Why is it so hard to find the real Emily Brontë?

A new biographical film about one of Britain’s most renowned writers just goes to show how often we let historical accuracy take a backseat

November 01, 2022
Too relatable? Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë. Image:  Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo
Too relatable? Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë. Image: Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

In Frances O’Connor’s new biographical film about Emily Brontë, simply titled Emily, the 19th-century English novelist is rarely seen actually writing. Although we know Brontë’s name today because of her extraordinary novel Wuthering Heights, in this film she spends most of her time running across moors in the rain, hanging out with her brother or taking French lessons from a hot curate. She is an angsty young woman who doesn’t want to grow up, seems to have no interest in socialising and wears her hair down in a very 2022 way. Is this person really Emily Brontë, or is she an imagined heroine moulded to fit the shape of a modern coming-of-age story?

Of course, this isn’t a documentary. Like any biopic, Emily fills some historical gaps to create a narrative that is more enjoyable to watch. But most attempts to depict the lives of Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë with any semblance of “accuracy” often turn into acts of mythmaking. In fact, they became myth as soon as they had all died, their cultural meaning surpassing their actual historical existence on the Yorkshire moors.

Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre are some of the most adapted novels of all time, but films about their authors are rare. The 2016 BBC film To Walk Invisible was the first modern attempt to make a biopic about all three sisters, and it is a gritty depiction of just how grim their lives were—as caretakers to an ill and belligerent brother, a cantankerous father and, eventually, to each other, as they passed away one by one. But Emily takes a much more whimsical direction. By focusing on Emily as its main character, it leaves Charlotte and Anne looking rather one-dimensional. To compensate, Emily becomes an amalgamation of all three of them.

In the film Emily is the first to publish her novel, but it was really Charlotte’s Jane Eyre that reached readers first. She has a love affair with her father’s assistant curate, William Weightman, but it was actually Charlotte who married one of her father’s curates, while it was Anne who is rumoured to have loved Weightman. None of the sisters published their novels under their own names, as the film suggests—all used androgynous pseudonyms. Scenes of Emily smoking with her brother Branwell, her loose hair, sexual exploits and her brief forays into alcohol and opium are all anachronistic modern additions.

The Brontës hold a unique place in the public imagination, but they are not alone in their position as subjects of pop culture reinterpretation. Historical women, however famous, are often far more likely to have incomplete or biased biographies compared to their male counterparts. Much of our knowledge about the Brontë family today is based on a biography of Charlotte by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, published in 1857, two years after her death. But Gaskell knew Charlotte and the Brontës personally, already undermining her ability to offer a “neutral” account; she purposefully excluded improprieties for the sake of respectability.

Many women who were successful while alive have gone through a similar “editing” of their life stories after their death. The early 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning was recently the subject of another equally mythmaking film, Ammonite, with its questionable speculation that Anning might have had a romantic affair with geologist Charlotte Murchison, played by Saoirse Ronan. And can anyone forget the blurring between her work and life that happened to Jane Austen, in 2007’s Becoming Jane? It’s not just modern filmmakers who are guilty: museums and textbooks have also too often misrepresented the stories of notable women.

Emily might be a beautiful film, but fundamentally it’s not a biopic: the problem is that it might not even be trying to be one. Rather, it’s an imaginary retelling of a famous woman that O’Connor wants us to find relatable. There is a sense in the film that Emily is an everywoman—not an incomparable genius, but a girl just like us. It is less about the idiosyncrasies of mid-19th-century Yorkshire than it is the universal experience of adolescence. Scenes of Emily being angsty after being told off by her father, or feeling annoyed by her sisters, are equally at home in a drama set in 2022 as in 1850. Her heartbreak, naiveté and grumpiness are all portrayed as universal traits rather than specific to Emily’s historical moment and personal circumstances.

Instead of the glorifying nostalgia that was typical of period dramas in the 1980s and 1990s—like the painterly films of Merchant Ivory, the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice or Granada’s Brideshead Revisited—those of the 2020s seem to prefer a quality of timeless universalism, even as they focus more on “real” people over adaptations of fiction. Contemporary likability for Emily Brontë is prioritised over historical fidelity. But what will the consequences of this pattern be on collective perceptions of the real Emily and the myth of the Brontës? Do we really care about discovering the nuances of the historical record to find the “real” Emily within it—or would we prefer artistic license to make her more understandable, more relatable to the way we live now? Those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It should be possible to do both—but only if we first understand that “relatability” does not have to come at the expense of history.