Director: Curtis Bernhardt.
Starring: Olivia de Havilland (Charlotte Bronte), Ida Lupino (Emily Bronte), Paul Henreid (Rev. Arthur Nicholls), Sydney Greenstreet (William Makepeace Thackeray), Nancy Coleman (Anne Bronte), Arthur Kennedy (Branwell Bronte), Dame May Whitty (Lady Thornton).
The story of the literary Bronte sisters.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
"A century ago there lived, upon the Yorkshire moors of England, three sisters and a brother, all of great talent -- and two with genius. Their name was Bronte, their novels are classics which will endure forever -- but they themselves lived a story as rare and remarkable as any they dreamed. "
Sheep are driven down the village street. A shop keeper named Mr. Ames says hello to Mrs. Branwell and gives her a package. It contains warm clothing for Miss Charlotte and Miss Anne for the journey ahead of them. Miss Emily will stay at home. Aunt Branwell has taken care of the Bronte children ever since her sister died when Charlotte was five years old. Their father was a Vicker and Mr. Ames asks what's the world coming to when the Vicker's girls are going into service (as governesses)?
Lady Thornton in her coach tells Aunt Branwell to tell Miss Charlotte that she has received her letter and she will grant Miss Charlotte's most unusual request. Lady Thornton has Charles, her driver, give Mrs. Branwell her package. She says that Miss Charlotte is going to use it for some domestic purpose. Mrs. Barnwell is shocked that Charlotte has asked for brown wrapping paper. Inside the house she calls for the children, but everyone is out of doors.
Branwell Bronte chases Anne down for saying that her brother can neither paint nor write. Anne yells for her sisters for help as Branwell says he is going to throw Anne into a pool of water. Charlotte comes over to scold Branwell for his threat. Branwell drops Anne into the pool anyway. Anne quickly jumps out of the pool, chases after Branwell, jumps on him and they both fall on the ground. Later Branwell paints the portrait of Charlotte and Anne together.
While Branwell paints, he criticizes Anne and Charlotte for agreeing to take positions as governesses. Charlotte says she and Anne want to experience life so that they might write about it. Branwell tells Charlotte to stop her idealistic prattle. He also says Emily and he have more talent in their little fingers as in the whole of Charlotte's brain. Emily comes to join her siblings. Branwell asks her if she will stay at home and rot with him? She says: "This is my world."
At dinner the Vicker asks Charlotte if she has been to Thornton Hall asking for charity? Charlotte is excited at the thought that the package has come to her. She says she will divide the paper up four ways, but Emily rushes over to the package saying that she will take her one-third share and will take it now. Charlotte and Emily fight over the paper. They both want it to use for their writings. The Vicker gets angry and tells the girls to come back to dinner immediately. When the girls settle in, dad asks where is Branwell? He stopped in the village to pick up the letters.
The girls talk about taking Branwell with them when they go to London. Emily does not like this idea. Charlotte says: "We once decided no important decision should be made unless we all agree to it. That being the case, Branwell shall not go to London. All the same Emily, I think you're behaving abominably. She leaves.
At night the three sisters talk about Branwell. Emily says that Branwell is not ready to go to London. She feels the big city will kill Branwell. During the night, Charlotte speaks to Emily again and gets her to agree to let Branwell go with his sisters to London.
Branwell draws a portrait of a man at the local tavern. It is really a caricature. The guy doesn't like it. Branwell goes over to another fellow and draws his caricature with just three strokes. The man says you can't draw a portrait with just three strokes. Branwell says he can and he wants the man to pay up. The man objects, so Branwell says the man can just buy him a drink of brandy. The fellow objects to this idea too, so Branwell grabs the man's mug and tosses it through the window where it lands beside two coach horses and scares them into a near stampede. There is a coach traveler who grabs the reins of the horses and gets them calmed down.
The fellow who calmed the horses now comes into the tavern. He is
staying here tonight and has brought his luggage. Branwell figures out
that this fellow is the new curate, Rev. Arthur Nicholls. By this time
Branwell is stinking drunk and the Reverend escorts him out of the tavern and
back to his house. Emily comes to the door and helps her brother inside.
Emily is rude to the Reverend because she thinks the Reverend his just one of
Barnwell's drinking buddies.
Emily takes great care of her brother. In the morning he tells her that he's not going to London. She informs him that he will be up and at breakfast in one-half hour; he will thank his sisters for their kind gesture; and he will go to London with them. After breakfast all the siblings take off towards London. At a certain point, the coach stops and lets Emily and the family dog off. Everyone says goodbye and Emily and the dog run back home.
