Bronte sisters: Why their stories still enthral

Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre Australian-born actress Mia Wasikowska stars in the new film version of Jane Eyre

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This week, major film adaptations of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre will be in the spotlight, along with a play about the lives of the literary sisters.

After 160 years, the power of the Bronte sisters' ferocious imaginations has not dimmed at all.

On Tuesday, the world premiere of a screen adaptation of Wuthering Heights takes place at the Venice Film Festival. Its director is Andrea Arnold, who won a Bafta last year for best British film for the critically acclaimed Fish Tank.

Skins actress Kaya Scodelario plays the headstrong Cathy, while the part of Heathcliff is taken by James Howson, from Leeds, in his first film role.

It is believed to be the first time the famously passionate Heathcliff, described in the book as a "dark-skinned gypsy", has been played by a black actor.

On Friday, Jane Eyre opens in UK cinemas, with the lead role filled by Mia Wasikowska.

The Australian actress - who played Alice in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland last year - is joined on screen by Michael Fassbender, Dame Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.

James Howson as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights Director Andrea Arnold chose James Howson to play Heathcliff after open casting sessions

On the same night, a play about Emily, Charlotte and their younger sister Anne - author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - opens in Halifax before going on a national tour.

Scripted by journalist and author Blake Morrison for the Northern Broadsides theatre company, We Are Three Sisters links the siblings' story with Chekhov's Three Sisters, which some believe was based on the Brontes.

These dramas join a lengthy list of artistic works that have been inspired by the sisters and their writing. Is there a reason why all three have come along now?

Jane Eyre director Cary Fukunaga suggests that current audiences may be drawn to gothic tales.

"People like darker types of stories, which is maybe why there's less Jane Austen films being made," he says.

"But also I think that it's a story that's going to be retold again and again, mainly because of the strength of the characters and the depiction of the characters."

Catherine Kinsella, Sophia Di Martino and Rebecca Hutchinson in We Are Three Sisters From left, Catherine Kinsella, Sophia Di Martino and Rebecca Hutchinson star in We Are Three Sisters

For 21-year-old Wasikowska, the sisters have clearly not aged much. They are "awesome" and "so bad-ass", she says.

Jane Eyre is a timeless story, she believes. "If you take away the period setting and the costumes, the core of it is a young girl who's trying to find love and connection in a very isolated and dislocated world," she says.

"Boy or girl, I think it's identifiable to anyone of any generation."

Blake Morrison, who first had the idea for his play 10 years ago, says the current collision of Bronte projects is little more than coincidence. The sisters' works, he believes, are "in permanent revival".

"The Brontes are just perennially, habitually, forever interesting," he says. "Like any classic authors, they just keep hovering there and haunting us."

Start Quote

The Brontes are just perennially, habitually, forever interesting”

End Quote Blake Morrison

For Morrison, the true story is as compelling as the novels.

The Brontes' mother died in 1821, leaving six children between the ages of one and seven. The eldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, died in quick succession in 1825, aged 10 and 11, after a typhus outbreak at their boarding school.

Charlotte, now the eldest surviving child, based the conditions at Lowood in Jane Eyre on their experiences at the inhospitable school.

With brother Branwell, the girls began to immerse themselves in an insular fantasy world of imaginary heroes and romances, writing down the stories in tiny script.

"The deaths of two of the siblings meant perhaps that these three, and Branwell, pulled the force back on each other intensely," Morrison says.

Wuthering Heights - six adaptations

Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights
  • Laurence Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for playing Heathcliff in a 1939 film
  • Director Luis Bunuel swapped the Yorkshire moors for the Mexican chaparral in 1954's Abismos De Pasion
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus produced the semaphore version in a 1970 sketch
  • Kate Bush captured the novel's haunting force in her 1978 number one song
  • Northern Ballet produced a dance version (pictured) in 2002
  • MTV introduced the Californian rock musician Heath in a 2003 TV movie

"They had a very tight atmosphere and story-telling became, from an early age, just an ordinary part of their lives.

