Sally Wainwright is one of Britain’s best TV writers and directors, and her two-hour drama about Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and their brother Branwell, was a sheer joy to watch. It aired on BBC1 on 29 December 2016, but I watched it last night on iPlayer. I just had to double-check that it was in fact two hours, it flew by.
The writing – unsurprisingly – was top-notch, and along with both the beautiful direction and acting, the show brought to life the complex internal worlds of three extraordinary women and the business of writing when novels were novel. I was reminded of some of Kameron Hurley’s writing about publishing today, plus the ‘scandal’ about Elena Ferrante that broke this year… not much has changed, really, in the 175 or so years since when the bulk of the show was set.
You can tell that Wainwright loves Yorkshire and knows it intimately; while some scenes were shot with familiar framing of the moors and Victorian housing, none of it was cliched. Given the various TV and film versions of the most famous of the novels – Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre – it would be easy to keep the landscape bleak and miserable. Wainwright draws out the beauty of the place in all of its seasons. Art and place – inseparable.
It also weaves in their relationship with their brother, Branwell, and their father, as well as the realities of middle class Victorian life in the counties. I was blown away by how fabulously the story I know reasonably well was brought to life. Lived-in life. The extraordinarily fine balance of showing the terrible behaviour of Branwell and yet also drawing out the reasons why. Both Adam Nagaitis and Troy Tipple were superb as the ‘troubled’ Branwell (as adult and child, respectively). Actually, all the main cast shone: the different personalities of the sisters, and their strong love for each other, their father, and brother (despite everything) – all difficult to portray without slipping into caricature. Finn Atkins was wonderful as the business-minded, easy-to-dismiss-as-repressed-but-actually-fiery eldest sister Charlotte. Chloe Pirrie brought an expressiveness to Emily (her ongoing exasperation about Charlotte changing her mind entirely believable, and her reasons to not accompany her sisters to London convincing), and like others watching at the same time I did keep expecting her to actually, physically lash out and twat someone. Charlie Murphy could have just been fragile as Anne, but while her actions could be seen as being swept along by whichever sister held sway, I think she weighed up her options and did the required deed. She clearly saw the need to accompany Charlotte to London to prove the three writers published as Messrs Bell were not one author but three sisters.
Back in 1993 I wrote a short story about a woman’s love for Charlotte Brontë. It was published back then in an Australian magazine called ClitLit. I’m reproducing my story here because it just seems apt. Please note that I retain the copyright for it.
Slice of Life
Faded fragments, paper dreams. I want to forget you, but I can’t. I see an actor’s face looking like you staring from billboards around this hot summer city. Your name, as though a crowd-puller, emblazoned everywhere. And the songs about you, beating out from record shops, pull on my heart the way you did, all those years ago.
I’ve just moved into another flat, full of strangers. We’re settled now, listening to Madonna and watching some dancers shimmy-shimmy to her on the small TV screen. Through the sound, Jim asks if I’ve got a boyfriend. It’s a question I’ve expected, been asked a million times before with that same longing I hear in his voice. Please say no because I want you.
With a silly grin, I shake my head, wondering if he gets the hint. Useless shouting intimate details in this noise.
Sean passes me a joint, and I pass it on. Not my scene. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you know there’s no point.
Lull in the video clip. To my left Chris and Angel are arguing about Stein and Toklas: ‘Bull they fucked.’
They did, actually, but I don’t tell them that. The music starts up again making it impossible, anyway.
A woman enters. Miranda. Like the beauty of the classics, she stands haloed by light and her hair. Her Nicole Kidman hair. She is wearing her normal white flowing inner city dress, thinking she looks like one of the girls of Hanging Rock as she drifts her hand down along the door frame. She sees me stare, and smiles, shy.
The talk drifts with the smoke. It’s a good welcoming party and I know I’m going to get on well with these people. They’re nice, easy going, unquestioning but they still involve you in things that are important. Most leave me alone, knowing that I don’t really want to talk, just watch and listen. I’ve already told them I’m tired and don’t want to play. They respect that, which is why I think this place is going to work out.
The couples drift off, the singles slink home. I stay, ensconced in the lounge, thinking about things I’ve done and seen and felt. I am alone, yet accompanied by sweet memories.
