Always Emily

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
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Fact, fiction entangled in lively Brontë sisters mystery.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Almost Emily is infused with genuine details of life in the Brontë family and suggests -- in broad strokes -- some of the influences that might have informed their writing. Each chapter opens with a brief passage from the sisters' writings, and mention of Byron and Sir Walter Scott as favorite authors may encourage kids to visit the library. An author's note at the end helps separate fact from fiction, and encourages readers to explore Charlotte and Emily Brontë's books. 


Positive Messages

Emily, Charlotte, their father, Harry, and others take great risks in pursuit of fairness. While respectful of societal expectations, they aren't afraid to bend -- or break -- those rules in the interest of justice, happiness, and authenticity. Both sisters cross boundaries but feel the ends justify the means: Emily picks locks and snoops in others' belongings, and Charlotte breaks into a locked building. They're devoted to family, but don't let those ties blind them to Branwell's transgressions.


Positive Role Models & Representations

Charlotte and Emily are brave, independent thinkers driven to do what they feel is right. By the story's end, Emily and Charlotte are drawn closer: Emily, who insulted Charlotte early on, is vocal in her admiration and respect for her by the end. Rev. Brontë takes a bold political stand to support poor mill workers despite strong opposition and even the threat of retribution from the owners. His daughters are terrific examples of women pushing societal boundaries. 



Rev. Brontë carries a pistol for self-defense and shoots at an intruder in his home. He teaches Emily how to use it, and she surreptitiously borrows it. In the climactic scenes, both Emily and Charlotte wield the pistol -- but only Emily actually fires it. Women's status as secondary citizens in the early 19th century gets prominent treatment, including references to domestic violence, the shame of having an illegitimate child, and condescending attitudes. Emily cauterizes a wound with a hot flatiron. Charlotte's struck by an assailant, and another character's terribly burned and disfigured in a fire. The girls grieve the loss of their two eldest sisters, who died of tuberculosis blamed on poor conditions at boarding school.



Emily shares a passionate kiss straight out of a Harlequin romance and is caught in the act by Charlotte, who scolds her for her behavior. Charlotte, at times distracted by the lure of romance, is dismissed from her teaching job for writing a romantic tale her employer describes as "obscenities" and "filth." The plot centers on a woman who fell out with her family for getting herself "in trouble" by bearing a child out of wedlock.



An illegitimate child is referred to as a "bastard" (its literal meaning). The word "damnation" appears twice as an oath.


Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Branwell drinks heavily, to the point of vomiting, and his drinking and gambling habits contribute to his disconnection from his family. A woman's given opiates as means to control and subdue her, and Emily gives her a dose of the drugs to calm her down.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Always Emily drapes layers of fictional melodrama over the real biographies of the Brontë family. It's an entertaining (though far-fetched) mystery tale with spirited heroines. Women's secondary status in the Brontë sisters' day gets much attention: There are intimations of domestic abuse, Charlotte frets about the girls' ability to support themselves, and a woman endures decades of suffering after bearing a child out of wedlock. Illness haunts the Brontë family, striking down two of the sisters. The Freemasons are presented as a menacing organization, though the author clarifies in a note at the book's end that the real nature of the fraternity is benign.


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What's the story?

Practical, proper Charlotte Brontë always seems to be at odds with her heedless sister, Emily. The two clash at school, where Emily's a reluctant student and Charlotte an uninspired teacher. Back home, they fare little better -- and their desultory, louche brother isn’t helping matters. The friction between them soon takes a back seat to the strange happenings on the moors: a break-in at the Brontë home, the suspicious death of a neighbor, a mysterious woman, a handsome stranger, and a secret fraternity. The very traits that make the sisters so different prove a perfect pairing as the Brontës embark on a dangerous adventure in the interest of justice and fairness.

Is it any good?

Michaela MacColl roots ALWAYS EMILY in the true story of the Brontë family, and the result will either delight or irritate readers who treasure Emily and Charlotte Brontë's work. MacColl imagines the sisters as 19th-century Nancy Drews, caught up in intrigue by chance and solving the mystery with pluck and determination. For readers who have yet to encounter Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, the novel may provide some insight into how the authors' lives shaped their novels … or it may muddy their understanding of the real Brontë sisters. 

Biographical concerns aside, it's an enjoyable story with appealing heroines. The denouement is hardly revelatory, but getting there is so absorbing it almost doesn't matter. 


Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the mixture of historical fact and fiction. How do you feel about blending real events with made-up ones? Does this story influence how you view the Brontë sisters, or their writing?


  • In what ways are Charlotte and Emily particularly unusual for the time and place they lived?


  • How do your real-life experiences influence your fictional writing?


Book details

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