Press Centre

Perspectives

Sheila Hancock
  • Episode: 

    3 of 7

  • Title: 

    Sheila Hancock: The Brilliant Brontë Sisters
  • Transmission: 

    Sun 31 Mar 2013
  • Time: 

    10.00pm - 11.00pm
  • Week: 

    Week 14 2013 : Sat 30 Mar - Fri 05 Apr
  • Channel: 

    ITV

 

The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing - in the public domain - until Tuesday 26 March at 12.01am.
 
Series synopsis:
 
The return of the Perspectives documentary strand for its third run brings together powerful stories and a unique insight into the arts from a range of well-known figures.
 
It encompasses seven single films from a rich variety of distinctive individuals offering their take on subjects for which they have a personal enthusiasm and fascination.  
              
Perspectives’ diverse range takes in Jonathan Ross on Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Portillo on Picasso, while Warwick Davis explores the miraculous survival of a family of Jewish dwarves during the Second World War. Paul O’Grady heads to the US to tell the story of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world's most famous burlesque dancer, and Hugh Laurie makes a musical pilgrimage to immerse himself in the Blues.
 
Episode synopsis: 
 
Actress, best selling author, and avid fan of the Brontës, Sheila Hancock sets out to discover what inspired the sisters to write such epic novels seemingly worlds apart from their own lives, and what fuelled their deep and passionate stories in this second film in ITV’s arts strand Perspectives. 
 
Sheila investigates the three sisters on a journey which starts in the Yorkshire village of Haworth and the brutal moors that inspired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, moves on to Brussels, where Charlotte Brontë developed the writing style that made Jane Eyre an enduring masterpiece, and later to Scarborough, last resting place of Anne Brontë, author of groundbreaking feminist classic The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  
 
On the way, the Sheila makes an important new discovery amongst the love letters written by Charlotte to her married tutor, heads to the National Portrait Gallery to view the only surviving painting of the three sisters together, (standing alongside the mysteriously obliterated image of their brother Branwell) and visits the school where Charlotte was advised against a life in literature by the then poet laureate, Robert Southey.
 
Production notes:
 
Actress, best selling author, and avid fan of the Brontës, Sheila Hancock sets out to discover what inspired the sisters to write such epic novels seemingly worlds apart from their own lives, and what fuelled their deep and passionate stories in this second film in ITV’s arts strand Perspectives. 
 
Sheila investigates the three sisters on a journey which starts in the Yorkshire village of Haworth and the brutal moors that inspired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, moves on to Brussels, where Charlotte Brontë developed the writing style that made Jane Eyre an enduring masterpiece, and later to Scarborough, last resting place of Anne Brontë, author of groundbreaking feminist classic The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  
 
On the way, the Sheila makes an important new discovery amongst the love letters written by Charlotte to her married tutor, heads to the National Portrait Gallery to view the only surviving painting of the three sisters together, (standing alongside the mysteriously obliterated image of their brother Branwell) and visits the school where Charlotte was advised against a life in literature by the then poet laureate, Robert Southey.
 
She says: “I have been a fan of the Brontës since I was a child, so that makes it 70 odd years. I think all three sisters are brilliant I don’t have a favourite. I think particularly Anne has been overlooked in history and in my opinion she is very bit as good as Charlotte and Emily.
 
“All reading their work does is put me off writing my own novel. Their work is wonderful and one couldn’t hope to aspire to be as good as that. 
 
“The reason I wanted to do the programme is because I think they are in a class of their own. It would be too silly for me to even think of myself along side them. I dare not read their novels while I am trying to write my novel because they are so brilliant.
 
“When I was living in Bexleyheath as a child, I spent a lot of time immersed in the fantasy word of books that I got from the library, but my top favourite, especially in the film version, was Wuthering Heights.
 
“I would run around being the wild child Cathy calling for Heathcliff. I was so in love with him, he was my ideal man. Older and wiser, I realised that Hollywood had misled me; they’d left a lot out.
 
“Wuthering Heights never was a sentimental love story and Heathcliff is far from the rather soppy romantic lead Laurence Olivier portrays in the film. Emily Brontë’s masterpiece is a dark study of the wild extremes of human obsession and my childhood heartthrob is a vicious psychopath.
 
“I rate each of the Brontë sisters amongst the greatest novelists I have ever read, but I am left with a question: How did three spinsters who spent most of their lives in a remote parsonage on the edge of the moors come to write books that I find shocking, erotic, profoundly moving and quite wonderful?”
 
