With Emily now gone to “incessant coughing”, we meet a bickering yet polite Anne (Emma Hopkins) and Charlotte (Sarah Archer) playing a game of one-upmanship over their novels.
Charlotte dismisses all books aside from Jane Eyre (including, presumably, her own). To her, Anne’s books are “course” and “vulgar”, and Emily’s Wuthering Heights was a book “that nobody liked”.
Into this rather toxic creative atmosphere blunders Mr Nicholls (Stu Jackson), “a mere curate” to Patrick (patriarch of the family). In his pursuit of Charlotte, the eldest and fiercely intelligent of the writing sisters, he is nervous and ridiculous, but with Anne he shows sense and hope.
Set in a room which certainly suggests the surroundings of a 19th century country parsonage through furnishings and photographs, this has a fine level of comedy with the introduction of Tabby, the maid (Julia Munrow), a typical if exaggerated example of the servant of the time.
As Brontë-watchers will know, Charlotte did marry Nicholls – and died in childbirth. Ironic, given she had escaped the fate of the tuberculosis which claimed all her siblings. Despite her drive to be an independent woman, for financial security at this time she still needed a man.
There is an undercurrent of sadness here: Charlotte had strongly loved M. Heger (who influenced the character of Paul in Villette), a married man she met abroad. In Jane Eyre she had created a wild Gothic romance between souls in love. Yet she herself was destined to marry for convenience, to keep her home and position.
Joan Greening’s play again digs deep into the Brontë myth and makes these women real and relevant. Anne’s cool determination to accept her inevitable, incoming death, Charlotte’s forceful strength through adversity, and Tabby’s dose of commonsense all serve to pull the audience into the story.
Fringe rating: ****
You can watch Charlotte Brontë Snares The Suitor until 27 June at the Brighton Fringe. Book tickets here.
See my review of At Home With The Brontës here.