Happy 204th Birthday Emily Brontë – 5 Screen Emilys

This day in 1818, in a modest parsonage building in the middle of Thornton’s Market Street, must have been an exciting, and exhausting, one. Just a day earlier a new addition to the family had been born; the little girl squirming and crying would grow up to be famous for her quiet stoicism, and more famous as one of the greatest writers of all time: Emily Jane Brontë. Emily’s life and work continue to fascinate people across the world over 204 years after she was born; this fascination has also seen Emily Brontë depicted on screen many times, and in today’s new post we’re going to look at some screen Emily’s!

Ida Lupino Emily Bronte

Ida Lupino – Devotion (1946)

As I wrote in an earlier review of ‘Devotion’, it would be hard to find a Brontë biopic which strays further from the truth, but it’s still a very moving movie. One reason for this is the inspired casting of Ida Lupino as Emily Brontë. This English-born actress is involved in a tug of love with sister Charlotte (played by the legendary Olivia de Havilland) for the affections of Arthur Bell Nicholls – a preposterous take, but the scene where Ida’s Emily cradles a dying Branwell, her tears mingling with the rain, really hits home. Ida Lupino, like Emily, was also an artistic trailblazer – she became the first woman to direct a Hollywood movie, and went on to direct a further seven motion pictures.

Rosemary McHale – The Brontës Of Haworth (1973)

‘The Brontës Of Haworth’ was a very fine drama series made by Yorkshire Television in 1973, and well worth tracking down if you haven’t already seen it. It’s perhaps the closest of all biopics to the true Brontë story, although that might make it a little dark and slow in some places for some modern viewers. Rosemary McHale is an excellent Emily Brontë – we not only see a highly strung artistic genius, we also see her great kindness which is something that all who knew Emily commented on.

Isabelle Adjani Emily Bronte

Isabelle Adjani – Les Soeurs Brontë (1979)

This French take on the Brontë story has a fabulous cast – not least of whom is legendary French actress and Legion d’Honneur winner Isabelle Adjani as Emily Brontë. It’s a film which takes many liberties with the truth, although not quite as much as ‘Devotion’; Emily isn’t averse to a little cross dressing for example, but it’s hugely stylish and enjoyable.

Sinead O' Connor Emily Bronte

Sinead O’Connor – Wuthering Heights (1992)

Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche took top billing in the 1992 film version of Wuthering Heights but it was a bold and rather unusual piece of casting that caught my eye. Emily Brontë makes an appearance as a narrator (which I thought a nice touch, we can never have too much Emily) but director Peter Kosminsky cast Sinead O’Connor in the role – then most famous as a strong voiced and strong opinioned Irish singer with a shaven head. Nevertheless, it works – just about.

Chloe Pirrie To Walk Invisible

Chloe Pirrie – To Walk Invisible (2016)

‘To Walk Invisible’ is a brilliant Brontë biopic, partly because, in common with many of the dramatisations above, it has a superb cast. Perhaps the real scene stealer in this mini-series was Chloe Pirrie as Emily Brontë. Chloe is superbly believable as the tormented genius, especially in the memorable scene where she discovers that Charlotte Brontë has discovered her secret poetry collection. I particularly liked the close relationship between Emily and Anne (played by an excellent Charlie Murphy) in this version, as this reflects the ‘twin-like’ relationship that existed between the two youngest Brontë siblings.

So, which screen Emily was closest to the true Emily? It is, of course, impossible to say. Emily remains the most enigmatic of the writing Brontë sisters – which is exactly as she would have wanted it. To capture Emily completely would be like trying to catch a moorland breeze between your fingers, she was truly unique and truly brilliant. She was the woman who was so shy that she would stand still and silent in the presence of strangers, and yet she was also incredibly kind and someone who loved to play practical jokes; she mixed little with the villagers around her, and yet they loved her, and, as Charlotte herself wrote, she somehow ‘knew’ them. Above all, Emily was brilliant at whatever she turned her hand to – from baking bread to learning French, playing piano, art and of course writing. All who knew her were in awe of her genius, and if you were lucky enough to know Emily you loved Emily, as these quotes from first-person accounts show:

Let’s join together then and say, a day late, Happy 204th birthday Emily Brontë! I hope you’ll join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Mr Enoch, Graphology And The Brontë Handwriting

It’s my opinion that a person’s literary discernment tells you a lot about them. We all have different tastes in reading matter but if they’re not into books at all, or art or theatre or the things that make life bearable, then they’re not going to interest me. That’s why I’ve always felt gratified by the story of Mr Enoch and his love of the Brontës’ first literary outing – and that’s what we’re going to look at in today’s post before veering aside to look at what the sisters’ handwriting might say about their personalities!

