Emily Disregards the Most Compelling Part of the Brontë Sisterhood
Iona Glen on What’s Lost in Frances O’Connor’s New Film
In her 1837 diary paper, Emily Brontë drew a sketch of herself from the back, sitting across from her sister Anne in voluminous sleeves, their private papers strewn about them. With quick ink strokes, Emily created a scene that has become an essential part of Brontë iconography: women writing together at a table. A version of it appears in almost every onscreen biographical depiction of the Brontës. Joined by their older sister, in this attitude they wrote three iconic novels: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847), and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).
More than merely siblings, the Brontës are a literary sisterhood. “We are three sisters,” Charlotte famously said when their anonymity could no longer be hidden from her publisher. A trio has a powerful allure, summoning all the number’s witchy connotations. Lucasta Miller argues in The Brontë Myth (2001) that the Brontës are constantly reinvented to suit each generation. Yet too often they are still seen as unworldly spinsters in a desolate Yorkshire landscape, warmed by their surprisingly fiery imaginations. Alongside such mythologization, the sisters’ arduous path to publication was a remarkable collective effort.
The three were writers since childhood, creating imaginary worlds with their brother Branwell. In 1845, when they were all living in their family home of Haworth Parsonage, Charlotte discovered Emily’s poems (an invasion of privacy that initially outraged Emily). At their own expense, the sisters compiled a volume of poetry under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. After it sold poorly, they tried novels. Jane Eyre was published first. Wuthering Heights and Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, came out together in three volumes shortly afterwards, a fitting tribute to her and Emily’s particular intimacy. By 1849, Branwell, Emily, and Anne were dead from tuberculosis. Charlotte survived only six more years.
In The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Elizabeth Gaskell described how the sisters would pace around their dining table in the evenings discussing their work, a habit recreated in the BBC series The Brontës at Haworth (1972). A more recent BBC adaptation, Sally Wainwright’s To Walk Invisible (2016), features numerous scenes of the women working at their writing slopes, or conferring about their manuscripts in the dining room.
But in the latest addition to the on-screen Brontë sisterhood, Emily (2022)—written and directed by Frances O’Connor—the three sisters are shown writing together only once. Emily (Emma Mackey) is placed center; Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething) flank her, out of focus.
This is only a nod to the famous imagery, for the film is uninterested in the elements of collaboration that make the Brontë story so compelling. Lush and poetic, Emily interprets the formation of the middle sister’s imagination, adding an affair with curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Pre-empting criticism of historical inaccuracy, O’Connor rejects the label of “biopic.”
Nevertheless, Emily is marketed around the concept of “authenticity,” perfectly in keeping with the genre’s gestures towards emotional truth over fact. O’Connor may dislike the label, but the film’s weakness is the biopic’s perennial flaw: the oversimplification of events and characters to serve a central protagonist’s personal development. Other family members become satellites that revolve around Planet Emily. By doing so, the film reproduces tired conceptions of the nature of genius and defines women’s relationships as antagonism rather than kinship.
The film is uninterested in the elements of collaboration that make the Brontë story so compelling.
Notably secretive, reclusive, and laconic, Emily is the sister most vulnerable to being categorized as a brooding, solitary genius. Charlotte, designated ur-mythmaker by Miller, described Emily as possessing “a secret power and fire that might have […] kindled the veins of a hero.” Emily’s plot is book-ended by her death on the family sofa at age 30, while a priggish Charlotte demands: “How did you write Wuthering Heights? It is an ugly book.”
The other Brontës’ works are erased. Emily publishes alone, without her pseudonym, toasted by family and friends. There is no mention of the poetry book, no Agnes Grey, no Jane Eyre yet. Anne is mostly ignored, and a false hierarchy of influence is established when Emily’s dying encouragement (and disclosure of her romantic experience) inspires Charlotte to write her own masterpiece. Emily is sealed in splendid artistic isolation.
These choices are disappointing because the Brontës were an intriguing creative community. Emily restructures their lives into a lazy template of familial “black sheep” and individualized triumph. As children, the Brontës developed a shared interior life, given free rein of their father’s library. After two oldest sisters died extremely young, the remaining four children began to roleplay detailed imaginary worlds, sparked by a gift of 12 toy soldiers in 1826. They were the “Young Men,” founders of Glass Town. Charlotte, Branwell, Anne, and Emily became four powerful “genii” presiding over a multitudinous cast of characters. Over time, Anne and Emily created Gondal by themselves, while Charlotte and Branwell extended into the realm of Angria.
Branwell, Emily, and Anne appear to have been involved in their paracosms until death, although Anne gravitated towards realism and religious, self-reflective poetry. In 1839, Charlotte composed “A Farewell to Angria,” to “quit for a while that burning clime where we have sojourned too long,” although its influence still clung to her. The impact of Gondal and Angria, and early fixations on figures like Lord Byron, are discerned in all the Brontës’ later writing. It is fascinating to trace how these influences, the interrelationships of creative energy, are weighted differently according to each sibling’s temperament and artistic vision.
