The problem with trying to make a biopic of a famous historical figure is that sometimes, there just aren’t many pertinent records to assist you.
Perhaps diaries, letters, or other private papers no longer exist. Perhaps such records never existed. If they do exist, perhaps they’re held in a private collection to which access can’t be gained. Perhaps they were written in a secret code that has taken over a century to be cracked. Perhaps a well-meaning but ultimately unreliable account of a person’s life has already become the ‘official version’ that is accepted as the truth.
In the case of famous historical women, one or more of the above fates may have befallen the records, leaving only vague hints as to the reality of their lived existence. Such is the issue facing writer-director Frances O’Connor, the creative force responsible for Emily, available to be streamed online now, and due to be released on DVD in time for Christmas 2022.
Very few indisputable facts are known about Emily Bronte’s personal life. There is certainty regarding when and where she was born and died, of where she was educated, and of the fact that she spent a small amount of her short life in Brussels. Beyond this, there is little that remains, other than Emily’s published work, with which to try to determine how she lived her life, whether she fell in love, and what she thought of the life she was obliged to live as a young, well-educated, single woman in Haworth, a small Yorkshire town.
So short on facts are we, that Emily’s own Wikipedia entry refers to incidents from her siblings lives as much as her own. Much of what we do know comes from the writings of Charlotte Bronte, and the subsequent biography of her life, written by Elizabeth Gaskell, who took creative licence and who withheld information about the Bronte siblings lives that she considered might cause their reputations to be tarnished, or which she herself found disagreeable.
Given these many holes in Bronte’s history, O’Connor has chosen to extrapolate from the plot of Emily’s only published novel, Wuthering Heights, to seemingly presume that Emily ‘wrote what she knew’, and based the novel’s narrative on her own life. What we are offered therefore is a highly speculative tale that not only imagines a sexual relationship, but also seems to be suggesting that Bronte was in some unspecified way, neurodivergent.
The first of these imaginings, the sexual relationship, is shown as being with the local curate. The Brontes’ father, Patrick, was the vicar in Haworth, meaning that the curate was his assistant. The real person this character is based on, William Weightman, really was the curate at Haworth, and so would have known Emily. However, any romance that may have existed was possibly with Emily’s sister, Anne, although the evidence for that is itself very sparse.
What is certain is that it is exceptionally unlikely that the unmarried Emily, a daughter of the manse, would have entered into the passionate relationship that has been imagined. The consequences of discovery would have been too severe, and the chances of avoiding pregnancy almost nil, given how long the relationship is shown as enduring for.
The second imagining, that Emily is in some way neurodiverse, seems to be laying a modern understanding onto an historical figure for whom there is no evidence of any such occurrence. Whilst we can understand that neurodivergence has always existed, and that it remains harder for women to receive a successful diagnosis, to try to project modern ideas of this nature onto people who lived in a very different time, in a society that had very different expectations for people, especially young women, is profoundly uncomfortable.
To imply anything about Emily’s mental or physical health in this way also perpetuates the myth of ‘the troubled artist’, which is embodied in this film in an exceptionally dark, extraordinarily gothic moment when the Bronte siblings and some friends play a bizarre game late one night in the rectory.
A biopic has to have a great hook: the audience wants to feel a connection to the person whose life they are being shown, to see both the similarities and differences in how our lives are lived today. Perhaps too little is known about the real Emily’s life for such a story to be conceived. Perhaps with a little thought, a gripping tale, routed in reality, could have been devised.
We do however know a lot about how women lived in those times. We have parish records from Haworth, and the Bronte Society has done a tremendous amount of work over the years to gather together the small fragments that do exist that recall all the siblings’ lives. A tale could have been woven out of all these strands. It still might have been more fiction than fact, but it might also have had some basis in historical accuracy, if not in truth.
The issue of ‘historical accuracy’ has been much discussed recently. Much of this discussion has been in reference to the recently released fifth season of The Crown, which has now reached a period in time that can be vividly remembered by much of the programme’s audience.
