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Brontë, Emily Jane [pseud. Ellis Bell]free

(1818–1848)
  • Juliet Barker

Brontë, Emily Jane [pseud. Ellis Bell] (1818–1848), novelist and poet, was born on 30 July 1818 at the parsonage in Market Street, Thornton, near Bradford, the fifth of the six children of the Revd Patrick Brontë (1777–1861) and his wife, Maria (1783–1821), daughter of Thomas Branwell, a merchant of Penzance, and his wife, Anne. Patrick Brontë, the son of a poor tenant farmer, had left his native Ireland in 1802 to take up a sizarship at St John's College, Cambridge, and, after graduating, was ordained into the Church of England. In 1812 he met Maria Branwell who had left Cornwall to assist her uncle and aunt in the running of Woodhouse Grove School, Rawdon, near Bradford. They married in the same year and had six children: Maria (1814–1825), Elizabeth (1815–1825), Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), (Patrick) Branwell Brontë (1817–1848), Emily Jane (1818–1848), and Anne Brontë (1820–1849). With so large a family and no income except his small salary and his wife's even smaller annuity, Patrick faced constant financial problems. In 1820 he accepted preferment to Haworth, a small industrial township surrounded by moorland, some 12 miles away from Bradford. The post offered him an increase in salary, security of tenure, and a larger parsonage house in which his family could live rent-free. Before her second birthday, therefore, Emily left her birthplace at Thornton for Haworth, which would be her home for the rest of her life and would provide the inspiration for much of her work.

Early years and education

In September 1821, eighteen months after the move to Haworth, Mrs Brontë died, and her elder sister Elizabeth Branwell (1776–1842), who had come from Penzance to nurse her, now took up permanent residence with the family. Her determination to enforce habits of 'order, method and neatness in everything' and 'a perfect knowledge of all kinds of household work' (Gaskell, 147) caused many clashes with her nieces, particularly Charlotte, but also instilled a self-discipline for which they were all grateful in later life. Emily, who later took over her aunt's role as housekeeper at the parsonage, was clearly a more apt and willing pupil than her elder sister. Unlike most parsonage daughters, however, the Brontës were not limited to a purely domestic role but were allowed to share their brother's academic lessons with their father, studying not only the Bible but also history, geography, and biography. This in itself was unusual for girls of their age and class but, even more unusually, their father allowed them unlimited and uncensored access to books, periodicals, and newspapers. They exploited this freedom to the full and their reading inspired many of the imaginative games and play-acting which already occupied their leisure hours.

In 1824 the four eldest Brontë girls were sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, a newly opened charitable institution where the daughters of impoverished Anglican clergymen could obtain a formal education at subsidized rates. Conditions at the school were harsh, especially for girls from a relatively comfortable home. Inedible and insufficient food, inadequate heating, and primitive sanitary arrangements, combined with a rigidly disciplinarian regime, caused much suffering. A number of pupils were sent home ill, among them Maria and Elizabeth Brontë, both of whom had contracted tuberculosis. They died, within six weeks of each other, in 1825, and their younger sisters were immediately brought home by their father. While Charlotte never forgot or forgave the school and its founder, whom she blamed for her sisters' deaths, notoriously indicting them in savage portrayals in Jane Eyre (1847), the experience apparently left Emily unscathed. At six she had been the youngest child at Cowan Bridge and this may have afforded her some protection. She certainly enjoyed a privileged status, being remembered affectionately by the superintendent as 'a darling child', 'little petted Em', and 'quite the pet nursling of the school' (Barker, 134).

