The Secret World of Emily Bronte – Channel 4


This is the programme that caused a row amongst Bronte aficionados!  Some people felt that Lily Cole, being a model, was not a suitable person to present an academic documentary.  She’s got a double first from Cambridge, for crying out loud!  Could we please stop pigeonholing people and stereotyping people?!   However, the row was rather more interesting than the programme itself, the main points of which seemed to be a) that there wasn’t much to say about Emily Bronte because no-one knows that much about her and b) to try to fit Wuthering Heights to 21st century agendas.

On the positive side, a lot of it was filmed in Haworth, which I enjoyed seeing.  I go there at least once a year.  I highly recommend The Apothecary Tea Rooms, very close to the Bronte Parsonage!  It’s a bit of a Bronte theme village these days, with most of the shops and cafes aimed at the tourist market and bearing names related to the Bronte sisters’ books, but, as the programme pointed out, in the 19th century it was a mill town.  As in many northern mill towns, there was a lot of support for reform – from women’s education to Abolitionism – and the Bronte family were involved in that.  That’s a valid point, but those were 19th century issues.  The programme ended up showing marchers waving banners saying things like “Dump Trump” and calling for there to be more women in government.  What’s that got to do with Emily Bronte?!

As Lily Cole said, a lot of what’s been written about Emily Bronte is speculation rather than fact, but I was expecting her to go into that speculation – especially the speculation about Emily’s possible issues with depression and anorexia.  OK, maybe she didn’t want to speculate too much, and the examples we were shown of Emily’s artwork were interesting, but then we got a lot of waffle about falconry.  I didn’t really want to know about falconry!  Did Emily Bronte want to fly free, like a falcon released from a cage?  Well, probably, but that’s just as speculative as saying she might have suffered from anorexia and depression is.

This was followed by a huge plug for a film made by Lily Cole, in which she said she wanted to challenge the romantic image of Wuthering Heights.  This seemed more like it.  I’m not keen on Wuthering Heights, incidentally.  Apart from Cathy junior, I can’t stand any of the main characters.  Catherine senior needs a good slap, Heathcliff is a vicious bully, and both Edgar and Isabella need a kick up the pants.  I was also pleased that she’d made the point that Heathcliff was found in Liverpool, which tends to be forgotten.  However, whilst what she said about foundling hospitals was very interesting, she seemed keen to try to use what was meant to be a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Emily Bronte’s birth to talk about racism and slavery.  These are obviously very important issues, but they weren’t all that relevant to Emily Bronte.  Yes, there obviously are racial issues with Heathcliff, and obviously the fact that Heathcliff was a foundling was an issue, but Lily Cole’s programme strayed a long way from Heathcliff – and conveniently ignored the big question as to whether or not he was actually Mr Earnshaw’s illegitimate son, and therefore Catherine’s half-brother.

We then got someone talking about feminism.  Yes, Emily’s writings, and those of her sisters, really challenged ideas of the time about women’s roles, both in terms of themselves as authors and of their characters – but, again, Lily Cole seemed more interested in pushing a modern agenda than in discussing Emily Bronte.   It’s quite frustrating when people do this in programmes which are supposed to be about individual historical figures.  There was some interesting stuff in this, but it really could have been a lot better!


Oh well …