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British docudrama plumbs the lives of the Brontes.

DVD Review: The Brontes of Haworth

Playwright Christopher Fry’s The Brontes of Haworth, a five-episode dramatization of the lives of the 19th century literary sisters and their tortured brother televised in England in 1973 but never shown in the United States will be available in February in a two-disc DVD set from Acorn Media. Beginning with their widowed father’s birthday gift to the young Branwell of the set of toy soldiers which became the inspiration for the children’s early imaginative efforts as they joined together to create a fictional world modeled on the Byronic romances popular at the time, Fry traces their attempts to make their way in the world, their failures and their success, culminating in the sister’s monumental achievement and early deaths.

Narrated by the novelist Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell played by Barbara Leigh-Hunt using material from her biography of Charlotte Bronte, the series focuses on the family’s close identification with the isolated Yorkshire village of Haworth where their father (Alfred Burke) served as spiritual leader and their difficulties in dealing emotionally with the larger world even as they were reaching out for literary success. Branwell(Michael Kitchen), the brother, never able to capitalize on the promise of his youth and live up to the family’s lofty expectations, was lost early to a life of self destructive dissipation. Emily, even after her triumphant novel, refused any public interaction and died soon after her brother. Anne, whose works have never been accorded the acclaim as those of her sisters, lost an early love and died not long after. Charlotte, although she did get out some into the greater world and did eventually marry, nonetheless, died just before reaching the age of forty.

Clearly it is Kitchen and perhaps Burke who are the stars of this production. Perhaps not as oddly as it would seem in a film about the Bronte family, much of the early episodes are concerned with the tragic life of Branwell rather than that of his sisters. He is after all a man haunted by demons beyond his control, the kind of fodder no dramatist can resist. Moreover Bramwell’s dissipation may have been something of a model for some of the dissipations described in Wuthering Heights. The lives of the three sisters, certainly more significant in any larger sense, don’t ever offer that kind of passionate drama. Their passion was in their novels and poetry—not the kind of thing that plays well on the screen. While it is true that at least some of their biographical background got into their novels, and much of this is dealt with in the film–Charlotte’s experiences in the school, her sojourn in Belgium, Anne’s experience as a governess, the focus for much of its first half is on Branwell. Fry looks for drama wherever he can find it. 

He does emphasize some of the problems the sisters and women in general faced in making their way in Victorian England. There were few opportunities for genteel ladies to support their needs. They were subject to the will of their fathers and husbands. Their intellectual aspirations were rarely taken seriously. Expectations, even their own expectations were all for their brother. The sisters famously had to publish their books under masculine pseudonyms.

Kitchen and Burke lead an ensemble of excellent actors including Vickery Turner as Charlotte, Ann Penfold as Anne and Rosemary McHale as Emily. Benjamin Whitrow plays Arthur Bell Nicholls, the curate who Charlotte eventually marries.

The DVD runs approximately 260 minutes. The only bonus material it contains is a short prose essay on the Bronte’s home in Haworth. The parsonage has become a museum devoted to the sisters and their work. It is the home of the Bronte Society.

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