Over the course of documentary, Sheila meets leading authorities on the Brontës as well as modern artists who have been inspired by their work including choreographer, David Nixon, OBE, award winning playwright Polly Teale and artist, Dame Paula Rego.   She reads from the sisters’ work and comes to learn about the very different personalities of each of the three sisters as she tries to understand how the members of this one family came to create so many enduring classics:
 
“The thing that I feel that I didn’t know before was how incredibly important they were to one another: they were so interdependent they inspired and supported one another and I really think that none of the books would have been written if it hadn’t been for the family closeness.  As for their genius, well it’s not for me to say where genius comes from; all I know is that it produced the most wonderful stories.   The three of them are certainly amongst the greatest writers that I have ever read.”
 
Award winning playwright Polly Teale who has written extensively about the Brontës explains in  the film: “Their father gave them this extraordinary access to literature and they read in a way that  would have been very unusual for girls at that time and in fact,  you could only go to the local library if you were a man and so they had to get Branwell to bring the books back for them.”
 
Sheila’s starts her journey through the life and work of the Brontës at the Parsonage in the Yorkshire village in Haworth where the four Brontë children – Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell - spent most of their lives.  She learns about the tiny books the children used to create – small enough to be held by the toy soldiers who inspired many of the original stories written by the Brontës.  
 
But the miniature writing in these books served another purpose as Ann Dinsdale, the Collections Manager at Brontë Parsonage Museum explains:
 
“It had the advantage of being like a secret code amongst the children and their father or their aunt just wouldn’t be able to read it. As they got older they probably were not what you would expect the vicar’s children to be writing; their reading was uncensored so they were reading Byron and all kind of gothic books and everything fed into these stories. ”
 
The young Brontës created exotic fantasy worlds as the settings for the adventures they wrote about in these little books.  Branwell and Charlotte wrote about a land called Angria while younger sisters Emily and Anne devised their own realm of Gondal.   
 
While Charlotte and Anne drew on their adult experiences to produce their later masterpieces, their sister Emily used the fantasy world that she created in Gondal as the basis of the only novel she ever published – Wuthering Heights.  But, whereas this imaginary land was set in tropical climates, she set her book in a landscape that she knew very well - the wild moors that lay at the back of the home that she had lived in since she was a toddler. 
 
“I loved my visit to Yorkshire and the people in that museum are so wonderful and dedicated. Several times during filming I would not know a date and I’d stop, and I guarantee that any one of the people working there immediately knew the answer. Perhaps more people will go to Howarth after seeing this programme and to the other places we went to. They are all struggling for funds. It would be wonderful if the programme gave them a boost. People don’t know how good the books are until you read them again.”
 
Sheila retraces Emily’s steps across her beloved moors to the location said to have inspired Wuthering Heights, the bleak, remote farmhouse where Heathcliff makes his home. She then sits in on a rehearsal of Northern Ballet’s Wuthering Heights and talks to choreographer, David Nixon, OBE, about his views on the book:
 
Sheila says: “When Cathy is dying the scene between her and Heathcliff is absolutely amazing.  Anybody that’s watched somebody they love die will understand that appalling desperation of wanting to keep the person with you.
 
“I think I find Wuthering Heights particularly moving because I have felt all the feelings that are in that book, particularly the sense of loss and desperation and, luckily for me, great love.”
 
 Sheila visits Roe Head School where the Bronte sisters were students, and where later Charlotte became a teacher.
 
“When we were at the school, they were talking about a haunted attic there. I took the cameraman upstairs and we indeed found an attic in this school which nobody dared to go into which had been sealed off because everyone thought there were ghosts there. 
 
“I then became convinced Charlotte would have heard this when she was young at school and that became the woman in the attic later (in Jane Eyre). It was a phenomenal find; that these people were still hearing bangs and all the things that were in Jane Eyre.
 
In their twenties the three sisters decided to establish a school of their own with money given to them by their Aunt Branwell. To gain better qualifications they travelled to Belgium to improve their French and other subjects.
 
Sheila joined a tour of the Belgian capital, run by the Brussels Brontë Society, to find out more about the sisters’ stay in the city. The group visits the Pensionatt where they studied. Charlotte described Monsieur Heger, their teacher, as a brilliant man and she felt that she was respected for her passion for writing and for her willingness to learn.
 
Monsieur Heger certainly helped his pupil to develop her writing style. He may also have aroused unfamiliar passions in this twenty seven year old Yorkshire woman - driving the dutiful daughter of an Anglican Minister to an extraordinary visit to the Catholic Cathedral in Brussels to make a confession. 
 