The four remaining Brontë siblings resumed their education at home under the guidance of their father and Aunt Branwell and threw themselves into their shared passion: the creation of imaginary worlds. The most important, the play of the 'Young Men', was inspired by their father's birthday gift to Branwell of a box of toy soldiers in 1826. It was an indication of their relative roles in the plays that Charlotte chose Wellington and Branwell Bonaparte to be their heroes, while Emily's, 'a Grave Looking ferllow' (Barker, 154), was simply called Gravey and Anne's, Waiting Boy. By 1829 Charlotte and Branwell were recording the adventures of the Young Men in home-made miniature books, a habit they maintained well into adulthood. At what stage Emily and Anne began to do so can only be conjectured, as no complete manuscripts of their prose tales survive. They had already established one independent kingdom, Parrysland, which Charlotte, in 1830, mocked for being mundane and provincial, but the foundation of the most important and long-lasting, Gondal, probably dates from 1833 when Emily was fourteen and Anne thirteen. The creation of Gondal, a large imaginary island in the Pacific, revealed both Emily's determination to break away from the domination of the older children, as well as her greater empathy with her less forceful younger sister.

Ellen Nussey (1817–1897), Charlotte's schoolfriend, visiting Haworth for the first time that year, noted that Emily had now:

acquired a lithesome graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house except her Father, her hair which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte's was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind<ly>, kindling, liquid eyes, sometimes they looked grey, sometimes dark blue but she did not often look at you, she was too reserved. She talked very little, she and Anne were like twins, inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy which never had any interruption.

Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.598

Ellen's description of Emily is supported by the only two portraits of her known to have survived. The ‘Pillar portrait’ and the profile portrait, which is a fragment of a larger lost painting known as the 'Gun group', were both painted by Branwell, probably in 1834–5 when he was studying portraiture professionally.

Emily's earliest surviving diary paper, written jointly with Anne on 24 November 1834, gives a cheerful, if chaotic, glimpse of life at the parsonage. 'It is past Twelve o'clock Anne and I have not tid[i]ed ourselv[e]s, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play' (Barker, 221). Significantly, it draws no distinction, even by punctuation, between events in the imaginary and real worlds: 'The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine Sally mosley is washing in the back Kitchin.' Emily's lessons with her aunt and father had now been superseded by lessons from Charlotte, who thus passed on the benefit of her own eighteen months' schooling at Roe Head, Mirfield. Though this was supplemented by instruction in art and music from professional local teachers, Emily's lack of a formal education would make it extremely difficult for her to earn her living in future. When Charlotte returned to Roe Head as a teacher in July 1835, Emily therefore went with her as a pupil, the first occasion she had left home since Cowan Bridge. This time, however, at seventeen, she was not the youngest but probably much the oldest pupil. With her intense reserve, social awkwardness, and lack of conventional education, it was not surprising that she stood out from the crowd and was miserable. Worst of all, the discipline of the school day and the mind-numbing boredom of rote learning left her little time or energy to indulge in the Gondal fantasy which had become an absolute necessity to her. After only three months at school, she became so ill that her father recalled her to Haworth and her place at Roe Head was taken by the more pliant Anne.

Early writings

Emily's experience at school and her separation from Anne, which, apart from holiday intervals, lasted for almost ten years, had two important consequences. Emily seems to have recognized her difference from her peers and decided to reject them, preferring instead to become more intensely self-sufficient and reclusive than before. Perhaps more importantly, because her writing partner and kindred spirit was now far away, she seems to have made a conscious effort to collect her poems, preserve them in writing, and date them, so that they could be shown to Anne whenever she returned. Certainly the earliest surviving dated poems belong to 1836, though she must have been writing poetry earlier. It would be surprising, too, if Emily (and Anne) had not written prose tales about Gondal before this period, though the first reference to one does not occur until the joint diary paper of 26 June 1837 when Emily was then working on her 'Life of A[u]gustus Almeda'.

Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the entire Gondal prose cycle has disappeared. All that survives to indicate its existence are a few passing references in the diary papers and, vitally, Emily's opus of 200 extant poems. Sixty-seven are unquestionably Gondal in origin and between fifty and sixty more have a fictional setting which strongly implies the same inspiration. The status of the rest remains open to doubt, not least because Emily often began a poem with an actual description of the moment of writing before drifting into Gondal composition ('There shines the moon, at noon of night', 'Castle Wood'). Some poems are undoubtedly autobiographical ('Loud without the wind was roaring', 'A little while, a little while') but many more are ambivalent and attempts to categorize them too distinctly should be treated with caution.

