Drama, tragedy and addiction: discover the real Brontës

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The Stylist web team

The lives of the Brontë sisters were punctuated by as much drama and tragedy as their novels. The creators of a new BBC drama tell Stylist what they discovered about the nation’s favourite literary siblings.

The Brontës’ lives – spent writing novels in a parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, 200 years ago – might sound like a privileged upbringing but the tortured romances of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall hint at the struggles of their authors Emily, Charlotte and Anne and the alcoholism and drug addiction of their brother Branwell. In one-off drama To Walk Invisible director Sally Wainwright (of Happy Valley) and actor Chloe Pirrie (who plays Emily) have created a sharp, gritty and lively depiction of the Brontës’ lives. Here’s what they uncovered…

The Brontës lived in a time of filth and disease. Charlotte was known to have several teeth missing; TB (which killed five of the six Brontë siblings) was rife and the average life expectancy in Haworth was just 25. In the drama, the actors’ fingernails are painted with dirt but Wainwright says, “It would have been quite a lot filthier. There would have been open sewers running down the street.”

Their brother Branwell caused chaos and shame. Painter and poet Branwell, the only brother among the Brontës, was expected to provide for the family, but instead turned to alcohol and opium. He stole money, had an affair with his boss’s wife when he was a tutor and set fire to his own bed. Wainwright believes the Brontës’ subsequent need for money meant that, “Branwell’s decline was instrumental in pushing the sisters to write.”

bronte sisters

Finn Atkins and Charlie Murphy as Charlotte and Anne Brontë

Physically, the sisters were opposites. At 4ft 10in, Charlotte was almost a foot shorter than her younger sister Emily, who is thought to have been about 5ft 8in. “Emily used to lean on Charlotte physically. They must have looked so funny together,” says Pirrie.

The Brontës wrote their stories in tiny lettering. “The sisters were so scared of being discovered [it was considered scandalous for women to write powerful, romantic dramas] that they wrote in this tiny calligraphy,” says Pirrie. “I spent hours practising Emily’s signature. It was a nightmare.”

To Walk Invisible is on Thursday 29 December, 9pm, BBC One

Illustration: Clym Evernden. Inline image: Rex Features