It will never be known what Charlotte said in the secret of the confessional, but there are strong clues that she may have been experiencing the sort of terrible emotional turmoil she would later write about in her classic novels.
 
Sheila found evidence of Charlotte’s state of mind in a series of letters she wrote to Monsieur Heger after leaving Brussels which are kept at the British Library in London.
 
Biographer Lyndall Gordon says in the film: “They are probably the most important relics of Charlotte Bronte. They tell us about her feelings for a man who was her mentor at a crucial point in her life 
 
“She said some very daring things to Monsieur, she said ‘you showed me a little interest in Brussels, I demand that you show me that same interest now’.
 
Unsurprisingly, this father of five, under the watchful eye of his wife, Madame Heger, does not seem to have been pleased to receive these passionate letters from his former pupil.
 
Lyndall says: “He tore them up, put them in his waste paper basket and what I imagine is that Madam plucked them out, she has threaded a needle and patiently sewn the pieces of the letter together because she had to understand the dynamic between her husband and his star pupils and she understood from reading these letters that she should have nothing more to do with the Brontës and she refused to have English pupils for some years.”
 
Sheila asks Lyndall why he thinks Charlotte was really in love with Monsieur Heger.
 
“Well, what we have here is the last letter she wrote to Monsieur and this is the one letter we have that wasn’t torn up and here she says I must say one word to you in English and she goes on to tell him that she delighted in speaking in French because it reminded her of him and she says, ‘it sounded like music in my ears every word was most precious to me because it reminded me of you, I love French for your sake with all my heart and soul’.
So there is a declaration in her own language and I think Monsieur never replied to this letter.”
 
Before they started writing their novels, the Brontë sisters needed to find a way to earn a living.  Then Charlotte made a discovery that would change their lives – a notebook of poems written by Emily. 
 
Charlotte persuaded her sisters to publish a collection of their poems under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  It was not a commercial success. Despite this setback, the Brontë sisters felt that there was a future for them in publishing.  
 
The three sisters set to work writing novels.  Within a short space of time Anne had written Agnes Grey, Emily produced Wuthering Heights and Charlotte, Jane Eyre.  All three books were published and Jane Eyre, in particular, was a great success.
 
Meanwhile, their brother Branwell was in a desperate state.  He had been the golden boy of the family but his various attempts to earn a living had failed.  By the time his sisters started to win fame as writers, he had been sacked as a tutor, seemingly because of an affair with his employer’s wife.  He returned, grief stricken, to the Parsonage where he sank into serious alcohol and drug abuse.  His plight helped to inspire Anne’s masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  
 
Sheila comments: “It is one of the best studies of alcoholism and it’s effect on the family and everyone around them that I have ever read. I think it is every bit as good as the better known Brontë books.”
 
The sisters became published authors but the family then faced terrible tragedy.  Within a year of the publication of Wildfell Hall, Branwell, Emily and Anne all succumbed to tuberculosis – or consumption as it used to be known.  At the same time, it was becoming increasingly widely known that their controversial books had been written by women.  Victorian society was scandalised.
 
Charlotte, now alone with her ageing father, attempted to excuse her sisters by suggesting that they were not “learned” and unaware of the shocking nature of their work.  
 
Author Lucasta Miller explains:
“She republished Wuthering Heights which gave her the opportunity to write a short biographical notice of  her sisters; she is trying to get the public almost to forgive them for having written these shocking books - it’s a piece of Victorian spin.”
 
Sheila says:
“I knew that the Brontë Sisters were not the isolated, uneducated country girls of popular imagination: they enjoyed an excellent, if unconventional, education and quite a wealth of experiences for young women of the age. What I hadn’t realised was that this story was partly concocted by Charlotte to protect the reputations of the sisters whose loss she mourned so deeply.”
Lucasta also explains that Charlotte may have also destroyed the manuscript of Emily’s second novel to avoid more scandal.  
 
Sheila comments:
“If you’re insane with grief you can make strange decisions can’t you in thinking they wouldn’t like that and try and do what you think is best?  I suppose that’s what she was doing but it’s just tragic for us if there was a second book.”
 
In 1854 Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls.  Less than a year later she died, aged 38, in the early stages of pregnancy.  Her father, Patrick, went on to live for six years after the death of his last child.
 
Sheila concludes: “The Brontes are charismatic and amazing. I found out a lot about them in the course of filming, and I am grateful for that.”
 
The Producer Director is Gareth Williams. The Executive Producer is Sarah Murch 
 
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