"It was like a kind of apprenticeship as children, as writers making up imaginary worlds, and as young women that continued."

Their father, Patrick, was the first member of the family to be published, having lifted himself from an illiterate Irish family to attend Cambridge University and write several volumes of poetry.

"The Brontes grew up used to seeing their father's books on the shelves of the parsonage," says Andrew McCarthy, director of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in the family's former home in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

"And he was a tremendously liberal educator of his children. I think the way he educated his children really opened up the possibilities for them in terms of the creative life that they pursued from a very early age."

Graduating from childhood stories to novels, the sisters would work after Patrick had gone to bed, reading and talking over their plans and projects.

While doing so they would pace their parlour "like restless wild animals", as Charlotte's friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell put it.

Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published, under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, within several months of each other in 1847.

Emily died the following year, aged 30, while Anne died in 1849 aged 29. Charlotte was left to walk in the parlour alone.

She died in 1855, at the age of 35, having experienced literary acclaim but with little notion of the lasting impact her family would have.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    at last "class" as come to the fore.a lot better than that jane sort.deep brooding and a women of substance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    " "People like darker types of stories, which is maybe why there's less Jane Austen films being made," he says."

    He's wrong about Jane Austen--her shadow stories are very dark--- and Charlotte Bronte knew it:

    Cheers, Arnie Perlstein

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What I remember, is about Jane Eyre, when we studied as college curriculum in English Department, about Poverty, Her life of the time she got through. I can say, again, it is containing Didactic messages, but not as much as Dickens's 'David Copperfield' for example. But, generally, to have a book, whether it is about drama, novel, grammar or so on, is a friend with you forever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Wuthering Heights is my favourite book ever! As a native of Yorkshire, I love the fact that it contains Yorkshire dialect. I also think that the Bronte sisters capture the atmosphere of the Haworth and Stanbury Moors so beautifully. The stories are iconic and so brave for their time. I hope that the new adaptations are closer to the book and that the characters are accurately captured.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I'm hoping that this latest film offering is closer to the book than some others I've seen,having felt slightly cheated at some adaptations
    "The fact that the same stories keep being adapted over and over again is largely due to the laziness of film makers"
    I disagree, these books are 200 years old & are still being bought & enjoyed. Remakes bring them to new generations to discover and enjoy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I also love the Bronte sisters' work, especially Jane Eyre - have read it every couple of years for the past thirty years or so and always discover something else in it.

    By the way, No 1, enthral is the "correct" English spelling - enthral and enthralled or enthralling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    A black actor played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights at York Theatre Royal in the summer of 2007 i.e. 4 YEARS AGO!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    yay! i love the bronte sisters. jane eyre is an iconic proto-feminist novel about the importance of female independence and resistance from a male-dominated culture at a time when female writers were more routinely maligned for failing to ratify men's sexist beliefs on 'the female experience' and for exceeding their 'role'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    So very, very dull.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Also, this is not the first time Heathcliff has been portrayed by a black guy - I believe the chap from Hustle also played him in theatre once.

    'Dark-skinned Gypsies' don't particularly resemble your average black guy if you ask me, but I guess that's another debate.

    Love WH as a story, but having watched a few adaptations and been disappointed, I'll be giving this one a massive swerve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Jane Eyre. Certainly my favourite character in all literature. I often snuggle down in bed with her, even at the venerable age of umpity ump years. She, of course, never ages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    If you check on the imdb website you will find that Wuthering Heights has been adapted for film and TV on many more occasions than those listed. The fact that the same stories keep being adapted over and over again is largely due to the laziness of film makers. Why bother writing a new story, or take the risk adapting a less well known one, when you can make a story everyone has heard of?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Great article, but why "enthral" in the subject title? Surely it should be "enthrall" or are we wholly American now???


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