In love with the Brontes

Those desolate moors. That dank parsonage. The tragic deaths. It's enough to make you swoon, says Mark Bostridge. But could a new TV drama be about to wreck the romance for a whole generation?

When I was 13 or 14, I watched a series of television programmes, which had a profound impact on my life. This was a six-part dramatisation by Christopher Fry of the lives of The Brontës of Haworth, made for Yorkshire Television in the early Seventies, and filmed partly on location in Haworth, that strange, windswept moorland village which has always formed an integral part of the story of the Brontë sisters' tragic destinies, their literary ambition, and extraordinary creative genius. Fry, best known as a playwright for The Lady's Not for Burning, took Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë as his basic source, and derived from it an intelligent and atmospheric narrative of commanding visual as well as verbal strength.

As a teenager, I remember, it gripped me immediately. Not long ago, I watched some episodes again on video, and while certain aspects of the production, like the studio scenes, which are longer and more theatrical than we're used to now, have obviously dated, the series as a whole, with fine performances from Alfred Burke as Patrick Brontë, Michael Kitchen as Branwell, and Vickery Turner, Rosemary McHale and Ann Penfold as Charlotte, Emily and Anne, still retains much of its overall power. From the plaintive theme music over the opening credits and the sight of Haworth's steep and winding main street, with its rough cobble stones and houses of millstone grit, Fry's compelling approach draws you into one of the greatest literary legends of all time. Like most legends it's a construct of partial truths, designed to conceal as much as it reveals, but there's no escaping the fact that, as G H Lewes said, "Fiction has nothing more wild, touching and heart-strengthening to place above it."

The Brontës of Haworth got me firmly hooked on the First Family of English Literature, but I wasn't alone. In fact, the programme's success was responsible for launching the Brontë industry into a new era of mass tourism. In the year following the first transmission of the series, Haworth Parsonage notched up its highest ever attendance figures. Over 200,000 visitors tramped over its flagstone floors - and I was one of them. For in my teenage enthusiasm, I had decided to become a sort of High Priest of the Brontë Cult. I read everything about the family that I could lay my hands on, popular biographies with florid titles such asHaworth Harvest, and more serious works by Winifred Gérin, who had spent years working in the shadow of the Parsonage, researching and writing lives of all three sisters and their brother Branwell. I joined the Brontë Society, founded in 1894 to collect and preserve the family's relics and manuscripts, which had owned the Parsonage since 1928 and maintained a sort of stranglehold over Brontë studies. ("We're all scared of the Brontë Society," the former curator of the Parsonage Museum and leading Brontë scholar, Juliet Barker told me years later.) My first published article appeared in the Society's journal, and I managed to inveigle my father into taking me on visits to Haworth. On one of these trips he canoodled with my prospective stepmother in a hedge close to the graveyard while - in a not entirely dissimilar state of ecstasy - I attended the Society's annual lecture in the parish church. Four years ago, deciding on a place to scatter my father's ashes, I settled on the spot on the high moorland surrounding Top Withens, the deserted farmhouse once suggested as the original of Wuthering Heights, which symbolised the contented holidays my father and I had enjoyed together.

At the time I doubt whether I asked myself about the reasons for the strange religious fervour with which I regarded the Brontës. Naturally I thought that my relationship to them was unique: other visitors to the Haworth shrine were merely casual tourists, but the place the Brontës held in my life made my position something altogether more significant. Only much later did I come to realise that the intensity with which I pursued my obsession was a not uncommon affliction. Shy, bookish children from different times and different places have had their imaginations fired by the Brontë story. In my own case, this fascination was bound up with an ambition to be a writer, but although I read the Brontë novels, it was the pathos of their lives that really absorbed me. If I identified with any member of the family it was Charlotte. Seated at my desk in my bedroom at home, my feet resting on a rug from the Haworth textile mills, I stared at a fanciful drawing of Charlotte, all glowing eyes and broad forehead, which I had pinned to the wall. Charlotte Brontë was the family's survivor, standing back from the brink of despair to transmute experience into art. "It would take a great deal to crush me", she wrote, as she endured the deaths, one by one, of her sisters and brother. Like her, I too was an older sibling and, in my own small way, was trying to survive emotional upheaval, caused by my parents' acrimonious divorce. By an odd quirk of family fate, my younger brother eventually married Lucasta Miller whose book, The Brontë Myth, published in 2001, has been acclaimed as the outstanding study of the Brontës as a cultural phenomenon.