Rev. Nicholls meets with his superior, Rev. Bronte. Bronte is not happy about the fellow coming here. He blames it all on Charlotte and insists that: "You are here neither at my wish nor my request." Rev. Nicholls takes it all rather in stride. Soon Rev. Bronte is feeling much more positive to his new assistant. Emily comes in and meets Rev. Nicholls. She is still rude to him thinking that he was drunk last night. Rev. Nicholls explains that he had to help a man home last night who was very inebriated. Now Emily realizes her mistake and says that she is sure his assistance with the drunken man was very much appreciated.
Emily goes out for a walk with Rev. Nicholls. The two get along very well. Soon Emily is assisting Rev. Nicholls with his Sunday class. On her way back home she shows Rev. Nicholls one of her favorite views looking out onto the moor. She says her siblings think the moor ugly, but she likes it. Nicholls tells her that: "Knowing you is a rare privilege." She points out a house on a hill and says that this is the place that she writes about. She says the house is now only the home of ghosts. The Reverend asks her what's the name of that place and she says: "I call it Wuthering Heights."
When Emily and the dog come back home, she finds Branwell there. She asks what brings him back home and her father says: "It seems that London has treated Branwell shamefully." He says that London is a city full of Philistines. And he accuses his three sisters of deliberately sending him to London to bring him down and to get one more rival out of their way. Soon the sisters will be cutting each other's throats. He suddenly does an about face: "I don't believe what I' m saying. Forgive me."
Charlotte and Anne come back home. They are very excited about being home. All three put on their gowns to go to a fancy ball. Charlotte sees a piece of paper with writing on it. She picks it up and starts reading it aloud. The writing is a poem written by Emily and she does not want Charlotte reading it. It upsets Emily, but Charlotte says it's a beautiful poem. Anne adds that Charlotte has suggested that they all three put their poems together and send them to London: "Poems by Three Sisters". Emily doesn't like the idea.
Rev. Nicholls will drive the three sisters to the ball. Emily introduces him to her two sisters. He seems struck by the look of Charlotte. The sister gets into the carriage and off they go. They stop at an inn and Branwell comes out to greet them. The brother is drunk once again. The idiot suddenly jumps onto the back of the horse, scaring it. It bucks Branwell off it's back and races away giving the four on the carriage a very fast ride. Finally the horse calms down. Rev. Nicholls says it looks like they are going to get to Thornton Hall a little early. Charlotte tells him to turn the carriage around, so they can go get Branwell. Rev. Nicholls refuses saying that Branwell is in no fit condition to escort the three sisters to the ball. Charlotte doesn't like his refusal. When they arrive at the ball she treats the Reverend as a servant. She says they will be finished at a certain time and Mr. Nichols will be there to pick them up. Rev. Nicholls says: "As I will be present at the ball, it can be arranged quite easily." Charlotte asks: "Are we to have you as a chaperone this evening?" Yes. Charlotte says: "Good heavens!"
They go into the ball. Later, Rev. Nicholls asks Charlotte if she would dance with him? She says that her dance card is full. So he asks Anne to dance with him. She accepts. Later he asks Emily if she will dance with him? She says: "As often as you like, Mr. Nicholls."
Anne dances with a Mr. Seton. He says he has improved his life and she responds that her aunt says the he is no longer to be avoided. The fellow tells her that sometimes she says the oddest things. Charlotte acts righteously indignant toward Rev. Nicholls, but she sure keeps an eye on him as he dances with Emily. In fact, Charlotte tells Nicholls that she wants the next dance with him. The next dance they dance together, but she tells him: "So do not imagine that my singular request was prompted by any desire to dance with you." So they go outside to talk. She says he is paying too much to her sister Emily and she will not let any harm come to her because of her generous nature. She adds that Nicholls is not to dance with her sister again. Nicholls says she should be thankful that he's not a woman beater. He then grabs her and kisses her hard.
Anne calls for Charlotte to come back in. Barnwell is here and causing a scene. Nicholls follows them. After listening a little while to Barnwell, Nicholls comes over and takes him out of the mansion. Outside Branwell decides to go back in since there are obviously no drinks outside. Nicholls tries to reason with him, but it's no dice. Branwell takes a swing at him and they end up fighting. Nicholls easily knocks the drunken man down.
Rev. Bronte tells Rev. Nicholls that he will have to go. Everyone knows about the scandalous scene. Nicholls starts to leave, but Branwell stops him. He then goes over to his father and tells him that it was he that was all to blame for the incident. Dad now tells Nicholls that he can stay. He leaves the room. Branwell says his sisters have poisoned Nicholls' mind against him. Nicholls changes the subject by saying he has never actually seen any of Branwell's paintings.
