How to be a Brontë

Lucy Mangan packs her bonnet and celebrates her literary heroines in new BBC2 documentary Being the Brontës

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To Haworth!

I am on the train from London to Haworth, West Yorkshire to spend a week filming, with broadcaster Martha Kearney and novelist Helen Oyeyemi, a documentary about the Brontës as part of the celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth. We’re each representing the sister whose books we most admire: Martha is Charlotte’s champion, Helen is Emily’s and I am Anne’s.

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I know, you’ve never heard of Anne. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre and gave the world fiery literary feminism, Mr Rochester and mad wives in attics; Emily wrote Wuthering Heights and gave the world Cathy, Heathcliff and the 19th-century answer to Fifty Shades of Grey. But Anne? Who the hell is she?

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Well, she wrote two books. They were (are) both brilliant – Agnes Grey, based on her experiences as a governess to various sociopathic children, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a pitiless examination of the effects of alcoholism and domestic abuse – but they are much quieter books than either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

There have been fewer films and absolutely no Kate Bush songs about either of them, and so they fly under our reading radar still. Also, Charlotte prevented the republication of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death, because she disapproved of it.

Typical big-sister stunt.

But I love them – they are fierce and truthful and clutch at your heart and mind, and, as the train pulls into Keighley station (“It’s pronounced ‘Keithly’,” a friend of mine who originates from nearby Skipton says. “Don’t shame me!”) I’m determined to make everyone else love them too.

But before then I need to get a good night’s sleep. Martha arrives tomorrow, and Helen is already here, but I haven’t met her yet. She has been out on the moors all day and has frozen so solid they have had to carry her back to her room and prop her up by the fireplace.

Where’s Martha?

Helen has thawed out nicely. Unfortunately, there’s no sign of Martha. She got off at the wrong station and was last seen heading towards Lancashire. I ring my parents and tell them they might want to reduce the amount of faith they currently place in The World at One.

We do some filming in and around Haworth, the small village built in stone quarried from the moors themselves, where the Brontë sisters’ father held the position of perpetual curate at the local church.

I say how brave and brilliant Anne was, while Helen goes in to bat for Emily, even though in my highly informed opinion Emily was clearly insane and Wuthering Heights madder still. We would come to blows, but it’s too cold to take our hands out of our pockets.

Martha eventually arrives safely and we gather in the parsonage library, where the sisters wrote their masterpieces, to look at some of the famous tiny books the Brontës (including Branwell, their brother, in just about his first and last contribution to his family’s happiness) wrote about their imaginary lands of Gondal and Angria. In minuscule handwriting, the sagas play out across the years. It’s where, really, the sisters learnt the craft that would ally with their natural talent and eventually produce their famous works.

And then we go into the room where they actually wrote them (“No, Martha! This way! This way!”), and sit at the table they sat at and leaned on and walked round reciting first drafts to each other and – yes, really – listen to the wind wuthering outside. Anne’s inkstand is there, Charlotte’s glasses are next to it, and there is the initial “E” carved on the table itself.

What can I say? It really is the closest you can come to time travel.

Trouble at t’mill

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There are no working or preserved mills in Haworth itself, so I’m off to Helmshore Mill in Lancashire to get a sense of what was powering Haworth – and a million places like it across the land – in the Brontës’ day.

Spinning mules run the length of the floor, and even motionless they’re quite a sight. When the machinery judders into life, it’s breathtaking. The noise, the power, the scale of it up close is amazing even to someone standing there in 2016. At the time it must have been almost incredible – a vision of hell if you were on one side, a glimpse of an endlessly profitable heaven from the other.

Amongst the (quietened) spindles, I talk to John Bowen, a professor of 19th-century literature at the University of York, who notes that in the Brontës’ time, Haworth was a rapidly industrialising and heavily polluted small town, whose inhabitants had an average lifespan of 24 years. Forty-one per cent of children died before the age of six.

We always think of Emily, Anne and Charlotte as dying spectacularly, romantically young (they were 30, 29 and 38 respectively) but suddenly they begin to look like pensioners.

The afternoon is very different. I’m in the absolute quiet of the Haworth cemetery, which lies alongside the parsonage and the church. The number of children’s names on stones, and their ages, testify to the truth of that 41 per cent mortality rate. If I were alone I would cry.

The Brontës’ father Patrick would have overseen all these deaths and burials. How could it not have affected him and his children? Did a longing to escape imaginatively from these horrors encourage them to write? Did the constancy of the moors seen from the other side of the house offer them comfort, or did their bleakness only seem to reflect the suffering elsewhere?

I look out over it all for a moment and then think, “Bugger this for a game of soldiers” and head back into the village for a bacon butty. I think this, ultimately, is the Yorkshire way.

Out on the moors

Moors day! Helen, Martha and I spend a – well, let’s call them exhilarating – six hours tramping o’er the heathland and fairly boggling at the sheer size and beauty of it all.

We have to keep a close eye on Martha, of course. If we lose her here we’ll never get her back.

We do at one point almost lose our cameraman, Will, who is having to walk along the same wind-blasted moorland ridges we are, except backwards and carrying a ton of wobbling equipment, but he seems to accept occasionally nearly plummeting to his death as one of the hazards of the job.

It’s a bracing day but it makes us feel – if we ignore the camera drone that is sent up to capture us in long shot, which they probably didn’t have in 1846 – very Brontë-esque. Emily in particular used to love walking for miles across this place. How she did it without Gore-Tex and fleece-lined boots I do not know. Then again, she did contract TB and die young, so maybe she shouldn’t have done it at all.

Wedding day!

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I should have packed a bonnet!

We are re-enacting Charlotte’s wedding to her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in the local church (“No, Martha! That’s the village hall! Turn round!”). They married in June 1854, not December, so it’s lucky that the wedding veil hides the face of the poor actress behind it slowly turning blue with cold.

The Wesleyan minister pronounces them man and wife and we emerge into the churchyard and modernity – local people have gathered to cheer the happy couple and everything is lovely.

Just as you hope it was for Charlotte, who has approximately ten minutes to live. But she left us Jane Eyre, The Professor, Villette and Shirley, and we must be grateful. Even if none of them is a patch on Agnes Grey or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

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Being the Brontës airs Saturday 26th March at 9pm on BBC2