The three frumpy sisters were marooned in a dowdy parsonage on a windswept Yorkshire hillside, surrounded by death and disease, remote from the great events of their time by dint of geography and gender. Yet during the brief years in which they wrote in secret, the Brontës created a slim body of work which outlives them and earns new devotees across the world in each generation.
It is an astonishing story and it is explored with extraordinary brio by Northern Broadsides in Blake Morrison's dramatisation of the defining years of the sisters' short lives, around the time of the publication of their first novels under male noms de plume.
Drawing on Chekhov's Three Sisters, Morrison blends the cross-currents of 19th-century social and technological change with the spinsters' yearning to endure beyond the narrow confines of respectability – and mind-numbing boredom – laid down for them as daughters of a country clergyman.
It is an existence that is hard and gloomy. "My first memory is gravestones. What's yours, Emily?" asks Anne, cheerfully. The women have lost their mother and two sisters by the time the play starts. We know that none are long for this world. Brother Branwell – a weak, addicted, squandered talent upon whom their irascible father, Patrick, dotes – will be dead by the age of 31.
Yet though the haunting wind and the death rattle is never far away, the Brontës refuse to be cowed – either by their physical situation or the attempts of pompous, self-regarding men to patronise them.
Finding solace in their own thoughts and the austere beauty of the surrounding moors, the sisters cast their eye over the world with searing intensity – hopeful and honest, scathing and funny, beautiful and beguiling.
And as is made abundantly clear, these are women ahead of their time – and deep down they know it. Despite, by their own admission, knowing nothing of life, they are wiser and wittier than more educated and more cosmopolitan souls such as the lovelorn curate or the odious Lydia.
While attention is, naturally, focused on the powerful performances of the three sisters – Catherine Kinsella as the sensible Charlotte, Sophia Di Martino as the complicated Emily and Rebecca Hutchinson as the youngest, Anne, the entire cast is faultless.
There are moments of great humour – not least from the family doctor, played by John Branwell, and Eileen O'Brien as the faithful old family retainer Tabby. Gareth Cassidy is formidable as the disintegrating Branwell.
To 17 September (01422 369704); then nationwideReuse content