The Brontes as you've never seen them before

In an exclusive interview, Charlotte and Emily bare their souls to David Benedict

Exactly 150 years ago, three daughters of a curate living together in the isolated Yorkshire village of Haworth found publishers for their novels Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. No one, not even the Mitfords, or sisters AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble, can claim to rival this uniquely successful family hive of literary industry.

Industry is the word. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have never been out of print. Television and film companies fall over themselves to adapt them for the screen and the Bronte Parsonage Museum is a mecca for tourists hungry to gobble up English literature in the shape of Bronte biscuits and the like. Students across the English-speaking world discuss their books and academics gain tenures writing biographies and theses about their little-known lives. During all this time, the sisters have remained silent. Aloof, enigmatic and utterly unmoved by the 20th-century's insatiable demands for TV appearances, interviews and signing tours, they have eschewed the vulgarity of publicity. Until now.

In partnership with this year's Ilkley Literature Festival and after months of painstaking negotiation with this newspaper, the two elder sisters have abandoned seclusion to speak publicly for the first time. What can possibly have occasioned this breach in their water-tight security? The collapse of the Berlin Wall? Tony Blair's new dawn? The Orange prize?

"It's Cliff really, isn't it." Charlotte, the taller of the two, sheathed in pale pink topped off with a cream bonnet framing her grave face, is strikingly direct. "He's taken our books, well Emily's actually, and he does seem to have done a lovely job." As the world knows, Sir Cliff Richard has been essaying the title role in the new musical Heathcliff. Tickets have disappeared as fast as the beleagured box-office staff can sell them, but not everyone agrees with Charlotte. "Not since Bonnie Langford's blood- freezing Medea ..." opined this paper's theatre critic. One look at the pop idol's clean-cut image and a cursory glance at his birth certificate have led several commentators to breathe the word "miscast". However, Bronte enthusiasts will be thrilled to discover that Emily, at first sight the more demure of the sisters, is rather taken with his portrait of her bedevilled hero. "He reminds us a lot of Branwell, doesn't he? All that facial hair." Keen to illustrate her command of contemporary popular culture, she indicates that should Cliff ever tire of stomping about the moors, "Liam Gallagher springs to mind."

The more prolific Charlotte also has a strong commercial instinct, far removed from the received image of the dutiful, religious woman of successive biographies. Although she feels her novels are about real life, with no concessions to fantasy, romance or wish-fulfilment, she believes the family have ignored musicals to their cost. "We could have gone for them in a big way. I'm looking very seriously at Jane Eyre again for Olivia Newton- John. Or Julie Andrews, perhaps." At the risk of upsetting her (she's easily crossed), I suggest that the latter might be a shade old. "She could play Grace Poole," she counters.

Although composers seem to have ignored this, and indeed her other three novels, there have been a staggering 15 screen versions of everyone's favourite story of a lowly governess who winds up with her blind, maimed employer, (courtesy of a fatal episode with the madwoman in the attic) with the immortal line, "Reader, I married him." Answering the charge of feminist literary historians in her matter-of-fact manner, Charlotte informs me that she blinded Rochester "because Jane wasn't good-looking". Mindful of the fact that she is still technically married, she hints that Ciaran Hinds, TV's recent Rochester, would have brightened up her landscape. "If he'd lived round the corner, I'd have had no trouble at all."

Emily is having none of this. Her favourite adaptation? "Tragically, there were no Yorkshire accents but, for me, it's Laurence Olivier." The famous 1939 film of Wuthering Heights nearly didn't get made. Sam Goldwyn announced that he didn't like stories with people dying in the end and added a final sequence with Heathcliff and Cathy reunited in heaven. Armed with Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven and a poster screaming "Torn with desire, twisted with hate", it became an enormous hit. Graham Greene wasn't impressed. "A lot of reverence has gone into a picture that should be as coarse as a sewer." Part of the problem was the screenplay, which only used the first 17 of Emily's 34 chapters.