Gondal, as revealed through the poems, owes as much to Scotland as to Haworth. Sir Walter Scott, whom Emily had chosen as early as 1827 to be her Chief Man in the Brontë plays of the Islanders, was the paramount influence. His novels and ballads not only provided a landscape setting with which Emily, like her siblings, could identify, but also a host of romantic characters and storylines which they plagiarized and developed. Byron, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare were also major influences, as was the less well-known Scottish poet David Moir, who contributed regularly as Delta to Blackwood's Magazine. Even at this early period, when Emily was more attracted to the dramatic, even melodramatic, in her tales of betrayal, revenge, and death, she was already capable of writing with that combination of tender lyricism and deceptive understatement ('Alone I sat the summer day', 'Sleep brings no joy to me') which produced her most powerful poems.

In September 1838 Emily took the startling step of seeking employment as a teacher in a girls' school, Law Hill, near Halifax. 'I have had one letter from her since her departure', Charlotte wrote the following month, 'it gives an appalling account of her duties—Hard labour from six in the morning until near eleven at night. with only one half hour of exercise between—this is slavery I fear she will never stand it' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.182). Emily stood it for six months before falling ill, just as she had done at Roe Head; she returned to Haworth, declaring to her pupils that she preferred the house dog to any of them. It was her first and last attempt to obtain paid employment away from home and, once more, the dutiful Anne took Emily's place as wage earner by becoming a governess herself. Emily remained at home for almost three years. Tabby Aykroyd, the Brontë servant since 1824, had left after complications following a bad fall, so Emily took on many of her household duties, most famously making the bread while reading with her books propped open on the table. She was also, by this time, a proficient pianist, playing the parlour piano 'with precision and brilliancy' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.599), though rarely for anyone outside the family circle. Her love of animals, which had always been held in check by Aunt Branwell, was now indulged with the acquisition of her favourite dog, a huge bull mastiff called Keeper, a pet hawk, a cat, three tame geese, and a wild one.

The arrival in August 1839 of a lively, handsome new curate, the Revd William Weightman, caused much heart-fluttering at the parsonage (and, indeed, in the locality). Only Emily, it seems, remained immune to his charms, earning herself the nickname the Major for defending Charlotte's friend Ellen against Weightman's attentions. This did not prevent her from being a recipient, with her sisters and Ellen, of a set of specially composed and individually dedicated Valentine verses from him—the first any of the girls had ever received. Emily apparently contributed to the Valentine verses the four girls composed in response ('A Rowland for your Oliver'), confirming Ellen's claim that 'Among the curates Mr Weightman was her only exception for any conventional courtesy' (Wise and Symington, 2.274). Apart from Weightman, only Charlotte's friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor seem to have been admitted to any degree of friendship with Emily. Charlotte told Ellen that Emily liked her 'because I never seemed to mark her peculiarities and I never pained her by treating her as a peculiar person'.

Throughout this period, as her brother and sisters came and went in the search for employment, Emily remained a focal point for the family at home. None of the letters she wrote to her siblings has survived, but incidental references make it clear that she and they corresponded on a fairly regular basis. Her diary paper, written in Anne's absence, on 30 July 1841, is both cheerful and optimistic. 'A scheme is at present in agitation for setting us up in a school of our own as yet nothing is determined but I hope and trust it may go on and prosper and answer our highest expectations' (Barker, 358). The imaginary world still had her in its grip:

The Gondalians are at present in a threatening state but there is no open rupture as yet—all the princes and princesses of the [Royal?] royalty are at the palace of Instruction—I have a good many books on hand—but I am sorry to say that as usual I make small progress with any—however I have just made a new regularity paper! and I mean—verb sap—to do great things.

ibid.,

After an immensely productive two years, 1838–9, in which Emily had written exactly a quarter of the poems now extant, her rate of composition had apparently fallen dramatically. It is difficult to see why, given the quality of verse she was producing ('If greif for greif can touch thee', 'In summer's mellow midnight', 'Shall earth no more inspire thee'). It may reflect a temporary preference for prose or it may simply be that Emily herself did not believe that her poems of that period were worth transcribing into the notebooks in which they were preserved.

Whatever the reason for the decline, Emily's life was about to take a dramatic new turn. In pursuit of the idea of setting up their own school, Charlotte had persuaded their aunt to finance a six-month residence for herself and Emily at a school in Brussels. Emily's opinion of the plan is not recorded, but in February 1842 Patrick Brontë escorted his daughters to the Pensionnat Heger, a large boarding-school in the middle of the city. Given her dislike of being thought peculiar, Emily's predicament was particularly harsh. She was not only a protestant and foreigner in a Catholic Belgian school but also, at twenty-four, considerably older than most of her fellow pupils. All the lessons were in French, of which she had no practical knowledge, and she objected strongly to Monsieur Heger's method of teaching, which relied on imitation of classic authors. Nevertheless, she worked hard and won the grudging admiration of her tutor, who rated her genius even higher than Charlotte's.

Emily had a head for logic, and a capability of argument, unusual in a man, and rare indeed in a woman … Impairing the force of this gift, was her stubborn tenacity of will, which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned.

Gaskell, 177

After only nine months in Brussels, Charlotte and Emily were summoned home by the death of Aunt Branwell. Charlotte returned to Brussels in the new year, but Emily remained at home to become the official housekeeper at the parsonage. She picked up the threads of her old life as if nothing had happened, returning to Gondal with a relief that is indicated by the sheer volume of poetry she now produced.

Publications

By 1844–5 Emily was at the peak of her poetic powers, writing hauntingly elegiac lyrics in a spare, natural style (for example 'To Imagination', 'Remembrance', 'Anticipation') and preserving them in her fair copy books. It was one of these that Charlotte found in the autumn of 1845.

I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me,—a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, not at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating.

Wuthering Heights, ed. Jack, 357

Emily was furious that Charlotte had read her poems without her knowledge: it took much patient argument—and the offering by Anne of her own collection—to reconcile her to the discovery and to Charlotte's determination that they should be published. Eventually she gave way and the three sisters began to select poems for publication, taking care to edit out any references which might even suggest their Gondal origins. Emily and Anne each contributed twenty-one poems, Charlotte nineteen. While most of Charlotte's had been written as long ago as 1837, Emily's and Anne's selections were of much more recent date. The two earliest poems Emily included dated back to 1839, but the vast majority, fourteen in all, had been written within the last two years.

The little book, Poems, by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), was published pseudonymously by Aylott and Jones of Paternoster Row at the Brontës' own expense from money left to them by Aunt Branwell. It received three favourable reviews, but sold only two copies. Emily, who always referred contemptuously to the 'rhymes', refused to admit disappointment or, more surprisingly, to abandon any thought of future publication. Even before Poems was published, she and her sisters had each begun work on a novel which they were determined to sell to a publisher. For the first time in her life, Emily was writing not purely for herself and Anne, but for the public at large. Charlotte and Anne, in The Professor and Agnes Grey, both made an effort to break away from the spell of the imaginary worlds of their childhood; drawing on their own experiences, in Charlotte's case of the Pensionnat Heger and the master–pupil relationship, in Anne's of being a governess, they both wrote about what they knew, setting their novels firmly in the real world. Emily had no such experience: she had only ever left home three times and never for longer than nine months. Though she could have written a domestic novel, based on parsonage life, she had no wish to do so. She did what she had always done and retreated into Gondal.

Indeed, Emily had never broken away from it. Her last diary paper, written on 31 July 1845, was, as usual, as much about Gondal as the events of the previous four years. The failure of the Brontës' planned school had left her unmoved ('now I dont desire a school at all'); Branwell's dismissal from his post as tutor at Thorp Green and subsequent debauchery merited only a hope that he 'will be better and do better, hereafter' (Barker, 455). Only Gondal could still enthuse her.