Emily comes to visit Nicholls. She tells Nicholls that Branwell has sold one of his paintings. And Branwell says he will send Charlotte and her to Brussels, Belgium to complete their education. It was a dream of hers to complete her education, but now it doesn't seem that she wants to go anymore. Instead she says: "Tell me I needn't go Mr. Nicholls." He replies: "I'm afraid I can't tell you that, Miss Emily." Emily looks crushed. She leaves without saying anything else. With the dog Emily walks out in the rain to look at her ghost house Wuthering Heights.
Brussels. The School of Monsieur and Madame Heger. Charlotte seems to have fallen for Monsieur Heger. She fawns before him. So much so that Emily tells her to stop it. She says it's come to the attention of all the French girls at the school. A staff member comes to Madame Heger to complain that Charlotte is always fawning over Monsieur Heger. In front of her, Madame Heger is putting together a poem by Charlotte about her willingness to sin with Monsieur Heger. Madame Heger tells the staff member that Charlotte is an excellent student and teacher and she doesn't expect any problems from her. Nevertheless, she says that Charlotte deserves watching. And now Madame Heger goes to the class room of Charlotte. She mentions to Charlotte that perhaps she is teaching her class some poems of her own. Charlotte is shocked and asks where did she get the idea that she writes verse? A little birdie told her, says Madame Heger.
Now Monsieur Heger comes in to Emily's piano class. As he listens to a student playing, Emily notices that he is using the time to stare at Charlotte through the glass windows that separate the two classrooms. After the class ends, Charlotte comes over and Monsieur Heger teases her a little. Charlotte becomes upset and a bit angry. He mentions that he was curious about how much life experience Charlotte has had since she writes so well of passion in her verses. Charlotte suggests that she is a woman with experience.
Later, Emily asks Charlotte why did she tell Heger that she had so much life experience. Charlotte gets defensive and says there were two incidents that happily did not go to far. One was at school and the other was with Rev. Nicholls. The insufferable boar actually kissed her. Now Emily gets upset. Charlotte says nothing came of it and it was so long ago now. Then she changes the subject saying that Anne mentions in her letter that: "They're going to publish two of our poems in the Court Hill Magazine. Thackeray has read them and asked who are these brilliant brothers?" She runs off saying that she must tell Monsieur Heger about it.
That night Emily has another nightmare about a man dressed all in black on a black horse who comes riding straight at her and she can't move out of the way." She wakes up with a gasp. She says she saw the face of her rider.
Monsieur Heger takes Charlotte to the carnival. He tells her that Emily is a very sad person and that Charlotte should look out for her more than she does. They take a slow water ride in a boat and Heger must have kissed her a lot, because she comes out on the other side looking disheveled. Heger believes that Charlotte is a real hypocrite, acting so righteous, while really wanting to sin. Later, she tells him: "Knowing you has been the happiest experience of my life." This time she kisses him.
Charlotte returns to her room. She sees Emily packing. Emily tells her that Anne has written that Branwell is very ill and they must come home. But Charlotte doesn't want to rush home. She is smitten with Monsieur Heger. Charlotte says she will not go home. She runs out of the room to go ask Monsieur Heger what she should do.
She runs into Heger's office to find Madame Heger sitting there. Charlotte tells the married woman that she is in love with her husband. Monsieur Heger comes in and Charlotte tells him that she has told Madame Heger about their love. Heger acts like he is above it all. He says he would not advise on this, a matter of conscience. She will know what to do. Charlotte is shocked and says he is sending her away. He responds: "I'm not sending you away, Miss Charlotte. It only seems wiser that you go. Goodnight, Miss Charlotte." Charlotte runs out of the room.
Charlotte and Emily are on their way back to England. On a ship Charlotte tells her sister that perhaps she has been wrong about everything in her life. And perhaps it's true that Mr. Nicholls did really love her. Emily says her sister suffered a great shock, but she is going to recover extremely rapidly.
Back home Emily reads her partly-written manuscript of Wuthering Heights to her brother who is bed-ridden. What Branwell says next really shocks Emily. He says both Charlotte's and Emily's books show that they are in love with the same man. He tells her not to worry because most people, including Charlotte, aren't going to notice. Then he tells her that she is not looking very well and must hurry up and finish her book before it's too late. Emily quickly leaves the room.