With history so recent, many viewers are able to point to specific incidents in that programme and state ‘that isn’t how that happened’. The reality of the actual events is well within ‘living memory’, and because of this, the fictionalised version can be challenged and questioned.
That’s harder when the people whose lives are being fictionalised lived long enough ago that no living person can recall it. Essentially, there’s no-one to advocate for the person: no-one to say ‘this isn’t how it was’. Along with being far enough back in history to have no one who recalls the real events in their lives, the Bronte siblings all failed to have children of their own, meaning there aren’t any descendants with an interest in preserving the truth of their personal histories either.
There’s a lot of drama to be mined in the tale of the Bronte family, and the specific times they lived in. The sisters were obliged to publish under a pseudonym, and were presumed to be men. There was a cholera outbreak in Haworth – the illness which carried Weightman and several of the other characters to their deaths. The town itself was balanced on the edge of the moors, but was feeling the massive societal changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution, and the immense changes that made to northern England.
Here, in the mining of Wuthering Heights for its gothic elements, its ‘romance’ elements and its isolated moors, Emily neglects the real history of Emily Bronte that we are aware of and creates instead what feels like a pastiche of Cathy and Heathcliff that could have been an Alternate Universe fanfiction instead. In the end, no one benefits from this – we learn nothing of Emily’s life beyond her public biography, and the imagined elements are too fantastical, too far-fetched to be able to be given any credibility.
It’s fine to completely make up a story about a person’s life – there’s been enough versions of what happened to Agatha Christie when she went missing for 11 days in 1926 to show that speculation is always popular. But no one’s trying to say that Agatha had a passionate liaison in those missing days, or that she derived the inspiration for the adventures of her greatest detectives and stories from her own lived experience.
It is also the case that the dead can’t sue for defamation, which gives free reign to storytellers to tell any story they want about any historical person, with impunity. The desire to re-interpret history, to try to define a person’s life in modern terms, to ascribe motivations that are understandable and acceptable to a modern audience, is all too tempting.
This has always been the case: Shakespeare rewrote the stories of historical monarchs to suit the political climate of the times. Because those re-imaginings have endured for centuries, and are familiar due to frequent repetition, they have come to be accepted as ‘the truth’, despite the numerous academic voices undertaking research to demonstrate otherwise.
In Emily, the act of reimagining a past there is little evidence for, has led to the creation of a fantasy that may unfortunately come to be accepted as ‘the true story’ of Emily Bronte’s life. And this historical fallacy can only lead to disappointment in those who subsequently wish to know more about Emily, her life, and her art.
The problem with trying to make a biopic of a famous historical figure is that sometimes, even if we have all of their records, papers, and personal thoughts, sometimes the truth isn’t as exciting, mysterious and alluring as we would like it to be. If we shouldn’t speculate about ‘celebrities’ today, when they choose not to reveal details of their private lives, we also should not speculate on the lives of those who have passed into history, and who can no longer speak for themselves.
Perhaps some people choose not to comment on their lives whilst they’re alive because they want their art to speak for itself. Perhaps some people who have passed into history felt the same. Perhaps they thought they weren’t important, and that they shouldn’t or wouldn’t be remembered centuries after their death.
Perhaps their private lives weren’t happy, and they don’t want that to be known. Perhaps, as in Emily’s case, they want their personal papers destroyed, so that their private thoughts, and unfinished art, cannot be made public.
Perhaps we should just enjoy the work of Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie, for what it is. Perhaps we should accept that even famous artists, actors, and celebrated writers lead lives that are often just as mundane as ours. Perhaps we should not always try to seek knowledge of people who do not want to be known, however important history judges them to have been.
Perhaps it is not only not our right to see ‘behind the curtain’, but it is also our responsibility not to interpret history in a way which distorts and misrepresents it, and the lives of those who experienced it. Perhaps we should accept that there are some things we cannot know, and that leaving those as a mystery is the right thing to do. Perhaps everyone is entitled to their secrets, whoever they are.
Feature Image Credit: Warner Bros