Keeper was a dog with many bad habits, the most offensive of which was the pleasure he took in stretching out on forbidden beds. The residents of Haworth Parsonage had duly warned the mastiff-mutt that such behavior was unwelcome in their tidy home and suggested to him that he instead find more suitable arrangements in a warm corner of the floor. But Keeper, it seemed, had little regard for the famous residents of the Parsonage and failed to take notice of the stern warning issued by his owner, Emily Brontë. Emily, who by every account was a great animal lover, had already declared to her sisters that if Keeper trespassed again, “she herself…would beat him so severely that he would never offend again.”
When the Brontës’ housekeeper caught Keeper violating the house rules, “lying on the best bed, in lazy voluptuousness,” Emily kept her promise. She walked up Haworth’s creaky stairs and violently awoke Keeper from his happy slumber, no doubt filled with the muted barks and running legs that are the stuff of a dog’s best dreams. She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and hauled his substantial girth down the parsonage’s stairs. Keeper was evidently not a dog who gave in easily to his mistress’ will—he had already demonstrated a considerable disregard of domestic order—and he fought Emily, growling and biting at her, as she dragged him down the stairs. Emily might have been prepared for his reaction, she had been warned that “he who struck him with a stick or whip, would rouse the relentless nature of the brute.” Keeper, however, was little match for Emily’s grim resolve. She threw him into a corner at the bottom of the stairs – perhaps the warm corner she had politely suggested to him earlier – and her “bare clenched fist struck against his red fierce eyes…and…she ‘punished him’ till his eyes were swelled up, half-blind.”
Emily, of course, was no simple dog abuser. After the harsh punishment, she lovingly nursed the wounds she had inflicted on the dog and afterwards, it seems, the two were a devoted pair. Keeper “owed her no grudge; he loved her dearly ever after; he walked first among the mourners to her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room, and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dog fashion, after her death.”
The curious incident is recounted in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) and ostensibly exists in order to sketch the character of Emily who, nine years after her death, had morphed into a phantom known only by a reticent father and a fiercely protective surviving sister. Its presence in a biography of Charlotte is thoroughly bizarre, Gaskell probably obtained the story from Charlotte who freely gave her time and surviving letters to her biographer. That raises the question, of course, as to why Charlotte would proffer such a sadistic story about a sister whose reputation she had expended a great deal of time and effort protecting. And, of course, why Gaskell would seize on such a story.
The answers might be found somewhere in the strange vignette itself, which paints a portrait of Emily far more intricate, and more complicated, than most. Emily and Keeper’s relationship, one of profound loyalty born from what our modern minds might term abuse, teases out Emily’s animality—her deep affinity for nature and its inhabitants—and her deep discomfort with culture’s dehumanization.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on Gaskell’s surreal biography. The Life of Charlotte Brontë is as novelistic as it is biographical and some of our best Brontë stereotypes are formed in its pages. Gaskell herself was a novelist, known for her Dickens-like social reform novels retooled for the drawing rooms of ladies. And Life reads like a biography penned by a novelist: death is omnipresent, Haworth is a brick and mortar River Styx, and the Gothic gloom of the Yorkshire moors is a sublime backdrop for Charlotte’s broody genius. Charlotte too was treated novelistically–Gaskell seems to have met Brontë with her heroine fully formed—which irked Charlotte who complained to her editor, “[Gaskell] seems determined that I shall be a sort of invalid. Why may I not be well like other people?” But Charlotte’s grievances appear to have remained epistolary and she continued to make herself available to her biographer until her death in 1855.
Charlotte’s complaints aside, Gaskell seems to have handled her subject with a certain Victorian sensibility. She omitted unflattering parts of Charlotte’s life and remained sensitive to the demands of pater Brontë even after the death of his daughter. At his request, Gaskell removed a reference to the family’s strict dietary standards—apparently they only ate potatoes for dinner—the result of Mr. Brontë’s commitment to a stark Protestant ethos. Mr. Brontë believed that the detail implied that he was somehow responsible for the early deaths of all six of his children. While Gaskell’s Life might have embellished novelistic detail (for example, Keeper’s “fierce red eyes,” a description that seems more fit for a Sherlock Holmes novel), the facts are generally unquestioned. It would appear that the Emily-Keeper incident was more than likely factual. Yes, Dear Reader, Emily Brontë beat her dog.
Animals are something of a leitmotif in Life, on them the incivility and roughness of West Yorkshire is written. If Haworth Parsonage is a Victorian purgatory, then at least it’s a haven from the meanness of the moors’ inhabitants. Gaskell tells of an elderly squire so enamored with cock-fighting that, in defiance of British law, he watches the sport from his deathbed using “looking glasses arranged in such a manner, around and above him, as he lay, that he could still see the cocks fighting.” The lower classes are similarly pagan in their relish for animal sacrifice. Gaskell recounts, with near glee, the “savage delight” for illegal bull-baiting. But who could blame them? If the nobility was in love with blood sport, who could expect the poor “to be more humane than those of the wealthy and better educated?” In comparison to bull-baiters and cock-fight enthusiasts that roamed the Yorkshire moors, Emily looked like Jane Goodall.
