Everyone has heard of them. Not all of those people have read their work. In fact, many will not have, especially readers of my generation, myself included. But their legacy is so pervasive, so ingrained into popular culture, that their fame has transcended their work and entered the global consciousness. Just like Shakespeare, or Tolkien, or (unfortunately) Rowling. Even if you have never read their stories, you know of them, they are cultural icons.
So I was intrigued to be going to see a play about them. Not one of their novels, not another re-working of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but about them. Their life stories. Blake Morrison’s script is loosely based on Chekov’s Three Sisters, which helps to put their story into a structured format. And choosing Northern Broadsides to perform a play about these three Yorkshire writers was a stroke of genius. You do not get more ‘Yorkshire’ than Broadsides. Fact!
The eerie and sombre backdrop of Haworth and the moors, lends to the audience a greater understanding of the Brontes’ world, and this environment was clearly a great influence on their creativity. As Morrison has Emily observe ‘Listen. There. It’s the mason with his chisel, chipping out another headstone’/ ‘They’re the two sounds we grew up with. The chip-chip-chip of the mason. And the wind whistling off the tops.’* I visited the Brontes’ former home many years ago, and the old parsonage does have an odd air about it, the creepy gravestones which line the floor of the hill adding to the Gothic ambience of the place. Morrison clearly presents to us the idea that lives were short and disease was rife when the Brontes were around, and this gives their story a sense of urgency, a sense that they were trying to exist whilst they could.
Again, despite my never having read their work, although familiar with the plots of the more famous stories, We are Three Sisters manages to strongly evoke the personality of each sister. Charlotte Bronte, played by Catherine Kinsella, is portrayed as motherly and protective of her sisters, pragmatic and grounded in her approach to love and life. Emily Bronte, played by Sophia Di Martino, is presented as being a deep thinker, more melodramatic and romantic in her world view. Anne Bronte, played by Rebecca Hutchinson, is shown to be an innocent yet ambitious soul. All three actresses’ performances were convincing and beautiful and the tragic figure of their brother Branwell serves as a sharp juxtaposition to their characters. He is portrayed as a man cursed by expectations. The play demonstrates how the expectation of greatness without effort, along with his lust and predisposition to gamble and boast, is ultimately the reason why there is no ‘Branwell Bronte’, the great author and poet.
After watching this play, I feel that the sisters’ education and love of reading were key to their talent. Their eccentric father, after the loss of his wife, chose to educate his girls and indulge them in literature and learning. It was through their love of reading, their analysis of the world around them, and opportunity to philosophise and think that they produced work of such skill and perception. That is why their words still resonate with readers today.
‘You know nothing of men, nothing of life, nothing of love, nothing worth knowing at all.’** Branwell shouts at his sisters. Whilst their lives were seemingly quite sheltered (they travelled little and spent their lives in the same quiet and closeted community) I truly believe that people can be inspired by whatever is around them. It does not matter whether you know only a handful of people or a thousand, you can still become an adept observer of human behaviour and relationships, and the rest you can imagine.
Sharing the love of writing by reading their stories to each other is demonstrated as being a powerful source of mutual inspiration, a great incentive to continue expressing themselves. I remember when I was 13, 14, and 15 years old, I would come home from school and my Mum would read her stories to me. The Boggart’s Convention and Sal’s Wizard, two of the first books that my Mum wrote, and still amongst my favourites. I remember being blown away by the magic of them, transported to another world through her words. That these characters had come not from some stranger but my own Mum’s imagination, made them more compelling and real to me. My Mum is excellent at conveying emotion in characters. She makes you, as the reader, empathise deeply with them. For me that is the key to writing. To make your reader feel what you want them to feel, think about what you want them to think about. Grammar, spelling, and all that Jazz, can be taught, but the ability to make a connection with the reader cannot be, that’s where talent comes in. You’ve either got it, or you ain’t. And by all accounts, the Brontes had it.
Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights was re-edited by her sister Charlotte in the years following her death. Presumably, this was to improve the grammar and narrative structure. But given the impact that this story has had on people throughout the decades, it occurs to me that it is the emotions of the characters which strike a chord within the readers, not the grammatical structure of the novel. As if to reinforce this, Morrison gives Emily the following lines when speaking of the sort of man that she would fall in love with ‘he’ll be darker and stranger, like a twisted mirror image, someone more myself than I am, and I’ll love him not from choice or through pleasure, but because he is inside me, like my own being.’*** To me, these words are a perfect description of how it feels to be in love. He gives these lines to Emily, who, by all accounts, was never in love. This tells us how powerful imagination and understanding of yourself and others can be. You do not have to have experienced something to understand how it might feel. That is what being a writer is all about.
The lives of Emily, Charlotte and Anne were scared by suffering and loss. This kind of life experience I feel develops self analysis and emotional development. The sense of the transience of life, the brief and brutal nature of it, looms over their life story. They are presented as being not afraid of death, but afraid of being forgotten. An idea we can all relate to. What is the meaning of our lives?
This is a play about what it is to be inspired, be creative, and the concept of legacy. What will we leave behind us when we go? I myself am terrified that I will leave before I have learnt to write, before I have had opportunity to express all the ideas and stories that are whizzing around my head. And so, it would seem, were the Brontes. Charlotte and Anne’s determination to share their stories, and Emily’s, with the world through publication, even if it had to be under male pseudonyms, is the reason why their work is still in print today.
In conclusion there are two things I would like to say. One, I urge you to go to see this play. It is still touring and it is by far one of the best new plays that I have seen. This may in turn lead you, as it did me, to the second point, to go and read their work. This play has inspired me to actually, finally, pick up these famous novels. After seeing this, I feel I owe it to the three sisters.
*Morrison, B. We are Three Sisters, 2011, Act 2, pg 27
** Morrison, B. We are Three Sisters, 2011, Act 4, pg 64
*** Morrison, B. We are Three Sisters, 2011, Act 3, pg 53.