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Victorian Studies 44.4 (2002) 573-596

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Emily Brontë's Homesickness

Linda M. Austin

Her biographers generally agree: Emily Brontë suffered from homesickness during the few periods she lived away from Haworth. She left home just four times in her short life. When she was six years old, she followed her older sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte to the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge in nearby Kirkby Lonsdale. After about six months Elizabeth and Maria contracted typhoid, and Emily went home. Ten years later in 1835, she accompanied Charlotte on her first teaching position to Roe Head, a boarding school; and for some months between 1837 and 1839, Emily herself taught briefly at Miss Elizabeth Patchett's school at Law Hill near Halifax, eight miles from Haworth. Again she accompanied Charlotte to Brussels in 1842, intending to prepare herself to run a boarding school with her sisters, but she returned to England only nine months later when her aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, died. She was then twenty-four years old, and she did not leave Haworth again.

In accounts of her life, Emily Brontë did not adapt to the regimen of the school day away from home, and at the time Charlotte blamed most of her declining health on overwork and exhaustion; homesickness was a posthumous diagnosis. 1 Of her sister's "white face, attenuated form, and failing strength" during the sojourn at Roe Head, Charlotte remembered, in 1850, "Nobody knew what ailed her but me [...] I felt in my heart she would die if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall" (473). Charlotte did not use the current medical term for homesickness, "nostalgia." Nor did Emily or many English persons; sometimes called the "Wasting Disease" (Hofer 380), nostalgia was not considered a condition to which the English, a notoriously melancholic people, were susceptible. (In works by both Cheyne [1733, 5th ed. 1753] and Arnold[1782, 2nd ed. 1806], nostalgia and melancholy were mutually exclusive ailments. According to both writers, the English were immune from the former and vulnerable to the latter because theirs was a culturally and economically [End Page 573] progressive nation whose unattractive climate and terrain did not inspire homesickness in those who had left.) Nevertheless, the idea of nostalgia attracted English writers, some of whom refer to the disease or its typical victims in their work. 2 Moreover, as Nicholas Dames has shown, nostalgia had an aesthetic life in fiction, both in its original form, as disease, and in the pleasant, sentimental version which eventually replaced it (6, 24). As this essay will argue, the Brontë sisters each drew from standard and emerging views of homesickness to create different images of a nostalgic Emily. Charlotte dwelt mainly on the profile of the susceptible victim to romanticize her sister while insisting on her disability. Emily herself characterized her thought processes— her motor-sensory mechanisms in particular—as nostalgic. The four poems by her discussed in the pages to come are among the earliest examples of the psychological poetry that arose in conjunction with parallel trends in Victorian mental science (see Faas 34-84). When read in sequence, moreover, these poems anticipate the transformation of nostalgia the illness from romantic pathology to modern sentiment.


Johannes Hofer's dissertation of 1688 introduced nostalgia as an "afflicted imagination" (381), but treated it essentially as an associative disorder. This was not unusual; the principle of the association of ideas offered philosophers of the mind writing from the late-seventeenth through the early-nineteenth centuries an account of both "normal" and malfunctioning thought processes, including imagination and memory (Abercrombie 93; D. Stewart 212, 303-04). 3 The leading example, for instance, of "local or incidental" association in two influential treatises on mental science—by Dugald Stewart and John Abercrombie, written in 1792 and 1830, respectively—was the legendary nostalgia inspired in regiments of the foreign service by certain melodies (Stewart 207; Abercrombie 101, 103). The mechanics of association, moreover, furnished analyses of nostalgia, as Dames has observed, "with a key methodological tool" (30). In Hofer's hydrodynamical version of associative thinking...