Very little of Emily Brontë’s own writing about herself survives, just a handful of letters (she admitted to being bad at them) and time-capsule-like vignettes of everyday life meant to be sealed up and read at a designated date years later. Every era, accordingly, tends to create an Emily Brontë in its own image, and Frances O’Connor’s film Emily is a prime example of this: beautifully photographed, preoccupied with its heroine’s fragility, and deeply silly.
One bad idea presides over Emily, sapping its better moments of their originality. That idea is one that often comes up in films about writers: the notion that no one could possibly write well about something they hadn’t experienced directly. The 2007 movie Becoming Jane assured its viewers that Jane Austen was only able to produce so many great novels about young women finding true love because she had attained and (unlike her heroines) lost it herself. According to Emily, Brontë (Emma Mackey) had a passionate affair with William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the curate who worked with her father (Adrian Dunbar). That explains how she was able to write Wuthering Heights.
A big problem with this premise is that Wuthering Heights depicts exactly the sort of love affair that a person who’d never been in a romantic relationship is likely to invent, all wildness and extremity and drama. The brilliance of the novel lies in that wildness, in its author’s complete commitment to the ruthlessness of her characters’ emotions and the uncanny afterglow left in their wake—not in its realism. Wuthering Heights works because it is a fantasy untrammeled by the sort of practical considerations that dominated the actual lives of Emily Brontë and her family. Besides, romantic love is arguably the predominate theme of Western literature and culture, especially the parts of it with which the Brontës were familiar. It’s not as if they (or anyone else) needed first-hand experience to know anything about extravagant passion, given how much, and how widely, they read.
The characters in Emily don’t do much reading, and none at all if you eliminate the times they pore over little scraps of paper scribbled on by one of the other characters. There’s hardly a book in the movie before the scene at the end in which Emily unwraps a parcel of fresh copies of Wuthering Heights and smiles with keen satisfaction at the sight of her name printed on the title page. This itself is apocryphal, since the novel was originally published under the pen name Ellis Bell, and even Emily’s own father (depicted in yet another absurd scene toasting Emily at a sort of book party) did not know she had written it until after her death in 1848.
Instead of books there is “writing,” something the characters in Emily speak of with a breathless, aspirational reverence, as if educated 19th-century British people weren’t constantly writing in one form or another: letters, diaries, poetry, sermons, essays, reviews, and so on. It was one of the few forms of entertainment and the only means of communication besides speaking face-to-face. Patrick Brontë himself, the father of Emily, Charlotte, Anne, and Branwell, was, in addition to being an Anglican priest, a published poet. Emily alludes briefly to the juvenilia of the Brontë siblings, a collection of texts written by the children in tiny volumes and set in two imaginary kingdoms peopled by characters inspired by the dashing and romantic heroes and heroines in the many books they read. Those ranged from the Odyssey to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, but especially anything by or about Lord Byron, whose stormy, brooding charisma clearly inspired both Heathcliff and Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester, not to mention generations of romance heroes thereafter.
For the Emily Brontë of Emily, however, “writing” is less something you do or consume than it is a kind of longed-for identity, or personal brand, which tracks with other ways in which the film depicts her as an early incarnation of Gen-Z sensibility. Instead of the exhilarated, attentive nature lover who appears in contemporary accounts of Emily—the kind of person who includes the age of the family canary in her time-capsule diaries—this Emily’s affinity with the moors is more aesthetic. She’s a cottagecore Brontë whose main activity is wandering through meadows in long skirts, trailing her slender fingers through willow leaves for a sunstruck lens. The historical Emily was notoriously shy, which for Mackey means lurking in the background of group scenes, glaring like a sulking, dimwitted child. She complains that the neighbors regard her as an “odd fish” and proposes remaining in her room for the entire time that one of Charlotte’s friends comes to visit. Later, having taken a job teaching at the same school that employs her sister, she becomes so overwhelmed that Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) finds her weeping in a closet. It’s all too easy to picture this Emily with a TikTok account dedicated to discussing the trials of being an introvert, as well elaborating on her vague self-diagnosed “mental illness” and “trauma response.”
This is not the Emily Brontë who, as Charlotte recalled, once marched into the parsonage after having been bitten by a rabid dog and cauterized the wound herself with a hot poker. Nor is it the girl whose father trained her to use a rifle in the event the family was attacked by Chartists, and whose sharp-shooting caused him to exclaim, “Oh, she is a brave and noble girl! She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!” Instead of the often distracted and neglectful Patrick Brontë of history, the father in Emily is a stern disciplinarian (and made more intimidating for anyone familiar with Dunbar’s thunderous performance as the nemesis of bent coppers in the TV series Line of Duty). The film’s Emily is a sullen rebel without much cause, too easily brought under the sway of her wastrel brother (Fionn Whitehead), who has “freedom of thought” tattooed on his forearm.
In real life, Emily was nearly inseparable from her sister, Anne (Amelia Gething), and it was Charlotte who was closer to Branwell, at least in childhood. Also, if the real-life Weightman showed any preference for one of the sisters, it was Anne, generally considered the prettiest of the three. Charlotte gets an even less thoughtful treatment, depicted in Emily as an envious, prim, unimaginative older sister who only has the idea of writing a novel herself after Emily’s masterpiece reduces her to tears and cries of “I hate you!” In reality, Jane Eyre was published before Wuthering Heights and was such a smash hit that after Emily’s and Anne’s deaths, Charlotte had to confront a publisher who tried to pass her sisters’ novels off as her own. Lip service—and only that—is paid to the fact that Emily would never have been published at all if Charlotte had not convinced her that it was worth the sacrifice of some of her privacy.
This harsh view of Charlotte is par for the course of late, and she was certainly not blameless. Nevertheless, she was navigating a major cultural pivot. The Brontës grew up marinating in the texts of peak Romanticism, but by the time Charlotte suddenly found herself a celebrated literary figure, moral fashion had shifted. (No one likes to admit that morality is subject to fashion, but it is.) The bold individualism that the Romantics championed became tarnished in the eyes of the Victorians, not least because of the destructive behavior of the people, like Byron, who espoused it. To this day, many readers object to the selfish cruelty of the characters in Wuthering Heights, and to the idea that the grandeur of Brontë’s vision compensates for it. When Charlotte tried to tweak Emily’s and Anne’s reputations after their deaths—the really unforgivable move was suppressing the publication of Anne’s second novel because it dealt with alcoholism and domestic violence—she was defending her sisters from accusations of coarseness and immorality that felt as valid to her as the ideas we have of propriety today, even if we don’t now agree with them.
As for “freedom of thought,” the Emily of Emily doesn’t do much thinking, unless it’s about sex. In one particularly ridiculous moment, Weightman furtively glances at one of Emily’s poems, accompanied by a breathy voiceover by Mackey, until the phrase “thy sweet tongue” strikes him as too overwhelmingly racy and he stuffs the paper in his pocket. The film implies that Bronte’s verse was mostly heady love poems, but the poem in question, “Speak, God of Visions,” is addressed not to a lover but to the Romantic personification of the imagination. Like so much of her verse, it has a mystical, intellectual, solitary bent completely absent from Emily, in which freedom consists mainly of snogging a curate in an abandoned cottage and dancing drunkenly in your brother’s railway station office. The Emily Brontë who wrote “No Coward Soul Is Mine” deserves better than to be reduced to conventional unconventionality and to the preoccupations of our moment. Above all she deserves more than this biopic’s utter lack of interest in the very thing that made her immortal. Emily is a movie about “writing” that’s forgotten how to read.