I love the Brontes. I keep a post card of Charlotte’s portrait in my study, on the bookshelf holding the novels I have written. I look at her and she looks back at me, faintly arch perhaps. Jane Eyre has remained one of my favorite books for over 30 years, since reading it in my freshman year of college. Emily’s Wuthering Heights also posseses a recognizably powerful wildness and passion, notwithstanding its somewhat overblown melodrama (sorry, Twlight fans). I’ve even read Anne’s books The Tenant of Wildfell hall and Agnes Grey, as well as Charlotte’s follow-up to Jane Eyre, Villette.
I mention all this not to brag—not entirely, anyway—but mainly to point out that there’s a reason why Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are the best-known books of the bunch: it’s because they’re the best stories. They’re filled with compelling characters (Jane and Heathcliff, mainly; Catherine and Rochester, less so) and unusual incident. Besides, my recitation of the above list should prove to anyone that I do, in fact, love the Brontes. Heck, I once visited London’s National Portrait Gallery just to hunt up Branwell Bronte’s none-too-flattering portrait of them. There they were: I looked at them and they looked back at me, faintly pursed.
More than anything, though, I think I love the idea of the Brontes. The thought of these three sisters, barely four years apart in age, in a lonely parsonage house on the moors of midlands Britain (along with doted-upon brother Branwell) strikes me as almost unbearably romantic. Inhabiting their own enclosed environment, a Petri dish of creativity, these women individually and collectively set out to populate a world of their own imagining, first for their own amusement and later as serious novelists. As a New England boy who grew up in semi-rural circumstances and made up stories to amuse himself, I find this idea of the Bronte’s own semi-isolation to be powerfully moving.
So I jumped at the chance to review The Brontes of Haworth. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recollected that there had been a ‘70s movie made of these sisters’ lives, starring the French stunner Isabelle Adjani as Emily (Google her—you’ll be glad). I thought, gosh, she seems a little glamorous for this family, but who knows? Maybe she can act the part, like Charlize Theron in Monster.
Alas, I got it all wrong. The Brontes of Haworth is not the 1979 French film but a five-episode British serial made in 1973 which is in some ways nearly as stodgy as the Victorian era it represents. Shot on location in the family homestead in Haworth, the series achieves an effectively claustrophobic feel, but it focuses as much on underachieving brother Branwell as on the woman who made the Bronte name famous; in fact he rather dominates the first two episodes. This is unfortunate, because the women are a lot more interesting, but then again this series is not called Only the Interesting Brontes of Haworth.
As the series progresses, Branwell’s struggles grow acute and the sisters have their own ups and downs, even as they all wrestle with a passionate love of storytelling, a vivid life of the imagination that is in marked contrast to the dreary constraints of daily reality. Ironically, the storytelling is sparked by Branwell, who as a child shares a gift of toy soldiers with his sisters, insisting that each girl give their figurine a name and history. Later he draws a map of their imaginary country, and the tales begin.
Anyone familiar with the narrative of the Brontes’ lives will know what’s coming, and those who are not will not wish the events to be spoiled by me. Let’s just say that the output of these sisters was disappointingly small, and the series illustrates why.
The DVD presentation here is competent but not much more. Colors are muddy and muted; perhaps this is appropriate for the time and the material, but in these days of crisp transfers and sharp definition, the quality seems substandard. The sound is poor, too, with many lines of dialogue swallowed up in the muffled recording. This is made up for, in part, by the performances, which are very good, especially Rosemary McHale as the fiesty, mercurial Emily Bronte and Alfred Burke as the family patriarch. Vickery Turner does well as Charlotte and Anne Penfold as the sweet but somewhat overlooked Anne.
It’s tough to recommend this series to any but the most diehard Bronte fans. It doesn’t look particularly good, and the most interesting parts of the women’s lives—their unexpected success in a male-dominated publishing world—are scarcely touched upon. Far too much emphasis is lavished on Branwell, a guy who frankly didn’t do much of anything, and various soap opera-y subplots. The whole series is nearly 40 years old and looks older. There are virtually no extras, just some mildly interesting background information on Haworth.
On the other hand, fans of the women, either as writers or as interesting figures in and of themselves, might be curious. March 2012 sees the release of yet another film edition of Jane Eyre—the 21st such—and later in year we’ll get the 15th film version of Wuthering Heights. Obviously, there’s something about these stories that continues to touch people. There’s also room for the ongoing debate: who was the better writer, Charlotte or Emily? Who was the more compelling heroine, Jane or Catherine? Who would you swoon for, Heathcliff or Rochester? Answering those questions tells us something about what we expect from literature, and perhaps from ourselves.
The Brontes of Haworth is unlikely to answer these questions. What it might do is bring home, once again, the miracle that we’re even in a position to ask them—that these women lived the lives they did, and told the stories they did, and even today leave us pondering their pictures on our own bookshelves, 160-odd years later.