Charlotte’s “Farewell” and later editorial meddling (writing prefaces “explaining” her sisters’ characters and substantially altering their poetry) clearly influences her unflattering characterization in Emily. The film turns Charlotte’s anxieties and wish to move on from Angria into a rejection of writing altogether—and, by extension, Emily. Creatively repressed, she represents the perils of societal conformity. Initial sisterly affection quickly erodes. Charlotte begins to admonish Emily for being “strange,” even shouting at her “I won’t let you drag me down! I’m going to make something of myself.”
More sympathetic, Anne also refuses to continue with Gondal, perturbed that Emily thinks her “games” are real. Such divides allow Emily to grow closer to her more encouraging brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). They take opium and gambol on the moors. When her relationship with Weightman gains pace, Emily willingly shares her poetry with him and discusses sources of inspiration. These alliances with Branwell and Weightman, balanced against Charlotte’s hostility and Anne’s diminishment, imply that her special genius flourishes in relation to masculinity.
Poor Charlotte is even used to scupper Emily’s romance when the narrative requires it. Returned to Haworth from teaching, her condescension is routed by a newly confident Emily in an exchange of French at teatime. Initially amused, Weightman’s smile fades when the camera lingers on Charlotte’s shocked face. He stops turning up to their trysts. Heartbroken, Emily emulates her older sister by ceasing to write. She agrees to accompany Charlotte to Brussels, returning once Weightman contracts cholera and dies. Emily is only inspired to write Wuthering Heights after Branwell meets his own sad end, and a delayed letter of reconciliation from her deceased lover reaffirms his faith in her talent.
Inventing such a harsh dynamic between Charlotte and Emily is an odd interpretation. It was, after all, Anne’s radical Wildfell Hall, so clear-eyed about the mechanics of domestic abuse, that Charlotte deemed “an entire mistake,” declining permission for reprinting in 1850. Regardless of her reservations about Wuthering Heights, she celebrated its “beauties” and did not think it so harmful to the Brontë legacy as to need suppression. Furthermore, it is Anne and Weightman who may have harbored romantic feelings for each other. Yet Anne’s outdated image as the dull, passive sister makes her an unsuitable protagonist for a glossy narrative like Emily, and to question the stereotyping would disrupt its infatuation with the genius misfit.
O’Connor’s pairing of Branwell and Emily, though, is not unique; in fact, it’s consistently repeated across Brontë adaptations. To Walk Invisible’s Emily (Chloe Pirrie) is the only sister who comforts Branwell (Adam Nagaitis) as he spirals into alcoholism. Despite Charlotte and Branwell’s documented early partnership, something about Emily’s persona aligns her more easily with Branwell in popular imagining. Emily goes so far as to imply an inability to separate the two siblings’ identities, with O’Connor rather bizarrely citing the impact of their mother’s early death in 1821. This transposes Heathcliff and Cathy’s intense early relationship in Wuthering Heights, and Cathy’s declaration of “I am Heathcliff” into Emily’s own experience, thus resurrecting reductive autobiographical readings of her novel.
By contrast, To Walk Invisible presents the three sisters as a team, demonstrating Emily’s reserve and Charlotte’s controlling tendencies without resorting to caricature. It is Branwell who becomes the outsider, increasingly ill and despairing. Frequently used as a tragic foil for his sisters, this Branwell lacks resilience, clinging to delusions of a fairy tale marriage with his ex-employer’s widow. The others get to work, guiltily excluding their erratic brother. His own novel abandoned, Branwell becomes an indictment of patriarchal indulgence, while his underdog sisters persevere.
Although stylistically gritty, To Walk Invisible includes brief scenes of the child Brontës in their fictive world, centered around the writing table. It transforms from domesticity to grandeur, set in a hall of marble and candelabra, evoking both the scale of the children’s imaginations and their future pantheonization. Just before Branwell’s death, a final sequence shows the sisterhood dismissing him from their company. They stay seated at their high table of creativity, sacral flames flickering above their heads. This coronal light emerges into reality when their adult counterparts see a parhelion on the moors, creating the illusion of three suns in the sky. Multiple suns cannot exist in Emily. It prefers a single burning candle beside a lone figure in a white nightgown.
The fabulism of the genii is still elusive. As the most recent chapter of the Brontë myth, Emily proffers some hoary old chestnuts: women’s writing is directly autobiographical, proximity to masculinity cultivates genius, and such genius grows alone. Sibling relationships often include a struggle for autonomy, but the Brontës deserve a richer, more challenging exploration of their kinship. Many more filmmakers will attempt to fill in Emily’s drawing of sisters writing at their table, specifying facial features, adding washes of color, shadow, and dimension. Perhaps Emily’s small sketch will always be more alive and suggestive than such representations. The sisterhood still circles their table.