The Gondals still flo[u]rish bright as ever I am at present writing a book on the First Wars—Anne has been writing some articles on this and a book by Henry Sophona—We intend sticking firm by the rascals as long as they delight us which I am glad to say they do at present.

ibid., 453–4

Anne, significantly, was less enchanted, writing in her paper, 'The Gondals in general are not in first rate playing condition' (ibid., 455). Nevertheless, the two of them, at twenty-seven and twenty-five, had occupied a train journey to York 'our first long Journey by ourselves together' in play-acting Gondal roles (ibid., 450–51).

Wuthering Heights (1847), which Emily began to write less than a year after this incident, was very much a continuation of Gondal. The complex story, weaving together the fate of two generations of the Earnshaws of Wuthering Heights and the Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, is dominated by the powerful, vindictive figure of Heathcliff, who seeks to avenge his ill treatment in his youth by destroying both families and seizing their property. The sole survivor of his generation, he gains his immediate objects, but, tormented by his love for Catherine Earnshaw (who had rejected him to marry Edgar Linton), and longing to be reunited with her in death, he ultimately loses the will to complete his victory by preventing the marriage of the two heirs, Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw. 'I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction' he declares, before gladly embracing death himself.

Wuthering Heights is an extraordinary novel, written with a power and passion which baffled and disgusted contemporary critics, who labelled it 'coarse and loathsome' (Barker, 91). Though it is often seen as standing alone in the annals of nineteenth-century fiction, its Gondal antecedents are readily apparent in the striking number of 'similarities of thought, feeling, and verbal expression' (Wuthering Heights, ed. Marsden and Jack, 484) with Emily's poems. Catherine's declaration of her love of Heathcliff, for instance, 'If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn into a mighty stranger', echoes 'No coward soul is mine', and the famous closing lines of the novel, describing the three graves, are strongly reminiscent of 'The linnet in the rocky dell'. The characters, moorland setting, casual violence, passionate and self-destructive love, and vengeful theme are all typical of Gondal, as is the complete absence of any moral tone or purpose—a quality almost unique in Victorian fiction.

Emily also drew heavily on the sources that had inspired the creation of Gondal. Adopting the philosophy of her favourite poet, Wordsworth, she defied the convention of contemporary fiction writing by choosing characters from 'low and rustic life', believing, with him, that this was where the 'essential passions' and 'elementary feelings' of human nature were under least restraint and could therefore be 'more forcibly communicated' (Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802). Walter Scott's influence also permeates the novel, from the opening description of the house at the Heights, which recalls the beginning of Waverley, to the scenes set among the uncouth, quarrelsome Earnshaws, who like the Northumberland Osbaldistones of Rob Roy, prefer gambling and drinking to the more refined pursuits appropriate to their class. Even the eponymous 'wuthering' of the Heights, which Emily defines as 'a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather', is derived from Scottish border ballads, rather than Yorkshire dialect. Nevertheless, Wuthering Heights is emphatically a Yorkshire novel, despite the fact that the only explicit reference to the county occurs incidentally, when Linton Heathcliff pours scorn on Hareton's 'frightful Yorkshire pronunciation'. Emily recorded the dialect speech, particularly that of the servant, Joseph, so faithfully that Charlotte later felt obliged to modify it, 'for though—as it stands—it exactly renders the Yorkshire accent to a Yorkshire ear—yet I am sure Southerns must find it unintelligible' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 2.479).

Emily, like her sisters, found it very difficult to find a publisher for her novel. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were eventually accepted by Thomas Cautley Newby only on 'terms somewhat impoverishing to the two authors' (Wuthering Heights, ed. Jack, 361) who had to contribute £50 towards the cost of publication; Newby undertook to repay this as soon as he had sold enough copies to defray his own expenses. Even then he proved extremely dilatory, being galvanized into action only by the extraordinary success of Jane Eyre, published by Smith, Elder & Co. in October 1847. Hoping to cash in on the Bell name, he brought out the books as a three-volume set in December, but, apart from one or two reluctant admissions as to the imaginative power of Wuthering Heights, it attracted only hostile and uncomprehending reviews. Sales were apparently not even of an order to justify any payment to either author.

