Being the Brontes – BBC 2

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Word PressThis was all rather same old, same old. It was interesting enough, but it didn’t really say anything that hadn’t already been said over and over again. Also, it rather bizarrely ended with a re-enactment of Charlotte’s wedding, and never mentioned the fact that she sadly died only nine months later, along with her unborn child. And did we really need to see Charlotte’s corset? Or the three presenters trying to write with quill pens?

Oh well. It wasn’t exactly a very deep and meaningful programme, but the story of the Brontes is always interesting. What we got was three authors/journalists, each of whom was a particular fan of one of the three literary sisters, visiting Haworth and various other Bronte-related sites – although I was rather put out that there was no mention of either Wycoller or Gawthorpe Hall – in order to try to get a better understand of Charlotte, Anne and Emily Bronte and the connections between their lives and their books. Incidentally, it was a shame that there was so much emphasis on how bleak Haworth is. Yes, the moorland surrounding it is rather bleak, but that’s part of its charm: it’s actually a really nice village. It’s only 40 miles from here, and I usually go there at least once a year.

Anyway, back to the programme. Most of it was about Charlotte and Anne, and in particular Charlotte. Now, Jane Eyre is far and away my favourite Bronte novel. I always feel slightly awkward about saying that, because Wuthering Heights is seen as being far more challenging so I feel as if saying I prefer Jane Eyre makes me sound a bit thick; but I do! I really like Jane Eyre as a character, as well. Catherine Earnshaw needs a good slap. Her daughter’s OK, but Catherine senior – what a madam! Jane Eyre, on the other hand, is wonderful!

It’s generally accepted that the character of Jane Eyre is based on Charlotte herself, that The Professor/Villette is based on her experiences whilst working in Brussels, and that Shirley (which never actually got a mention in the programme) is based on Luddite riots which took place in parts of the West Riding during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s also generally accepted that Agnes Grey is based on Anne’s experiences of working as a governess – which sound rather entertaining, especially the bit involving tying the horrible undisciplined little brats she was looking after to a chair leg! Anne’s probably the least well-known of the three sisters, but she came across as being a very interesting person.

All that came across very well … but, really, that was all the easy stuff. There’s a lot in the novels concerned – I could talk for hours about Jane Eyre – but troubled schooldays, being attracted to someone you can’t have and being extremely irritated by the people you work with are experiences which most people have had. It’s not hard to understand how Charlotte and Anne translated those experiences into their books. The bigger questions are, surely, about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights; and those weren’t really addressed. Domestic abuse is a subject which has only really become talked about openly in the last thirty years or so. Even now, the domestic abuse storyline currently running in The Archers is making headlines, because it’s still a subject that many people find difficult to talk about. It was incredibly brave of Anne Bronte, a young woman in early Victorian times, to write a novel about it … but what brought it about? Was Helen’s abusive husband based on Branwell Bronte? What does it say about Anne’s own views on marriage? None of this was even mentioned.

Nor did they seem to try to get their heads round how Emily came to write Wuthering Heights. That’s probably the biggest question surrounding the Brontes. How on earth did Emily Bronte come to write a book like that? Are there any clues in Emily’s life at Haworth that might give us any sort of answers?   Well, we weren’t going to find out from looking at Charlotte’s corset and trying to write with quill pens. Oh, and I just really need to make my pet Wuthering Heights here that it really annoys me that Heathcliff is always spoken of as a Yorkshireman. Heathcliff is a Scouser!

What else is Heathcliff? A madman? A fiend? “The devil incarnate or a misunderstood man?” … to quote, er, Cliff Richard. What about Catherine? What about the huge controversy that the book engendered when it was first published? And, most of all, how did a young woman living in a parsonage in a remote village in the 1840s come to write a book like this? Well, this programme didn’t really address that question at all. All right, no-one knows the answer, but they could at least have talked about it.

So, it wasn’t a bad programme, but there wasn’t a great deal of substance to it. Could have done better, BBC 2.  Could have done better.

 

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