Television introduced the Brontës' life story to a wider audience than ever before. On stage they had been a familiar dramatic presence for decades in plays such as Empurpled Moors, which reinforced all the conventional stereotypes: of mouselike Anne and mystical Emily at one with nature, of sharp-tongued Charlotte, pitiless in her condemnation of Branwell who rolls home drunk every evening from the Black Bull. Their big screen incarnations were less memorable. The 1946 film Devotion, starring Olivia de Havilland, went to preposterous lengths to invent a fictitious plot as if real life wasn't tumultuous enough, while André Techiné's Les Soeurs Brontë (1979) was scarcely more successful (though it did include the critic Roland Barthes in a cameo role as Thackeray). On the horizon is a new film version of the Brontës' lives. Entitled simply Brontë, it was formerly in development with Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks, and is now in pre-production with a UK company, with Marleen Gorris slated to direct from a screenplay by Angela Workman.

I trust that Brontë won't fall into the traps that have fatally compromised the two-part drama, In Search of the Brontës, which starts tonight on BBC1. This new programme, part of the corporation's flailing attempt to convince us that the arts still have a place on the main channel, can't make up its mind whether it's a drama or a documentary. Dramatically tepid, it's been given a disembodied narrative voice (that of Patricia Routledge who irritatingly keeps saying "Woothering Heights"), and a script so lame (the ominous credit, "additional dialogue by Steve Attridge") that snatches from Charlotte's own letters fall like manna from heaven. In Search of the Brontës promises to shatter the myths that have surrounded that family for 150 years, but while certainly rescuing Patrick Brontë from the slurs cast on his character by Mrs Gaskell, it introduces myths all of its own, presenting the destruction of Emily Brontë's mysterious second novel - the existence of which is itself debatable - as established fact rather than the feverish hypothesis it actually is. Gone are the great moving set pieces of the Brontë story, Charlotte Brontë, for instance, on a December day in 1848, desperately searching for a lingering spray of heather, however withered, to take home to her dying sister Emily. They've been replaced by scenes of dubious historical authenticity, such as one showing Emily expiring in her father's arms. Only Patrick Malahide as the Rev Patrick Brontë emerges with any acting honours. Victoria Hamilton, who seems to be making a TV career out of playing diminutive Victorians, having already portrayed the Queen, plays Charlotte as too much of a bossy little madam. Juliet Barker, the source of much sensible Brontë revisionism in the past, is named as programme consultant, but I imagine she may be squirming with embarrassment at the result. I have my own painful memories of acting as consultant - there to be ignored rather than consulted - on a BBC Bookmark about Charlotte Brontë, a decade ago, when the producer insisted on describing the Brontës' appeal as akin to that of Bob Dylan, and centred the whole film around some half-baked attempt to identify an old photograph as being of Charlotte when in fact it was a picture of her great friend, Ellen Nussey.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this new drama is its condescension towards the novels. You'd never guess from the bald presentation that these were some of the greatest works in the language. Jane Eyre is simply a wish-fulfilment narrative, while Villette, that Rubik's cube of emotional complexity, is described merely as "a love story with an unexpected ending". After the critical revolution in English studies of the past quarter of a century, it's no longer necessary to pay lip service to Mrs Gaskell's agenda. Gaskell, author of the first Life of Charlotte, published in 1857, two years after Charlotte's death, concentrated on the Brontë sisters' lives in order to distract attention from the accusations of bad taste that had been levelled at their works. But in 2003 we can adopt a more sophisticated approach that no longer relies on looking at the books exclusively through a biographical prism.

The clamour surrounding the publication earlier this year of Stancliffe's Hotel, a newly discovered juvenile work by Charlotte, shows just how magical the name Brontë can still be. And the publication this autumn of an attempt by Clare Boylan to complete the two-chapter fragment left unfinished by Charlotte at her death, under the title, Emma Brown, will trade on all these associations.

Criticising a programme such asIn Search of the Brontës, made for a popular audience, is a bit like flogging a sponge. But I'm pretty sure that had I watched it rather than the Fry version, all those years ago, it's unlikely that the Brontës would ever have become one of the consuming passions of my youth.

'In Search of the Brontës': today and 10 August, 7pm, BBC1

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