Now it’s four thirty. The darkest time of the night. Flick on the TV because I’m feeling bored and sleepless. Ride the remote till I find Doctor Who. I watch the antics of the curly-haired one, wondering how Scott was getting on. I remember I met him back in London when this show first started. Glorious year, back then. Thirty years it must be… Must be.
The announcer’s just said Doctor Who is thirty and I met Scott racing to get home to watch this new sci-fi show amidst all the JFK stuff. He must be in his forties now, even fifty.
Miranda comes out into the room, drawn by the noise of Time Lords killing Time Lords. Oh, to be a lord of time, to control it, make it bend to your will rather than be swept along with it…
She stands at the door again, this time in loose silk pyjamas. She speaks, ‘Charlotte, I know what you are.’ I hear the gentle catch in her low voice. ‘What you want.’ I nod, turn the TV off, and go with her like the virgin Madonna once was, and we all know that’s a lie.
Crowds. Christmas crowds making the Pitt Street Mall almost impenetrable. And hot. Sweat pours through my pale Irish skin, dampening my loose clothing as sure as any longed-for downpour. Perspiration drips into my eyes, stinging, and I wipe them just to be able to see where I’m going. Christmas in Australia still frazzles me, that weird feeling of seeing cotton snow in weather that can melt plastic.
I twist and weave through the people, dodging parcels and bags and sticky kids. A gaggle of men, fresh out of uni, charge in a laughing row and part the crowd like Moses and the sea. Girls giggle past, staring at dress shops, wishing for the flares that were dreadful first time round. Rap versions of carols thud out of music shops, and yet it’s still only November. I can smell the smell of sweets drive through the fried food scent so common here at lunch time.
Lunch. My stomach tells me I want food, so I dive into a cafe crowded with sagging grandmothers and their grandchildren on early release from school, all babbling in the pre-Christmas excitement. Some children stare at me as I eat, knowing something different is before them even though I look no different from anything else they’ve seen.
I leave again, and resume my quest. My quest for a present for Miranda, love of my life now. Not a Christmas present (Miranda doesn’t believe) but a present of congratulations. Miranda finishing her university years with her PhD after years of uncertain soul searching. And her mother had written on her sweetly perfumed paper, extolling her praises, and I feel proud too. Maybe a book would be good. One of your books, as I see them stacked in the stores to take advantage of the film. Yet, I wonder if I could bear her touching something so bound up in you.
I lie in the half light of the moon’s silver shine casting in from a window. I am naked, warmed by the glow of a woman beside me. Warmed also by the memory of you. They say first love is the one you remember the best. Maybe. I remember the wild moors we both loved — the wind — even the cold driving rain. Impossible to ignore feeling when all around was so sensual, across these ages…
A now familiar hand pushes against my arm, pushing away my memories, bringing me back to now. A voice — soft, husky — speaks. Miranda’s, sweet after the tempest; ‘Where do you come from?’
‘That would be telling,’ I say, aware the joke catches on my tongue as it always does.
‘You seem so English, but I’ve heard you talk to Jim and Sean about other places you’ve lived. Ireland…’
Silence as I try to think. ‘I’ve travelled a lot,’ I finally say, fudging the answer I know I must eventually give. Miranda forgives the evasion, and runs her gentle fingers down my arm, playing. Though tired, I respond.
I feel the bite of the wind and rain against my skin as I wait for you. I’ve dressed in man’s clothes: black trousers, white shirt, sleeves rolled up, a waistcoat. I’ve even cut my hair short for you, so no one will know. I look, and see, and smile as you ride your pony to me. So wild, so free, so under the yoke of your family.
We play as we always play. Innocent, wild. Later, people put a name to what we do and call it evil.
And I say I must go, away to London, away from here because people talk and I cannot bear their talk. I remember what you say; ‘Don’t go, please. I love you.’
Be brave, I told you, and both of us cried.
I never told you what I am.
Evening, and I enter my home. Miranda is in our room, cleaning, and crying. She hasn’t heard me, doesn’t know I stand watching the scene from the doorway. I wonder, and use her name to question.
She turns, ‘Charlotte. I feel, feel so…’
‘Confused?’ I finish for her.
She moves her arm to point to a sheet of paper on the neatly made bed. A sluggish gesture as though she is completely drained of energy. I move to pick it up, though I already know what it is, what it says. My eyes flick over the spidery cruel words made on the unscented onion paper.