As for the pre-English Patient pairing of Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the 1992 version, "Ralph is gorgeous and Juliette is a lovely looking girl but that French accent leaves a lot to be desired," murmurs Emily, tartly. Charlotte, however, is fond of references to the continent. Much to homebody Emily's disgust, she keeps dropping hints about the years she spent in Brussels but pressed to confirm rumours of a sexual relationship with a man with whom she fell in love there, she declares: "It would have been a lot easier with Eurostar," and clams up.

In flat contradiction to the "official version", their relationship appears strained. Anne, who has popped off to Damart for a vest on account of her "weak chest", comes in for sharp criticism. "Personally, I think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a dreadful story, an appalling book," snaps Emily. "It's got very little to recommend it at all, although she did try her best." Charlotte concedes that Anne does have very neat handwriting. Emily cites Branwell's portraits and declares him to be a mistaken genius, a statement that positively enrages the touchy Charlotte. Swivelling round in her chair, she fixes her shorter, younger sister with her beady blazing eyes. "Where did the housekeeping money go, that's what I want to know. That chemist in the village seemed to be doing very well whenever Branwell went in. I think he would have got on very well with Will Self."

She's similarly emphatic on the subject of the extraordinary circumstances of three novelist sisters. "I won't say that people actually copied me," she says, threateningly, "but my books were left around the house and there wasn't a great deal of privacy around the parsonage. I won't say that Emily and Anne were snooping, but some of my genius may have rubbed off on them, let's put it that way."

Emily stares at her sister in disbelief. She throws her head back and tears at the air. "What excites me," she gasps, "is the wild purple heather, the soaring eagles, the wailing winds, the blasted stumps ... I don't take my inspiration from Charlotte, she just sits at home. I go out," she cries. "Not in her nightie either," retorts her unruffled sister who leans forward to confide about her sister's tempest-tossed tale. "It's a nasty story. I don't know if you've read it, but there are all those bits about dead bodies in search of a cuddle. I don't write about dead bodies. They simply don't appear in my books and I say books because I did write quite a lot. How many was it that you managed, Emily?"

Anxious to calm the increasingly malevolent atmosphere, I ask Emily the question everyone yearns to ask. Living such a secluded life, what inspired the thrilling horror of Wuthering Heights? Her round face lights up at the memory. "It's a little known fact but tuberculosis does stimulate the sexual imagination." Charlotte interrupts with a sudden coughing fit but Emily blithely disregards her. "I think I was stimulated when I wrote it. I had a temperature. Thank God there weren't antibiotics then, else I'd never have finished it."

All this rivalry is a far cry from Devotion, Hollywood's glorious, preposterous bio-pic with Olivia de Havilland as Charlotte opposite Ida Lupino's Emily. France came up with Les Soeurs Bronte in 1979 with Isabelle Adjani, Marie- France Pisier and Isabelle Huppert. It has simply heaps of tone and no common sense and came hot on the heels of Emily's chart-topping success with Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. They never met. "She's got a lovely voice," says Emily, evenly. "It's quite high-pitched." Like all the other bastardisations of their masterpieces ("We have become a legend, David," smiles Emily), they never received a penny from it and, truth to tell, they're bitter. "You want to buy a Bronte pack-a-mac, you can buy one," sighs Emily. "I just wish we had signed a merchandise deal."

There is one offshoot for which they have nothing but praise. Withering Looks is a spirited stage picture of their lives by comedy duo Lip Service, featuring two actresses who bear an uncanny resemblance to the esteemed authoresses seated demurely in front of me. "It encapsulates us," beams Emily. "They've got their finger on our pulse." "Highly talented," agrees Charlotte, vehemently, "particularly the tall one."

Lip Service present `Withering Looks' at the Ilkley Playhouse (01943 601210), 22 Jun and at the Purcell Room RFH, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) 3 Aug. This autumn, they will tour as Holmes and Watson in `Move over Moriarty'.

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