But if animals served as sad character witnesses for the slack-jawed locals, then the Emily-Keeper incident serves a similar purpose. Gaskell recounts the story to tease out “points in the characters of the two sisters.” Charlotte is a veritable Saint Francis, and her simple, tender gestures inspired the affection of any animal. Charlotte’s animal sensibilities – cultured and civil – are cultivated by an acceptable exercise of human empathy. It is effectively anthropocentric, Charlotte’s exercise of human morality reaffirms man’s centrality, hence the “helplessness of an animal was its passport to Charlotte’s heart.”
If Charlotte is all culture, all humanity, then Emily is all passion, all animality. Charlotte is compelled by animals’ helplessness; Emily is lured by their “fierce, wild, intractability.” Gaskell’s Emily is otherworldly, more animal than human, a woman who embraces the unfettered passions of nature’s inhabitants. If Emily, like Keeper, is an animal, then their relationship is one of animalistic kinship, formed in canine hierarchy, not human empathy. Emily’s animal justice might seem unfathomable to cultured urbanites, but Keeper understood. She alone spoke his language.
What if we took Charlotte’s hints and Gaskell’s animal metaphor and ran with it? What if we thought of Emily as animalistic? What if we situated her intellectual life outside the drab walls of Haworth and let her loose inside the animal kingdom? In that space, a very different Emily Brontë emerges, a writer who is deeply uncomfortable with the cultural order, reveling instead in her deep affinity for the animals of the wilds.
It is nearly impossible to find any imprint of Emily without accompanying animal tracks. Her letters and journal entries teem with mentions of her household menagerie: Keeper, Anne’s dog Flossey, cats, geese, a parakeet, even a hawk named Hero. We know she eagerly consumed “dog anecdotes” in popular publications, a kind of predecessor to Buzzfeed’s curation of adorable corgis. Emily’s sketchbook, too, is filled with drawings of her animals, including a watercolor of Hero and a small loose drawing of Keeper’s head.
The few people who encountered Emily could only recall her with Keeper at her side. Ellen Nussey, one of the few regular visitors at Haworth, recalls the sizeable dog climbing onto her lap. Nussey saw Keeper as a way past Emily’s reserve and welcomed the awkward presence of the beast, writing that “Emily’s heart was won by [my] unresisting endurance.” If Nussey’s reminiscence is the stuff of domestic love familiar to modern dog owners, then the stories recalled by Emily’s neighbors reveal the other side of her canine affection. Haworth’s stationer, John Greenwood, recorded in his diary a violently protective scene in which Emily broke up Keeper’s encounter with another dog:
She never spoke a word, nor appeared the least at a loss what to do, but rushed at once into the kitchen, took the pepper box, and away into the lane where she found the two savage brutes each holding the other by the throat. In deadly grip, while several other animals, who thought themselves men, were standing looking on like cowards as they were, afraid to touch them—there they stood gaping, watching this fragile creature spring upon the beasts—seizing Keeper ’round the neck with one arm, while with the other hand she dredges their noses with pepper, and separating them by force of her great will, driving Keeper, that great powerful dog, before her into the house, never once noticing the men, so called, standing there thunderstruck at the deed.
Here again Emily appears mythical and otherworldly, imposing order on nature when others could only find entertainment in its violence. That Emily could control such a large, grim dog, what one villager described as a “conglomerate, combining every species of English caninity from the turnspit to the sheepdog,” spoke to some kind of mystical power. This lore was fueled, no doubt, by recollections of Emily and Keeper crossing the moors on many nights to retrieve her alcoholic brother from the town’s pub. Certainly Keeper would have been a reassuring companion, returning Emily’s loyal favors.
Emily herself seems to have believed in a fundamental kinship between humans and animals. Her juvenilia explores with a naturalist’s keen eye the interconnectedness of mammals. Take, for example, the merciless truths of The Butterfly, in which she writes of a “god of justice and mercy” who righteously inflicts pain “on his creatures, be they human or animal, rational or irrational.” In her youthful essays Emily celebrates the divine gift of nature’s destructive forces. Her naturalism is almost pagan; she grants animals self-reflective souls, a radical act in an era where Descartes’ interpretation of animals as unfeeling, mechanical automata still reigned supreme. Searching for evidence of animals’ souls, Emily concluded that animal instinct was evidence itself of this divine gift. In Filial Love, she wrote that “instinct is a portion of the divine soul which we share with all animals that exist, and has not God placed in the heart of an infant a comparable feeling?” Take out the God, and Emily’s correlation between instinct and feeling is near-Darwinian.
What Emily hints at in her earlier essays becomes concrete philosophy in The Cat, a celebration of feline misanthropy. She drolly argues that the “cat is an animal who has more human feelings than almost any other being.” With cats we share “hypocrisy, cruelty, and ingratitude,” though cats are superior in one sense: they are honest about their foibles, while we humans insist on the cultivated goodness of our natures. Emily urges us to embrace our animality, to see how it works both on and in us, and to take a suspicious eye towards the refinement of “society.” She describes a familiar Victorian domestic scene, a “delicate lady, who has murdered a half-dozen lapdogs through pure affection,” who praises a young son when he presents a “beautiful butterfly crushed between his cruel fingers.” She wishes this lady insight beyond her sophisticated drawing room, wishes her eyes open to see “the image, true copy, of your angel,” which is a “cat, with the tail of half-devoured rat hanging from its mouth.”