Miranda stands, uncertain, searching for words. ‘I… she was so happy before. All I wanted was to let her know how happy I am.’
‘I know,’ is all I can say.
We look at each other as the moment unfolds, both lost. I have read about this, heard stories, but have never been here before.
‘What about your parents? Do they know? You never talk about them.’
‘My parents died a long time ago.’ I turn, not wanting to talk about that.
‘Oh, Charlotte…’ And I know she has heard the pain of rejection in my voice, and know she has misunderstood my words. But how can I explain?
Picture a green land, green as the pictures of tourist leaflets. Impossibly green. A green that counterpoints the grey of the sky and the stone grey of the hovels that are our homes. The colours are still alive to me, as though I only saw them yesterday.
Smell the peat smoke pervading everything and everywhere, and the fresh scent of the rain that falls more times than the sun shines. Hear the sound of cows lowing, dogs barking lazily, and the lolling beat of music made by the men and women who live here. Romantic memories, tinged and altered by the years that separate me from them.
Idyllic scenery hides the pain.
I remember the sound, the awful sound, of soldiers charging the village. The shouts and screams, the clash of metal on metal, and the loud cra-boom of the muskets as they fire death into the people who are my family. Maire and Feargus run, begging me to come, but, panicked, I stay where we’d hidden the day Cromwell’s army exacted revenge.
Night, dark night. Darker than nights are now. Then I ran, not daring to see what I had to leave to live. I was fifteen and had a lot of living to do.
‘It wasn’t like that,’ I find myself saying to Miranda, as though my tongue has a mind of its own.
She’s twisting a bit of thumbnail with her fingers. A nervous trait of hers that I find endearing in her, annoying when others do it.
I sigh, and indicate she should sit. She does, beside me. I like the feel of her thigh warmly against mine, but she doesn’t rest her hand on my leg as she normally does. ‘My parents really did die a long time ago. They were killed,’ and my mind stops me from continuing, by Cromwell’s army in Ireland. ‘They never knew about me.’
‘There was nothing for them to know. I was only a child.’
‘She says Dad’ll kill me if he ever found out.’
‘I don’t know. It’s possible.’ She turns her sweet brown eyes to me, and they dart back and forth, troubled. ‘I don’t know him, not like I thought I knew my mother.’
There are no words to say. We embrace, instead; the hug of friends not lovers.
Miranda breaks the contact, and looks at me. ‘I wasn’t your first, was I?’
‘I knew it.’
Reproachful tone, though not angry. Hurt, and I understand that hurt. ‘She was someone very special,’ I begin, staring at the floor, seeing you there lying on the grass with your skirts all about you, laughing. ‘She died a year after she married.’ Now I see the paper in my hands, accusing me. I burned it, wanting no record of the pain that caused.
‘God, I’m sorry,’ Miranda says in a rush and I know it is the truth.
‘That was a long time ago, too,’ I continue, quietly, and know somehow that I have to go on, and somehow can with Miranda. I need to, for your sake. ‘I worshipped her, and nobody of hers knew me. One glorious summer on the moors and I had to leave her because I couldn’t bear the way she would grow old before me and die, and I…’ I choke off.
Miranda’s hand touches me, and my skin flinches away. ‘You…’ she says, but I shake my head, ashamed that tears are gathering.
I look directly into her eyes and see you stand, accusing. I hear your words; ‘Don’t leave me! Please, don’t…’ But I had to.
We sit in silence for a while. The door to the flat opens. Jim calls out, ‘Miranda? Charlotte? Sean and I are off to see a movie. Want to come?’
‘What?’ calls Miranda, and I hear how glad she is for the distraction.
‘The Brontës,’ he answers, poking his head around our door. ‘You’re a Brontë fan, aren’t you, Charlotte? You always go on about your namesake. Have you seen the film yet?’
‘No,’ I shake my head. I’ve been avoiding it, trying to avoid the film posters of the Merchant Ivory you. An impossibility.
‘I think we should go,’ says Miranda quietly to me.
I nod, dumbly, and we do go. Maybe it will be all right to see you on the screen like that, to be reminded of you the way others see you. But I cannot stop the stabbing pain in my heart as I remember that last time on the moors, our beloved moors.
When you died, I took your name so you would live forever.