It has been argued, most notably by Winifred Gérin, that the public rejection of Emily's work effectively destroyed her creativity and, ultimately, Emily herself. This is the argument offered to explain the almost complete absence of manuscript material relating to the last two years of her life after the fecundity of the previous years. Charlotte, however, reports that Emily embarked on a second novel, just as she and Anne had done; its existence is supported by a letter from Newby to Emily dated 15 February 1848 urging her to take her time in completing it. The absence of a manuscript of the novel (and of the Gondal prose) can be explained only by a deliberate act of destruction. These were important works by anyone's estimation, yet they, together with Anne's Gondal prose, have disappeared, whereas tiny scraps and fragments of Emily's poetry and ephemera have been preserved. A possible hypothesis is that the prose manuscripts, novel included, were destroyed by Charlotte, who feared that their publication, unlike that of the poetry, might add to the vilification of her sisters' reputation. She later tried to suppress Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1849) on similar grounds.

Death and posthumous reputation

On 24 September 1848 Branwell Brontë died suddenly, the alcoholism of his final years masking the symptoms of the tuberculosis which actually caused his death. At his funeral Emily appeared to catch a cold. All too soon it became apparent that she too was a victim of the disease. She wasted away rapidly and yet, despite her physical weakness, obstinately refused to give up any of her ordinary tasks. Suggestions that she should see a doctor, take medicine, or try homoeopathy were rejected out of hand as different forms of 'quackery'. She died at home, aged thirty, on 19 December 1848 and was buried three days later in the family vault under Haworth church.

The lack of autobiographical material and the difficulty of categorizing her poems has made Emily the subject of much romantic speculation by biographers, most of it unjustified. Her literary reputation, however, has quite rightly undergone a revolution, mainly thanks to A. C. Swinburne, who championed both Wuthering Heights and her poetry. Wuthering Heights has been staged and filmed many times and remains consistently among the top three best-selling of all classic novels in the English language.

Sources

  • J. Barker, The Brontës: a life in letters (1997)
  • The poems of Emily Brontë, ed. D. Roper and E. Chitham (1995)
  • The letters of Charlotte Brontë, ed. M. Smith, 2 vols. (1995–2000)
  • C. Brontë and E. J. Brontë, The Belgian essays: a critical edition, ed. and trans. S. Lonoff (1996)
  • E. C. Gaskell, The life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. A. Easson (1996)
  • T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, eds., The Brontës: their lives, friendships, and correspondence, 4 vols. (1932)
  • E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. I. Jack (1981)
  • M. Allott, ed., The Brontës: the critical heritage (1974)
  • W. Gérin, Emily Brontë (1971)
  • E. J. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. H. Marsden and I. Jack (1976)

Archives

  • Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire, papers
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters and literary papers
  • King's School, Canterbury, papers
  • Morgan L., papers
  • NYPL, papers
  • Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Friends Historical Library, papers
  • BL, papers, Add. MSS; Ashley MSS
  • NYPL, papers
  • Princeton University, New Jersey, Robert H. Taylor collection
  • U. Texas, papers

Likenesses

  • B. Brontë, group portrait, oils, 1834 (The Brontë sisters), NPG; see illus. in Brontë, Charlotte (1816–1855)
  • B. Brontë, oils, 1834, NPG
  • J. Greenwood, tracing, 1861 (after portrait by B. Brontë, 1834), Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire; repro. in Transactions of the Brontë Society (1990), 9
  • photograph, 1861 (after portrait by B. Brontë, 1834), Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire; repro. in Transactions of the Brontë Society (1990), 6

Wealth at Death

under £450: administration, Borth. Inst.