Award winning writer Sally Wainwright will give a talk at Phoenix on Thursday 17 Nov as part of Literary Leicester Festival about her new two-hour BBC drama on the Bronte Sisters, called To Walk Invisible.
Mark Taylor talks to Leicester University’s Dr Julian North, one of two experts who will share the stage with Sally to discuss the enduring legacy of the iconic authors.
Wainwright, creator of the award winning series Last Tango in Halifax and police dramas Happy Valley and Scott and Bailey has said she was thrilled to be asked by the BBC to bring to life the three “fascinating, talented, ingenious Yorkshire women.”
The Bronte novels are classics of British literature, dramatised numerous times, with Wuthering Heights even inspiring a No1 pop song of the same name.
The Parsonage at Haworth, the family home, is a heritage museum and place of pilgrimage for thousands of fans from around the world.
But there have been precious few films about the family itself, the complex relationships and tragic ends of the three sisters and their brother Branwell, almost like plots from their own novels.
Dr North says “There is a fascination with their lives, this eccentric family living in a Parsonage in the north of England. And yet not many films have been made about them, which makes this new production very interesting.”
So why is there an enduring interest in the authors?
“I think the secret was that they put heroines at the core of it. Jane Eyre was written in the first person, and she goes through a lot before she gets what she really wants. She is a strong woman who is eventually rewarded, and I think that resonated with her readers, and still resonates today.”
“The Bronte Sisters were middle class. They weren’t rich but they were well educated and they forged their way in the literary market place of the period by sheer determination. The story of their unlikely path to fame is part of the attraction of their novels.
Ultimately it came down to the quality of the writing – “They are very powerful narratives. They‘re Romantic and Gothic, very dark in places, but Charlotte Bronte’s heroines, at least, emerge triumphant .”
“Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall takes us inside a marriage which was abusive and essentially today would be called a tale of domestic violence. In the end the wife runs away with her child, something which was shocking for readers at the time.”
At the time the sisters chose pseudonyms for their author names, Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell, names which caused a lot of speculation about the gender of the authors.
Dr North says, “There was huge curiosity over the identity of the authors. The pseudonyms were deliberately ambiguous in terms of gender. They probably chose anonymity initially in case they were belittled as women.”
“There is an appealing myth that genius springs from nowhere. But they were avid readers and were in touch with the periodical press in London, so they knew what was going on.”
They went to London after the publication of the books, but forays into London literary society were less successful, with the sisters , not natural socialites, seen as provincial.
And then there were the circumstances of their early deaths, which added to the aura around the siblings. Branwell, Anne and Emily died within ten months of each other, probably all from tuberculosis. Charlotte died during pregnancy just nine months into her marriage.
The more you find out about the sisters, the more fascinating and complex their lives become. They formed their own writing group from an early age, created fantastical children’s stories, published poems, exercising and honing their craft until they published their novels. Who knows what other masterpieces could have followed.
Sally Wainwright, with her passion for strong, flawed Northern heroines, seems best placed to shed some more light on the lives of these three major women writers.
After the talk there will be a screening of Sally’s 2003 adaptation of The Wife Of Bath starring Julie Walters. All tickets are £3. Book online at the Phoenix website.
As part of the celebration of the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, the Literary Leicester Festival is staging a free event on Bronte and her readers, with Brontë experts Professor Joanne Shattock and Dr Julian North discussing the passions that she roused in her public and continues to produce in readers today. 2pm to 3pm, Thursday 17 Nov, Princess Diana Hall, Attenborough Arts Centre. Find out more.