I have always been devoted to the Brontës, those sisters born in a parsonage and destined to become some of the 19th century’s greatest writers. Over lockdown we have seen them appear several times, notably in Wasted, a musical about their lives, which was made available by Southwark Playhouse.
The Brontë family numbered six children. Maria and Elizabeth died young, at the ages of 11 and 10 respectively, after neglect at the austere Cowan Bridge School (surely the model for Jane Eyre‘s Lowood, and for the fate of Helen Burns). The other four were precocious dreamers, given to fantasy and devoted to the wild elements of the moors around the Haworth parsonage at which they lived.
The sisters all wrote novels: Charlotte had Jane Eyre as her biggest success, but also The Professor, Shirley, and Villette; Emily was the author of Wuthering Heights and some unusually accomplished poems; Anne wrote Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. All were partly autobiographical or suggested by people the sisters encountered in life.
We are all familiar with these books, and with the television, film, stage, opera, musical and ballet versions which have been made from at least the best known titles. The Brontë family has also been the subject of dramatization on many occasions, notably in To Walk Invisible for television and Les Soeurs Brontë on film.
Branwell Brontë is the sibling often overlooked, the only boy in the family and the one on which the Rev Brontë placed his hopes and financial investment. The boy first had plans to be be a painter, then a writer, and finally a tutor. His poems have proved to be a minor coda in the story of his sisters, and his character informs that of both Hindley in Wuthering Heights and Arthur in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Joan Greening’s play has a feel of reality TV about it, as first Branwell, then Emily, and finally Charlotte and Anne, have their say. The first two siblings have scenes of the Big Brother diary room kind, with a sense of the confessional about their pieces. This is the wilds of Yorkshire seen through a lens set askew.
Branwell and Charlotte both share an inflated sense of their own importance. Hardly surprising as they were the closest of the four in childhood. The brother who, steeped in booze and consumption, declares himself “the brilliant Brontë” is not that removed from the pious, pursed-lipped sister who describes herself as “the glowing nucleus” of the family.
Creatively filmed, with projections and sets which are sparsely dressed enough to evoke the real Haworth, At Home With The Brontës does not assume a prior knowledge of the family, other than their names. You don’t have to visit the austere parsonage or walk in the churchyard to understand the ambience in which the family thrived.
Greening (who also directs), allows the siblings to tell their stories as they see them. Branwell’s simmering jealousy of his sisters’ success in book form when he was only published in newspapers. Emily’s wistful nostalgia for childhood and her bond with the make-believe worlds of Angria and Gondal. Anne’s gentleness but tough defence of her own books.
The Brontë success is often linked to darkness, devastation and death. An atmosphere which led to an intense period of creativity, but also to personal sacrifice. Charlotte acknowledges this in the final scene of At Home with the Brontës, when she resigns herself to marrying curate Arthur Nicholls. To save the parish and the family home, she contracts to “a mere curate … he will never be my Mr Rochester”.
All the actors – Sarah Archer as Charlotte, Emma Hopkins as Anne, Stu Jackson as Branwell, Julia Munrow as Emily – conjure up the siblings we have seen depicted so often. I would single out Munrow’s scene as the one which is most heartbreaking. Emily says of brother Branwell, “I could drown in his words”. He will say “I’ve always disliked Charlotte, but now I hate Emily, and I’m indifferent to Anne”.
Only in putting pen to paper could the Brontës really say how they felt, however “coarse and disagreeable” the end result may be. At Home with the Brontës has an affectionate tone, highlighting the tragedy behind the stories and the early mortality of these talented siblings with dry humour.
At Home with the Brontës is available through Online@theSpace as part of the digital Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the end of August. It is filmed and edited by Stu Jackson/Feegle Films and presented by Lemon Squeeze Productions.