Emily seems to warn us of the dangers of anthropocentrism and offers instead a prescriptive animal soul. For little boys who delight in the death of insects, it was a cat; for Emily, it was Keeper.
It’s a strange corrective to society’s vanities – to rescue us from ourselves by reveling in our pre-cultural animal states. But what if we took Emily’s view? What if we looked for the presence of the “rational” and the “irrational” in Emily’s only book, Wuthering Heights, taking Heathcliff, Catherine, and the novel’s hideous inhabitants, and transformed them all into animals? Emily Brontë might not have been just a great animal lover, but the nineteenth-century’s greatest animal writer.
There is a certain animal-like savagery that haunts the pages of Wuthering Heights (published in 1847 under her pen name Ellis Bell). And Emily seems to have left bread crumbs throughout the book that constantly redirect us from person to animal and back again. Dogs with fierce names like Skulker and Growler roam the novel’s pages and dogs appear whenever a character is in need of classification. Heathcliff is “fierce…wolfish man,” he “howl[s], not like a man, but like a savage beast.” The cultured and wealthy Linton children are as high strung as their “yelping” lap dog which they “nearly pulled in two between them,” and, like their dog, they are worthy of scorn as are all “petted things.”
The Linton’s lapdog appears again, when Heathcliff hangs it from a tree positing a connection between Isabella and the animal, both of whom persist in stupid loyalty and “still creep shamefully cringing back” to their abusive master. When Isabella finally leaves Heathcliff, she reclaims the dog “who yelped wild with joy at recovering her mistress.” Catherine’s erratic behavior, her ability to will herself ill, and eventually dead, is reminiscent of an animal’s despair in captivity. And as adults, they are all willing to eat their young, devouring their children from some mislaid sense of survival.
The characters in Wuthering Heights are all thoroughly animalistic, but they return to an animal state only through transgression of human law. But this seems to be the novel’s very point, to investigate the very repulsiveness of dehumanization, to honestly depict the extreme results of humanity’s break from nature, to transform everyone into animals to reveal the horrible things we’re willing to do to them. (It’s worth remembering that Heathcliff wasn’t so awful until he leaves the moors and becomes “a man of the world” and Catherine at her worse after she capitulates to social expectations and marries Edgar Linton–one of those “petted things”—for social standing.)
Contemporary book reviewers seem to have noticed that something biological was going on in between the lines. “Ellis Bell seems to take a morose satisfaction in developing a full and complete science of human brutality,” wrote E.P. Whipple in the North American Review. “In Wuthering Heights he has succeeded in reaching the summit of this laudable ambition. He appears to think that spiritual wickedness is a combination of animal ferocities, and has accordingly mad a compendium of the most striking qualities of tiger, wolf, cur, and wild-cat, in the hope of framing out of such elements a suitable brute-demon to serve as the hero of his novel.” Another reviewer remarked on the “abominably pagan” Catherine and Heathcliff as “animals in their native state.” Indeed, the vivid sexual imagery to which these critics allude seems more sensible in a novel about animals.
For Emily it seems that humanity could only be defined according to a logic of cruelty; both those we inflict upon ourselves and other animals. Perhaps exploring her animality alongside Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s makes for a better reading of Wuthering Heights, a difficult novel that it seems everyone appreciates but no one likes. I’m not certain that this is an easier reading of the book, Emily’s philosophy was harsh and, at times, unforgiving. But it was fair, to animals and humans alike; we are all equally fallen, equally capable of brutality, all capable of redemption. Whether or not we choose to recapture that redemption—to resist “the world,” and reenter a natural state—seems to be our choice. The inhabitants of Wuthering Heights are, perhaps, Emily’s warning: humanity dehumanized, sundered from its animal past, runs amok without nature’s truth.
A year after the publication of Wuthering Heights, Emily caught consumption and died within a month of diagnosis. It was a fast death for a disease which had taken much longer to kill her mother and her younger sister Anne. Keeper kept watch at her sick bed and Charlotte recorded, with some affection, that he “lay at the side of her dying bed.” Emily’s last living act was apparently to get out of that bed and feed him. Charlotte recounts Emily’s insistence that she care for the dog, though the trip down those same creaky stairs that she had once dragged Keeper was difficult on her body. Emily fell on her way back to bed, hitting the wall hard, she died the next day.
Almost every account of her funeral alludes to Keeper’s pursuit of the funeral cortege, he “followed her funeral to the vault” and then came into the church where, Charlotte writes he was “lying in a pew couched at our feet while the burial service was being read.” His behavior after Emily’s death was, according to visitors and family, mournful and sad. That Charlotte and her father clung to Keeper is evident in the remaining accounts – a poor substitute for Emily, but the only one they had. He appears intermittently in Charlotte’s letters for the three years he survived Emily, he was, she wrote, “like a devouring flame.”