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The enigma of Emily Brontë: ‘I think she suffered from social anxiety’

How did the shy young daughter of an Irish clergyman come to write Wuthering Heights? A brilliant new biopic has a crack at the puzzle

Emily Jane Brontë was born on July 30th, 1818. She was the second-youngest of the four surviving children of Patrick Brontë, a Cambridge-educated Irish clergyman who became the curate of Haworth, Yorkshire. Her mother, Maria Branwell, died when Emily was three.

Emily herself was dead at 30, having written one novel and pseudonymously published a book of poetry with her sisters Charlotte and Anne as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

According to Brontë biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily, after being bitten by a rabid dog, took a hot poker from the fire and seared her own flesh to the bone to cauterise the wound. (The incident is recreated in Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley.) She could bake bread and play piano. And in keeping with the star-crossed lovers of Wuthering Heights, Emily was seldom away from the Yorkshire moors, save for truncated spells at boarding school and, later, in Belgium.

Beyond these scant details, writer-director Frances O’Connor, whose brilliant new biopic Emily opens in cinemas this month, didn’t exactly have a wealth of historical material to draw from.

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“I’ve always just found her a fascinating character,” says writer-director Frances O’Connor. “She was 30 when she died. She was an intensely private person. She was antisocial. She literally couldn’t leave the parsonage without getting sick. And yet she wrote this gargantuan piece of literature full of passion and fierce intelligence. I’ve always just wondered who she was. She’s a blank space, really. I think she was also fairly anonymous until her last year when Wuthering Heights was published.”

O’Connor, in common with such recent scholars as Stevie Davis, suggests that surviving sister Charlotte may have been extremely selective in her presentation of Emily.

Chronicling the short life of Emily Brontë is doubly complicated by the subject’s disposition. All of the siblings were inclined to live inside their own heads, creating elaborate worlds and story cycles: They invented their own fictional worlds; Charlotte and Branwell concentrated on Angria, while Emily and Anne created the Gondal cycle. Numerous accounts from family friends depict Emily as a young woman who was so shy, that even during adulthood, she would hide behind doors when visitors called to Haworth Parsonage.

“My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home,” wrote Charlotte in the preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights.

“Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them, she rarely exchanged a word.”

“I think she did suffer from social anxiety,” says O’Connor. “At the beginning of the film, there’s a scene in which she hides in her bedroom for three days because there’s a houseguest. That really happened. And people around her would complain and say: this is nuts. In her bedroom for three days when they had guests. I mean, I’m an introvert, I completely understand. But she did get so sick that when they sent her away to school, Charlotte had to bring her home. And Charlotte wrote home at the time, saying: I’ve got to bring her home or she’s going to die.”

O’Connor’s film is framed by an important question, which an exasperated Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) puts to her ailing sister, Emily (the wonderful Emma Mackey): “How did you come to write Wuthering Heights?”

It’s an intriguing mystery. Most historians believe that Emily never formed any romantic attachments. Younger sister Anne Brontë was the love of Emily’s life. One family friend characterised them: “like twins — inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption”.

Remembrance, one of Emily’s best known love poems, was not inspired by a suitor, but by the deaths of older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth.

O’Connor, in common with such recent scholars as Stevie Davis, suggests that surviving sister Charlotte may have been extremely selective in her presentation of Emily.

“I think when those novels hit the public, there was a concern,” says the filmmaker. “Wuthering Heights was just seen as a very inappropriate novel. People were horrified by it. And that’s when they thought it was written by a man. I think Charlotte edited her sister fairly heavily just because she was afraid of how they were going to be judged.”

Thus, O’Connor’s Emily introduces William Weightman (played by Invisible Man’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the young assistant curate who likely inspired Weston in Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.

Early in my career. I was so focused on my acting. I just didn’t even pay attention to the film shooting around me. I just unconsciously took everything for granted

“He was a real curate that lived with the Brontës, and as soon as he turned up everyone fell in love with him,” says the director. “He was a bit of a flirt, and they named him ‘Celia Amelia’ because he was like a girl in a ribbon shop.”

Emily escalates this schoolgirl crush into a passionate affair, during which Weightman is both entranced and repelled by Emily’s literary output. The film also imagines brother Branwell (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead) as a freethinking, heavily-drinking dilettante who is indulged by his father (the great Adrian Dunbar) and who unwittingly gets his sister Emily hooked on opium. This subplot may, O’Connor concedes ruffle some Brontë fans’ feathers.

“Without a doubt, there’ll be some people who are really pissed off,” smiles O’Connor. “And good. That’s something. That’s a conversation. I think a lot of people love this book.

And also, then in turn, there’s a lot of people who love Emily. They have a personal relationship with Wuthering Heights and with her and it’s going to be different than mine. They’ll probably get upset about it but that’s fine. That’s what literature and stories should be about. I mean, people were very upset about Wuthering Heights when it came out. But Emily was true to herself. Emily was true herself in how she wrote it. And I take that as my inspiration.”

O’Connor was born in Berkshire, England, to a pianist mother and nuclear physicist father; the family relocated to Perth, Australia, when she was two. A veteran actor, she is no stranger to costume drama, having scored a series of breakout roles in Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park and the BBC’s 2000 adaptation of Madame Bovary.

“Tim Fywell, the guy who did Madame Bovary, was very much about letting things be natural,” recalls O’Connor. “And not to worry about being in a period drama. It’s just a story. And that was important when I came to make Emily. I wanted clothes, not costumes. I wanted to tell a story I was passionate about.”

In front of the camera, O’Connor has been directed by John Woo (Windtalkers), Steven Spielberg (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), Harold Ramis (Bedazzled), Richard Donner (Timeline), Billy Bob Thornton (Jayne Mansfield’s Car), and James Wan (The Conjuring 2). It’s been quite a journey towards making her feature debut.

“I feel like I learned something from everyone,” she says.

“Early in my career. I was so focused on my acting. I just didn’t even pay attention to the film shooting around me. I just unconsciously took everything for granted. Even when I was working with Spielberg, I very much had my character blinkers on because I wanted to do my part of the job very well. But as I’ve become more comfortable as an actor, I can kind of sit there and talk to people about lenses and about why we are shooting like that.

“I learned a lot from Tom Shankland, who I shot The Missing with. I learned from watching him work. He was a great mentor for me too. Any advice needed on set or with edits, he was always really cool to talk to.”

Despite years of deep immersion in the material, she remains just as passionate about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as she was when she first encountered them as a teenager.

“I’m not a scholar, I’m just an artist,” she says. ”But I do think that Jane Eyre wouldn’t have been written without Wuthering Heights. The first novel that Emily wrote was Wuthering Heights. And then the first novel that Charlotte wrote was The Professor, which is not a great novel. It’s a fine first attempt.

“But then if you compare it with Jane Eyre, which is just a masterpiece, I really feel like there’s something that happened when she read Wuthering Heights. There’s something in those stories that is very authentic. That’s why when you read them, you feel like you’re close to Charlotte or close to Emily.”

Emily opens in cinemas on Friday, October 14th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic