The Brontė Sisters

Charlotte   (1816 – 1855),   Emily   (1818 – 1848),   Anne  (1820 – 1849)


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March 18, 2004, 11:40AM

Mythic sisters

Writer explores how the Brontė legend has grown


By Lucasta Miller.
Knopf, 351pp., $26.95.

CHARLOTTE, Emily and Anne Brontė are without any doubt the greatest sister act in English literature. Among them they wrote a handful of the most admired and widely read novels in English, including two unquestionable classics: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. In addition, Emily Brontė has a fair claim as the best British female poet of the 19th century and one of the best poets in English, period.

How did this happen? How is it that three Victorian women who grew up in a fairly remote part of England, who had little or no formal education, none of whom lived past the age of 40, two of whom never married and died at age 29 (Anne) and 30 (Emily) nonetheless wrote some of the most enduring, imitated and beloved novels in the language? (Two other female siblings, Elizabeth and Maria, died very young, while the one male sibling, Branwell, a talented painter, was an alcoholic and drug addict who died of tuberculosis at age 31.)

The Brontė Myth by literary editor and critic Lucasta Miller is part literary biography and part cultural history. Miller takes as her stated goal to account for the Brontė sisters' "unusual prominence" and to show how their lives and their writings have been shifted "from the level of history onto that of myth."

The Brontė aura

Because of their extraordinary literary achievements; their often difficult and brief lives; their solitary ways (Emily and Anne especially, both of whom were practically recluses); and the isolated (in those days) region where they grew up, the Brontė sisters have ceased to be thought of as historical persons and have become instead literary and cultural icons, idealized and glorified personifications of inspired geniuses, virtually "canonized," as one biographer put it.

Not only have the Brontės themselves been transfigured into something approaching sainthood, their writings too have been adapted and revamped in ways that would have astounded the three sisters. Dozens of movies, TV and radio shows, operas, musicals, stage dramas, children's books, young-adult novels, adult novels, poems, satires, anthologies, guides, companions, dictionaries, encyclopedias -- all testify to the nearly universal obsession with the Brontė sisters and their work.

To some degree the credit (or blame) for the Brontė myth belongs to the three sisters themselves when they invented the pen names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) for the authorship of their books, starting with their first publication, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

The pseudonyms gave the sisters an aura of mystery and secrecy, so much so that some readers believed that all three were one person or that they were males. Who they really were was not generally known until September 1850, when Charlotte announced their real identities in her biographical preface to the second editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. At the same time Charlotte glorified the lives and writings of her two sisters, both of whom had recently died, in order to protect them from accusations of unfeminine improprieties and "coarseness" in their books.

Friends and the media

Charlotte herself was given a saintlike treatment by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell in a pioneering biography, published in 1857, just two years after Charlotte's death. Gaskell portrayed Charlotte as a long-suffering and devoted sister and daughter who was denied her lifelong wish: to be accepted as an author equal to any other author, male or female.

But perhaps the chief agents responsible for turning the Brontės into global icons, and their writings into enormously popular successes, have been the mass media, movies and television in particular.

So far there have been at least 50 film and TV adaptations of the Brontės' books, including a dozen silent movies, most of them of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Perhaps the best-known adaptation of Jane Eyre remains the 1944 film starring Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane, a role Fontaine was to repeat in Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock's classic film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel based on Jane Eyre.

But by far the most famous and influential of all the Brontė-based films is William Wyler's 1939 version of Wuthering Heights featuring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as the ill-fated lovers Heathcliff and Cathy. This film, perhaps more than any other single production, literary or cinematic, promoted the view of Wuthering Heights as the ultimate love story and the Brontės, especially Emily, as the very spirit of the moors -- mysterious, romantic, doomed. (From the beginning, Anne Brontė's novels have never enjoyed the same popularity or reputation as those of her two older sisters, but recent re-evaluations of her work, particularly The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, have raised her esteem.)

Brontė Inc.

By now, the Brontės have become a commodity, big business. Their childhood home, Haworth, in northwestern England, is, after Shakespeare's Stratford, the most visited literary shrine in the world, playing host to nearly a million tourists -- pilgrims, we might say -- annually. Brontė devotees can buy Brontė tea towels, Brontė T-shirts, Brontė teapots, Brontė biscuits, soft drinks, pens and pencils, you name it.

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, 150 years after they were written, remain among the world's most popular novels. In Great Britain they are the second and third most often checked-out books from public libraries; there are more than 20 separate editions of their works available in Great Britain and almost that many in the United States. They have been translated into 30 languages, and in Japan they are, next to Shakespeare, the most popular of all English-language books. In China a million copies of Jane Eyre, in eight different translations, have been sold in the last 20 years. "Jane Eyre," as one critic has recently stated, "has been a role model for girls from America to Africa."

In her zeal to scrape away the accumulated varnish that has overlain the lives and writings of the Brontė sisters, Miller at times gets carried away and makes extravagant claims. For example, she states that "as an authentic exploration of the child's-eye view, the early chapters of Jane Eyre have never perhaps been bettered in literature." Someone should remind her of a couple of books by Mark Twain, not to mention J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

In addition, her biases occasionally overcome her common sense, as when she refers to "the age-old male fear of female gossip." And considering how careful and thorough she typically is, Miller makes the puzzling mistake of saying that Paul Henreid's previous film before Brontė biopic Devotion, released in 1946, was Now, Voyager, which came out in 1942. In fact, Henreid played in half a dozen films between 1942 and 1946, including, as everybody knows, Casablanca.

Nevertheless, Miller's book is an important and much-needed corrective to many of the suppositions, prejudices, fanciful interpretations and downright inaccuracies that have often obliterated the real achievements of the real Brontės.

But despite Miller's well-intended and worthwhile efforts, it is probably too late to replace the Brontė myth. For better or for worse, Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontė have become their own creations -- three sisters who turned the seemingly base metal of their short and tragic lives into enduring literary gold. At this stage of the game, there hardly can be any doubt that the legendary Brontė sisters will continue to remain exactly that -- legendary.

Earl L. Dachslager is preparing an edition of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda for the Barnes & Noble Classics series. He is professor emeritus of English at the University of Houston.


the yale review of books


Volume 8, n.ŗ 1

Reality Check

Who were the Bronte sisters?

The Bronte Myth
Lucasta Miller
Knopf, 368 pp, $26.95

reviewed by Julia Wallace

The Brontės, more than almost any other writers in English literature, have not been able to escape the shadow of biography: we love their works partly because we're intrigued by their lives, and vice versa. Their story is sad and simple and compelling. There were three sisters: small, dark, and lonely. Often unhappy, always absorbed in their work, eventually consumed by their own genius. They lived and died at home, in an old, gray parsonage on the Yorkshire moors. It's romantically poignant, indelibly tragic; we eat it up and always have. But is it true? Does it matter if it's true?

In her new book The Brontė Myth, Lucasta Miller addresses these questions, taking a uniquely balanced and thoughtful look at both the Brontės and ourselves. Miller's aim is not so much to “debunk” the Brontė myth as to describe how and why it arose in the face of social pressures, and, at its best, her book is a brave attempt to explore the universal human mythmaking impulse. To that end, she weaves her own biography of the women together with a history of their literary and cultural reception over the past 150 years. She is particularly insightful about the ways in which contemporary critics have poked themselves in the eye with their own agendas, making Charlotte into either a furiously passionate proto-feminist or a repressed housewife-martyr, and Emily into an otherworldly mystic or an earthy, animalistic force. Psychoanalysts saw incest and father-fixation in the Brontės' lives; feminists saw male domination and female rage; everybody saw something shocking, compelling, romantic, or repulsive; but nobody, it seems, saw the Brontės.

Miller seeks to remedy this by devoting the first part of her book to the actual lives of the sisters, which were extraordinary even before the world started paying attention. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and their brother Branwell steeped themselves in a self-consciously “literary” culture from a very young age; the siblings were obsessed with notions of genius and greatness. They idolized the Romantic novelists of the day—author-heroes like Sir Walter Scott and Leigh Hunt—and immersed themselves in elaborate fantasy worlds where they could create their own literary heroes. Miller points to evidence that the Brontės were not nearly as isolated and asocial as we imagine; actually, like most men and women anywhere in any age, they were part of a complex cultural and social network that, while not exactly bustling, was certainly stimulating. Charlotte and Emily studied abroad in Belgium, and all three sisters attended lectures and concerts, and corresponded with other authors. Their literary efforts were not without context, and when “Poems” by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was published in 1846, many critics admired it. Although the book only sold two copies, it was a triumph for the Brontės: the pseudonymous publication “marked the moment at which the sisters began to construct a public identity for themselves as writers.” Ironically, the Brontės' decision to hide behind these monosyllabic, hypermasculine names unleashed the very torrent of publicity they had been desperate to avoid. Society gossip swirled around the three mysterious authors, and only intensified over the next few months, as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey were published in quick succession, setting the stage for a veritable Brontė Invasion.

Jane Eyre made the biggest splash. It appeared first, and although the identity of its author was still officially unknown, Currer Bell was widely suspected to be female. The book shocked the literary world with its “crude and unwomanly” expressions of passion. But all three novels quickly acquired an aura of scandal: they were called coarse, brutal, revolting, and even anti-Christian. This is an important and often-overlooked point that Miller deftly teases out: society's negative reception of the Brontės' work led them to adopt a defensive stance early on, and forced them to distance themselves as women from themselves as writers.

Charlotte in particular had been strongly invested in certain Romantic ideals of inspiration and creativity. She firmly believed in the author as a figure of Genius—and she was eager to include herself in this select group—yet she was also perpetually anxious about her status as a woman. This fundamental tension between Charlotte's ambition and her sex must have been the first and most fertile source of Brontė “myths,” because, as Miller shows, she was constantly forced to reassess her place “in the context of a culture in which power, prestige, and artistic creativity…were routinely gendered male.” Charlotte ended up crafting two conflicting images of herself. She was never quite sure if she wanted to be seen as a powerful (but dangerous) female creative force, or a shy, retiring, and harmless spinster. After Emily and Anne died of consumption within a few months of each other, Charlotte set out to save her sisters' reputations by systematically increasing this distance between author and woman; she insisted in a preface to Wuthering Heights that they were “naļve artists responding only to the dictates of nature, rather than…knowing and ambitious writers who had produced consciously constructed novels.”

The glimpse Miller gives us of Emily, the most mysterious and retiring of the sisters, is more limited but equally fascinating. Midway through the book she turns back in time to examine the ways in which Charlotte herself created an “Emily myth” as a way of shielding her younger sister from literary and personal criticism. Some of Miller's arguments here seem strained—particularly her long-winded claim that the heroine of Shirley must have been Emily in disguise—but her conclusion is compelling: Charlotte Brontė tweaked, if not blatantly manipulated, her sister's posthumous image. This was a direct response to the same issues that Charlotte herself wrangled with, particularly the widespread idea that strong female creative impulses were always dangerous and often pathological. Miller lets loose here with another startling revelation: Charlotte “edited” and substantially altered some of Emily's poems after her death. Miller ascribes her motives to “conflicting urges on Charlotte's part to blame and to protect, to censure and to admire.” Whatever they were, she was Emily's first mythographer, setting the stage for some of the most persistent misconceptions about her sister, including the image of Emily as a “neglected genius” or a “mystic of the moors.”

The “Brontė myth,” then, began when Charlotte herself encouraged the public to view her sisters in terms of their lives rather than their art. But it reached its apex with Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte's biographer. Gaskell was so critical in shaping perceptions and receptions of the Brontės that Miller's book tends to revolve around her; Miller paints a portrait of the high-minded Gaskell that emerges as a delicious counterpoint to the portrait of Charlotte herself. Gaskell comes off as a strait-laced reformer with the most virtuous and the most dubious of intentions: clearing the Brontė name and “rehabilitating” Charlotte's reputation, and acting, essentially, as her apologist. Gaskell countered each public charge against Charlotte with a battery of facts. Brontė was not “crude,” but exquisitely sensitive and refined; not irreligious, but the dutiful daughter of a preacher; not passionate and “naughty,” but lonely, tragic, and indeed, sexless. However, Gaskell was a novelist herself; she had a flair for fiction, but it's clear that her relationship with the truth was muddy at best. In an effort to redeem the sisters, she called attention to their suffering, establishing a virtual cult of martyrdom that still lingers around the Brontė name (three sisters, locked up in a lonely parsonage). She also created a habit and a legacy of domesticating the three sisters, turning them into saintly household mascots. Gaskell dwelled on their troubled lives, their extreme goodness, their confinement to a lonely house, and their fragile femininity—she even went so far as to describe the tiny size of Charlotte's underwear. Most important, for better or for worse, was her insistence on downplaying Charlotte's creative powers to the point of pathologizing them. Gaskell published her dramatic account after Charlotte's death, and the public was immediately intrigued. For obvious reasons, the myth of suffering domesticity was appealing to men, but women also began to embrace this image of the sisters, appropriating them as “symbolic figure[s] offering emotional support.” Eventually Charlotte became a Victorian icon of womanhood, praised for her ability to be ladylike and diligent in pursuit of her craft. She was featured in didactic and faintly patronizing compilations like Women of Worth and Clever Girls of Our Time Who Became Famous Women. From this dubious height she would inspire May Sinclair, Emily Dickinson, and other clever girls of the time.

While Charlotte's star was on the rise, Emily's stayed dim and low until well into the twentieth century. Charlotte's apologism didn't prevent reviewers from ripping her sister to shreds. Wuthering Heights was even more shocking and morally unconventional than Jane Eyre had been, and it was pronounced “unhealthy, immature, and worthy of being avoided.” Emily was painted as the wild sister—a famous anecdote from Gaskell's book showed her furiously beating her pet bulldog with her bare hands—and eventually she came to be strongly associated with the bizarre and supernatural. Perhaps early feminist backlash against Charlotte's status as a “domestic angel” increased the public's interest in Emily. At any rate, she eventually became celebrated as the crazy genius of the family, the free spirit, the otherworldly child of the moors. The only thing more convoluted than the “psychological” studies published of Charlotte were the “psychical” ones of Emily, which made wild claims about her—you guessed it—psychic powers. Miller sensibly dismisses such overwrought nonsense as “interpretive psychosis.” Meanwhile, Wuthering Heights grabbed hold of the popular imagination and never let go. The novel that was once almost universally spurned has now been filmed, serialized, and even rewritten. It has also been strikingly sentimentalized; pop culture has filtered out the horror, cruelty, and transgression of the original and turned it into a simple, soulful love story. Everyone from Ted Hughes to Luis Buńuel to Kate Bush has laid his hands on Wuthering Heights, and Erotic Review recently voted Emily Brontė the twentieth most erotic person of the millennium.

Such literary commodification isn't new. As early as 1858, a mini-tourism industry had sprung up in Haworth—local merchants were even selling Brontė souvenirs—and the town soon became a shrine for literary pilgrims. Mr. Brontė chopped Charlotte's letters into tiny bits to deal with requests for her handwriting; her fans treasured the relics even though the words were indecipherable. One girl wrote that she would be “the happiest girl in America” if she could have “but a small piece of an old dress, or the finger of an old glove once worn by Charlotte.” This cult adulation eventually spawned a Brontė Museum, a Brontė Society, and a series of books with titles like Best Ways to Visit Brontė-Land. Today Haworth is a hugely popular tourist destination, and the local government has even compared the power of the Brontė name to Coca-Cola. Souvenir shops emblazon the sisters' faces and names on towels, warming pans, soaps, and old-fashioned liquor. After going on like this for a few pages, Miller easily gains her point: “`Brontė' has come to stand in for an all-purpose cozy nostalgia with no connection at all to literature,” or even reality.

Miller reserves her sharpest criticism for those who became so distracted by the Brontės' lives that they ignored or belittled their astonishing literary achievements. One can almost see her clenching her fists and resolving not to fall into the same trap. She breaks off her story from time to time and launches into long passages of literary analysis, some of which are stunningly good, and some of which fall equally flat. But the only real disappointment in the book is that Miller never explicitly examines the more fundamental processes by which myths are created. She doesn't discuss why humans have such an insatiable craving for myth, why we are so hungry for it that we'll gladly bend the truth and distort reason for the sake of a better story. In fact, Miller's treatment of the very word “myth” is somewhat looser than I'd like, given that it's actually part of the title of her book. Sometimes she says “myth” when what she's describing sounds more like a paradigm, or a plain old pattern. She calls Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte a “novelization,” a carefully crafted work of art, but here too she throws the word “myth” in. This tendency stubbornly disregards the vast differences between writing a novel and shaping a myth, between the power of literary narrative and mythological narrative, and it is a surprising touch of carelessness in an otherwise meticulously researched book.

It's hard not to smile when, after a litany of the sins of other biographers, Miller earnestly reports that “we are now living in a golden age of Brontė scholarship,” but it's also hard not to nod along as she guides us through her careful and intricate argument. Her story is as juicy and twisted as an A.S. Byatt novel, crammed with heroic figures making amazing textual breakthroughs, with the added benefit of being true. Miller's greatest strength as a biographer, or meta-biographer, is that she never downplays the complexity of the Brontė myth for the sake of an easy answer. Both the Brontė biographers and the Brontės themselves obscured certain facts and shaped others into the story they wanted to tell, even when they weren't sure what that was. After all, these women were natural storytellers, and at times they eagerly blurred the lines between fantasy and reality and transformed their own lives into romances. Perhaps, then, we are all Brontės, perpetually invested in the process of mythmaking.

Julia Wallace is a sophomore in Jonathon Edwards.


Three sisters

Cooped up in a parsonage, the Brontės lived out their passions through their fiction. Can these febrile inner worlds ever be captured in theatre? Polly Teale explains why she keeps being drawn back to their tragic story

Saturday August 13, 2005
The Guardian

In 1837, the poet Robert Southey wrote to the young Charlotte Brontė who had confided in him her literary ambitions: "... the daydreams in which you indulge are likely to produce a distempered state of mind ... Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties the less time she will have for it, even as a recreation." Charlotte replied: "Sir, I cannot rest until I have answered your letter. I felt only shame and regret that I had ventured to trouble you ... a painful heat rose to my face when I thought of the quires of paper I had covered with what once gave me so much delight but which was now only a source of confusion ... I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print. If the wish should arise I'll look to Southey's letter and suppress it." There is no evidence that she wrote anything for the next two years.

Today it is difficult for us to imagine a world where women were not allowed to enter a library, where women had to publish under men's names, where women had no part in public life. And yet 150 years is not so long ago. Their struggles are not so distant. We are fascinated by the Brontės because they broke the mould (against all odds). They broke it and yet they were made by it. They were every inch the product of their time, even in their attempts to free themselves. Jane Eyre is believed to be the second-most read book in the English language (after the Bible). Wuthering Heights remains one of the great literary creations of all time and is still a bestseller. So why, 150 years later, are we still so drawn to these stories, these characters?

Ten years ago, I adapted Jane Eyre for Shared Experience, the theatre company I run with Nancy Meckler. We are interested in theatre's potential to make visible what is hidden, to give form to the world of imagination, emotion and memory, to go beyond the surface of everyday life. This is what literature can do so powerfully: when we read a good novel we are allowed to enter the consciousness of the characters, to know their most intimate fears and longings, seeing the world as if through their eyes. Jane Eyre is exactly such a creation. Everything in the novel is seen through the magnifying glass of Jane's psyche. But if this is a psychological drama with Jane at its centre, why did Brontė invent a mad woman, Bertha, Rochester's first wife, locked in an attic to torment her heroine? Why is this rational young woman haunted by a raving, vengeful she-devil? I (along with many others, including the artist Paula Rego who has painted a whole series of work inspired by Jane Eyre) was intrigued by the mythic power of the mad woman, by Charlotte Brontė's repulsion and attraction to her creation, by the mad woman's danger and eroticism, her terrifying rage. I wanted to explore what she represented, how she came into existence, to understand how the mad woman had been born in reaction to the Victorian ideal of femininity, how she had grown out of the Victorian consciousness.

Later, I went on to write a play about Jean Rhys, whose novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, is a prequel to Jane Eyre, imagining the mad woman's life before she was locked away, giving the first Mrs Rochester her own story. Here the mad woman is no longer a monster. We discover her as a child, follow her journey, her growing alienation, knowing where it will end. Wide Sargasso Sea became a modern classic. The mad woman was out of her attic, back on the run, ready to stray into our fiction in whatever form she might choose, a symbol of female power and psychosis.

My third and final play on this subject is a return to the source, to the beginning: the Brontės themselves. How was it possible that these women, three celibate Victorian sisters, living in isolation on the Yorkshire moors, could have written some of the most passionate (even erotic) fiction of all time? Perhaps the simplest answer lies in their father (their mother died when they were children). Self-educated, from illiterate Irish peasant stock, he went on to Cambridge and later published books of his own poems and sermons. He was a passionate believer in the transformative power of literature and art. He educated his daughters and encouraged them to read whatever they could lay their hands on (most women at the time would have had carefully supervised reading). The Brontės read Byron, Shakespeare, George Sand, Milton and Shelley. From childhood they wrote books (on tiny pages made out of old flour and sugar bags), not knowing this was out of the ordinary, not yet knowing what was and wasn't allowed. But soon the sisters faced harsh reality. Highly educated, intelligent, full of curiosity and hunger for life, they entered a world with little or no place for them. As poor, plain women their life prospects were severely limited. Becoming a governess was virtually the only profession available to them. The sisters' attempts to work as governesses were lonely and short-lived. Anne was the only one who managed to hold down a job for more than a few months. It was never long before they returned home.

Their responses to their predicament were complex and individual: Emily refused to wear a corset or petticoats and withdrew from society, spending much of her time alone on the moors; Charlotte was hugely ambitious, longing for fame and recognition; Anne, the youngest, developed a strong social perspective, writing to expose injustice and bring about reform. Emily and Charlotte's reactions to their isolation could not have been more different. It took Charlotte months to persuade Emily to consider publishing her work; for Emily writing was a deeply private act, her invisibility a cloak that allowed her to live as a recluse, in communion with nature, untouched by social constraints or expectations. She never forgave Charlotte for betraying her real identity to her publisher by letting slip that the author was in fact a woman.

Meanwhile, their brother Branwell, floundering under the weight of the family's impossibly high expectations, returned home heavily in debt, an alcoholic and a drug addict. The Brontės were once again living under the same roof, back in the intimate proximity of childhood. It was through Branwell that the sisters experienced the horror of mental illness as he descended into paranoia, bringing chaos to the household. It was also Branwell who provided the source of their sexual knowledge: caught up in a series of affairs, he allowed the sisters to vicariously share in his adventures.

All three sisters used their brother as a model for their fictional characters. He appears in various guises in their work according to their relationship with him. Charlotte, who was closest to Branwell as a child, later became the most estranged. Her outrage at his degenerate behaviour was in part a way of dealing with her own bitter frustrations. Lonely and unloved, she was forced to look on as her brother satisfied his appetites.

Here we return to the mad woman, perhaps the most sexual of all the Brontė creations, and the question of where she came from, what she represented. She is both a hideous monster and an exotic temptress, raised to enchant, to seduce. Rochester's description of her when they first met in the West Indies is irresistible. She is Charlotte's fantasy of herself, beautiful and desired. She comes from the land of the Brontė's imagination, from a land of hot rain and hurricanes. She is both dangerous and exciting. She is passionate and sexual, angry and violent. She is the embodiment of everything that Charlotte feared in herself and longed to express, of everything Charlotte's life could never be.

"I can hardly tell you how life gets on here at Howorth. There is not an event whatever to mark its progress. One day resembles another and all have lifeless physiognomies. Sunday, baking day, and Saturday are the only ones that bear the slightest distinctive mark. Meantime, time wears away. I shall soon be 30 and I have done nothing yet ... I feel as if we were all buried here. I long to travel, to work, to live a life of action."

Although Charlotte would never "live a life of action" in the external, physical sense, she would travel the world in her imagination. The external lives of the Brontė sisters were dreary, repetitive, uneventful, and yet their inner lives were the opposite. To tell this story we need to dramatise the collision between drab domesticity and unfettered, soaring imagination, to see both the real and internal world at once, to make visible what is hidden inside. That is why in our play the characters from the novels are living in the house, haunting their creators. While the sisters cook and clean and sew there exists another world full of passion and fury. It seems to me that the theatre is the right place to tell this particular tale. After all, this is a story of make-believe, of the power of the imagination to transcend time and place and circumstance, to take us to places we cannot otherwise go.

· Shared Experience's Brontė, written and directed by Polly Teale, featuring images by Paula Rego, opens at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (box office: 01483 440000) on August 25. Then touring.