In Charlotte Brontë’s preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights, she describes that book’s author, Emily Brontë, as a loner.
“I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates,” wrote Charlotte. “My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favored and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home.”
As a child, Emily, as recounted by various biographers, would hide behind doors or under tables if visitors came to Haworth Parsonage, the Yorkshire house where the family lived. As an adult, Emily would sometimes remain silent even when addressed directly.
“I’ve always just found her a fascinating character,” says writer-director Frances O’Connor. “She was 30 when she died. She was an intensely private person. She was antisocial. She literally couldn’t leave the parsonage without getting sick. And yet she wrote this gargantuan piece of literature full of passion and fierce intelligence. I’ve always just wondered who she was.”
O’Connor, a British-Australian actor who came to international prominence in such films as Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, Steven Spielberg’s AI.Artificial Intelligence, and John Woo’s Windtalkers, will unveil her debut feature as a writer-director at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival next month. A new trailer has already attracted much bonnet-related admiration online.
Emily, O’Connor’s wildly imaginative biography of the most mysterious Brontë sister starring Emma Mackey, conjures an origin story for a feverish novel dismissed by one contemporary review with the words: “Here all the faults of Jane Eyre [by Charlotte Brontë] are magnified a thousandfold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.”
“Wuthering Heights was seen as a very inappropriate novel,” says O’Connor. “People were horrified about it. And that’s when they thought it was written by a man. So I think Charlotte edited her sister fairly heavily just because she was afraid of how they were going to be judged.”
Emily Bronte never married, nor is there any evidence that she formed any romantic attachments. Anne Brontë, her younger sister, was Emily’s closest companion. Ellen Nussey, a friend of the Brontë family, characterized the siblings as “twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption”. Anne’s possible affection for assistant curate William Weightman (played by The Invisible Man’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is projected, in O’Connor’s script, on to Emily.
“I didn’t want to do a true down-the-line biography,” says O’Connor. “I wasn’t really interested in doing that as a story because I wanted to connect the film to Wuthering Heights. And there also were things I wanted to explore about me as a person and my life growing up. I wanted to look at a young woman finding out who she is. Because of that, I just let the narrative do what it wanted to do and that’s what it wanted.”
Emily opens on October 14th