. She knew the disease would be the end of her. But now the prognosis of TB has improved considerably. Today, TB is preventable, treatable and curable.

With our work, we help TB patients worldwide to receive their diagnosis and treatment in time. This way, more infections and resistant forms of TB are prevented and we help save lives.

KNCV has been fighting TB since its establishment in 1903. Over the past 120 years, the organization has acquired indispensable knowledge and experience in the field of effective TB prevention and care, resulting in pre-elimination in the Netherlands and significant contributions to global evidence generation, policy development and TB program implementation worldwide.

Our experts
KNCV governance framework and integrity
Our patroness
Partner with us


De versie van de browser die je gebruikt is verouderd en wordt niet ondersteund.
Upgrade je browser om de website optimaal te gebruiken.