Charlotte, Emily and Anne began their career as published writers in 1846 when Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell hit the shelves and circulating libraries. The story is well known of how this historic literary moment came about: Charlotte ‘accidentally’ discovered Emily Brontë’s secret poetry manuscript, realised how wonderful they were, and, after a blazing row, the sisters eventually decided to try to find a publisher for their joint poetic creations.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

A publisher was found in the shape of Aylott & Jones of Paternoster Row, but the Brontës had decided that they wanted to publish the work anonymously and took on the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The book gained good reviews, but sales were far from promising – in fact it initially sold only two copies (although every copy was eventually sold after Smith, Elder & Co bought the rights and relaunched it). This must have seemed a bit of a blow to Charlotte Brontë in particular, the driving force behind the decision to publish their poetry but their spirits must have lifted slightly on this very week in 1846 when word came from Aylott & Jones that one of the two purchasers had enjoyed the collection so much that he’d requested the autographs of its authors! That man was a Mr Enoch of Warwick, and we have Charlotte’s response to the request written on 23rd July 1846:

We see then that Messrs Bell, the versifying Bell brothers, were communicating with their publisher via a mysterious intermediary – one C. Brontë, whoever that could be? So desirous were they of remaining anonymous that they sent the autographs to Aylott and Jones and asked them to post it on, so that their postmark wouldn’t give any clues as to their location.

Mr Enoch must have been thrilled when the signatures came, and it was just reward for him in his discernment when it came to poetry, but just who was he? His full name was Frederick Enoch, and he was something of a wordsmith himself. The son of a cordwainer (boot maker) and auctioneer, from an early age Frederick took an interest in literature, and by 1851 the census described him as a ‘printer, stationer and shop assistant’.

It seems, however, that Frederick longed to be a writer himself rather than simply selling writing, and there was one particular area he specialised in: songs. A number of songs from the mid-nineteenth century are attributed to him, including ‘Sweet Vesper Hymn’ and ‘My Sweetheart When A Boy’, which gained some popularity in its time. This song was penned in 1870 when Enoch was 43, so too late for the Brontës to have known, but it still endures to this day. We not only know the name of the song and its words, we actually have a modern recording of it thanks to Professor Derek B. Scott of the University of Leeds. Here’s a link to the recording on the wonderful Victorian Web website, and it’s well worth listening to: https://victorianweb.org/mt/parlorsongs/42.html

Mr Enoch is best known today, however, for his autograph request to the Brontë sisters, as it was his letter and the subsequent reply which gives us the only existing signatures of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë using their pen names – and here they are:

Bell signatures
The Bell signatures sent to Mr Enoch

What do these signatures tell us about the Brontës, other than their great wish for anonymity? What does the handwriting of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë reveal? Perhaps the answer can be found in graphology? Graphology is a study which believes that handwriting reveals a lot about the person responsible for it. I feel this is something Charlotte Brontë would have been a fan of, as she was a great believer in phrenology, the reading of bumps on the head. Which leads me to a slight detour which may be of interest to American readers of this blog. I had great fun talking about Charlotte Brontë and phrenology with Gyles Brandreth for an excellent television documentary entitled ‘Brontë’s Britain With Gyles Brandreth’; I’m pleased to report that this documentary is now being shown Stateside on PBS, under the new name of ‘In The Footsteps Of The Brontës’, so do look out for it if you get the chance.

Me with Gyles, and a phrenology skull, on In The Footsteps Of The Brontes

Back to graphology. I had long been of the belief that a piece of writing in the archives of Brotherton Library, Leeds was by Anne Brontë – in fact that it was the last piece of writing she ever produced. At the time it was unattributed, but now it’s listed as being by Anne Brontë – and the essay and my views on it are contained in my book Craving The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200.

As part of my effort to prove it was by Anne I enlisted a handwriting expert called Jean Elliott and sent her a sample of the piece in question along with three handwriting samples known to be by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. The pieces were anonymised, but Jean had no hesitation in confirming what I knew – the article in question was by the author of sample A which I had submitted: it was Anne Brontë.

Jean is a handwriting expert who has often been called upon as a legal expert in court cases, but she is also a graphology specialist, and after I revealed the identities of the three subjects she gave the interesting analysis below:

‘The sisters handwriting show a strong right slant and a certain rigidity and discipline recorded in the production of the letter. Anne – Line construction is very rigid and her lines are so straight . (all three girls show elements of rigidity in their scripts but Anne’s seem more so.) Charlotte – Headline Author of line 5 word advise and line 7 word ‘renders’ letter ‘d’ over emotional nature – maybe loves singing. In my opinion she is more artistic than her sister. When a writer produces a small middle zone (this is the zone that records what is happening in the here and now- e.g. everyday affairs, i.e. Anne can cut off her personal needs and pour effort into aims and ambitions to achieve recognition and success. Letter f with a long lower zone Practical – self reliant. Interestingly both Charlotte and Anne show a small middle zone with an extended upper and lower zone. If we look at all the three girls samples all three share this syndrome.’

Anne Bronte handwriting
Anne Bronte’s handwriting in what I believe is her final work

So the graphology view is that Charlotte was the most artistic of the sisters, and that Anne was more capable of putting her personal needs to one side in order to achieve success. All three sisters are practical and self reliant. An interesting analysis, although of course we know much more about the sisters today than, for example, Frederick Enoch did when he unwittingly asked for their autographs.

I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post, and be thankful that you don’t have to see my handwriting – a scrawl which even I struggle to decipher at times!