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September 2005
"We cannot know..."
Scene from Shared Experience's production Bronte
The three sisters go back in time... [(c) Robert Day]

"...we can only imagine." In their new production Brontë, writer Polly Teale and Shared Experience theatre company ask how the three Brontë sister, spinsters living in West Yorkshire, could have written such passionate novels.

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I went along to see Brontë at the West Yorkshire Playhouse wondering if there was actually any more to be said about Haworth's famous literary family to find that very question was raised at the beginning of the play. The actresses playing the three sisters come on to the stage in modern dress and as they put on their plain Victorian garb to become Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar), Emily (Diane Beck) and Anne (Catherine Cusack) they look back on their characters from a 21st century perspective.

Shared Experience actors as Bronte Sisters  at  haworth Parsonage
Actors Catherine Cusack, Diane Beck and Fenella Woolgar at Haworth Parsonage

Yes, they are amongst the most studied and talked-about writers ever - even the doodles in the margins of the work they wrote as children have been the subject of speculation. Anne tells us that for most people she only exists as a sort of footnote in the lives of her more celebrated sisters. We are told that, although we can't be certain, it is more than likely that Emily had completed a second novel at the time of her death which must have been destroyed by Charlotte who also made radical changes to both her dead sisters' poems before sending them for publication. But, the actors ask, how did these women who had no sexual experience, who were probably never even kissed, come to write like this?

Part of the answer, Teale seems to be saying, may lie with their brother Branwell. As women of their class at that time, their lives were very confined - women could not even join the local library, even after it had added copies of Jane Eyre to its collection! Branwell could go places and do things they couldn't do.

The play begins when Branwell (Matthew Thomas) returns home in disgrace after he has been discovered having an affair with the mother of the boy he is tutoring, the somewhat aptly-named Mrs Robinson. Today Branwell may be seen somewhat romantically as yet another guy who lived "too fast" and died "too young" (a feeling perhaps reinforced by the preservation of his favourite chair in Haworth's Black Bull pub) but in his own lifetime he was just a failure.

Teale argues that everybody - his father, his sisters, and perhaps most tragically, himself - expected great things of Branwell. She comments (in the programme for the production): "Branwell is perhaps the most tragic figure in the play, ruined by the weight of other people's expectations, by fear of failure, the pressure to succeed." Some of his frustration is experienced in his relationship with Charlotte. Closest in age, as children, they acted out the imaginary worlds that they created together in their now famous tiny books. As adults their relationship is marked by mutual resentment.

Anne sits readings as Bronte Sisters  at  haworth Parsonage
Anne (Catherine Cusack) reads - many readers were shocked by her novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall [(c) Robert Day]

This is just a small part of one of the ideas explored in Teale's play and perhaps that's the point - drama, if it is effective, can explore many complex ideas in just a couple of hours. As she points out, Charlotte never thought much of the theatre but I'm sure anyone who goes along to see this production will have plenty to think about l
long after the event.

The play is particularly successful in the way it shows the friction within the family and the way in which their different characters are manifested in their fiction. Emily espouses the world of the imagination while Charlotte is frightened of demons within herself which both Teale, and Branwell in the play, suggest may have more than a little to do with her sexuality. The relationship between the women and the imaginary worlds they created is very effectively conveyed because, as they write, we see their alter-ego (Natalia Tena) on stage who at various times also takes on the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights and "mad" Bertha from Jane Eyre. But Charlotte is also the woman of action, the one who gets their work published and wants to take a bigger role in the world.

Living in Haworth the Brontës were part of the social change going on around them. Child mortality in Haworth was particulaly high and they would constantly hear their father going about the burial service just outside their window - there might be as many as four and five a day. There was frequently trouble at the mill and the sisters would visit families made destitute by industrial accidents and other misfortunes. And yet, Teale argues, it was probably also boredom that turned them to writing. Well-educated, as they went about their routine daily-tasks they retreated into the world of their own imaginations. Charlotte once wrote: "I can hardly tell you how time gets on here at Haworth. There is no event whatever to mark its progress. One day resembles another and they all have lifeless physiognomies."

In the play Branwell is very excited when he gets a post as assistant to the clerk at Sowerby Bridge railway station - railways are definitely the new thing - but he is so bored he starts to drink. His sisters later berate themselves for not showing their disappointment when he tells them about his new job but this is because everything is expected of him while, as one of them says, "nobody expects anything of us." If their mother had lived longer it might have been a bit different.

shared Experience actors as Bronte SistersCharlotte burning paper
Did Charlotte burn Emily's book[(c) Robert Day]

I think probably most people who come along to a production like this must be, at the very least, curious about the Brontës. My expectations were heightened as soon as I entered the Courtyard Theatre and saw how the set, designed by Angela Davies, made use of Paula Rego's dramatic illustrations. Somehow it managed to simultaneously convey the domesticity of Haworth Parsonage, the wildness of the moor and the inner world of the mind. The pace and acting could not be faulted. Despite the familiarity of the story, as brother and sisters died one after the other and Charlotte seemingly discovered some sort of fulfillment, not with the Mr Rochester of her dreams but with her father's curate, this production certainly brought one or two tears to my eyes.

Probably, as with Shakespeare, we will never be able to completely understand what made these three Haworth sisters so different but Polly Teale does seem to go some way towards providing a few of the answers. Anyone interested in the Brontës should go and see the play! However, it might have all been very different. As Emily tells us, the publishers wanted to change the title of her novel because they thought no-one outside Haworth would know what "wuthering" meant. Now, Windy Heights just doesn't have the same ring to it somehow...

Chris Verguson

The Brontës continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse to September 17th 2005 and tours.

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