In town Charlotte sees Mr. Nicholls walking on the street. She shouts to him and they start talking. He says he was just returning a couple of chapters from her Jane Eyre manuscript. She asks him to tea, but he says he cannot stay. So she asks him if he would pay a short visit to Branwell? He says he's not sure if Branwell would welcome a visit from him. So now Charlotte becomes angry and she says she has been trying to be nice to him and atone for her past injustice to him, but all he does is avoid her. He tells her he avoids her out of fear of liking her too much. That shuts her up, as she is shocked.
Nicholls tells her they should go see Branwell now. With Branwell is Emily. Nicholls says hello to both of them. Branwell is always devilish and causes some discomfort for the people in the room. He makes references to the emotions in the room. Nicholls sees where he is going with this and decides to leave. Emily also leaves. Charlotte stays and says that despite his attempts to cause trouble for her, she can never forget his great sacrifice to send them to Brussels. Branwell says he is going to disillusion her about him this very minute. It was Nicholls that bought his painting on the condition that Branwell act like it was his largesse to send his two sisters to Brussels. So now Charlotte knows and Branwell says now she can stop being so grateful to him. Charlotte says: "Thank you for being so truthful with me, Branwell. But contrary to your expectations, I have now more reason to be grateful to you more than ever." She leaves Branwell's room. And now it's Branwell's turn to be shocked.
Charlotte tells Emily that it was Nicholls that send them abroad, not Branwell. This tears Emily up inside, but Charlotte doesn't notice. Plus, Emily hides it well. Charlotte says this proved that Nicholls does truly love her. She hurts her sister with every word she utters. Poor Emily winces with pain at her sister's comments. She pretends she is asleep and Charlotte gives up on her for the night.
Nicholls comes into the Bronte library to borrow a few books. He finds that Emily is in the den/library and she tells him to go ahead and take the books. He tells her that she can't become a governess. "You are a poet, a dreamer of great dreams." He says she can't become a just a servant. She says she certainly can become a servant. And that's especially true since Nicholls gave her and her sister a great education. Nicholls says if this town isn't big enough for the three of them, it is he who will be going, not Emily. She tells him that she really tried to stop loving him.
Just then Charlotte bursts into the room. She wants to speak with Emily. When they are alone, Charlotte tells Emily that they can't find Branwell in the house. Emily rushes out into the rain to go to the bar to find Branwell. She finds him laying at the bottom of some steps. He says he couldn't even make it to the inn. He dies. Emily cries. Now Charlotte and Nicholls arrive on the scene. Emily says: "He's gone, Charlotte."
Nicholls says goodbye to the two sisters. Charlotte asks him why is he leaving them? "Because I am not a big enough man to live side by side with greatness. Nor am I so small that I can stand by and witness its torment." He says one day she will understand.
Charlotte's book Jane Eyre is published. It says on the front page that it has been written by Currer Bell. Book readers all over Britain debate whether Jane Eyre is better than Wuthering Heights. Thackeray tells the publisher that of the three books by the three brothers, Wuthering Heights is the best, even if it sold the least number of books. He leaves the publisher's office, but runs into a woman asking him when will she be able to get to see the publisher? Thackeray says that will be difficult because he is dealing with all the buzz about Currer Bell and his new book. Charlotte is so shocked and says she never realized she would ever create such a uproar. Now Thackeray realizes he is dealing with a woman and not a man author. Thackeray takes her to lunch.
Thackeray asks why Emily did not come to London? Charlotte says Emily has been in poor health. And her sister detests crowds. Thackeray wonders about how Emily came to suffer such a tragic love? Charlotte says mostly from her very loving heart, not from real experience. Thackeray tells her that she should read the whole of Wuthering Heights.
Charlotte attends book signings. And Lord and Lady Palmerston give a Reception and Dinner for the great author. She attends the ballet with Thackeray. And then she tells him that she wants to go to the East End of London. He says he's not going to take her to that place of thieves and bandits. But take her he does. She gets off at the address given for Nicholls. She is shown to the room of Nicholls. They talk briefly and she gives him a copy of her novel. She starts to leave but stops to tell him that she still doesn't understand why he left them. He tells her he loves her and has always loved her. They kiss. She still asks why did he leave? He says he left because Miss Emily offered him a love that he could not return. This both shocks and hurts Charlotte. And she wonders why she never saw the truth? She says: "Oh, Emily!"
At home the Bronte family is crushed by the illness of Emily. Dad starts to say that he is going to write to Charlotte when she appears in the house. They rush to her. One of the first things Charlotte asks is where is Emily? The doctor comes down and Charlotte realizes that something is terribly wrong. She rushes up to see Emily. Charlotte lies to Emily when she asks if she saw Nicholls? Yes, she saw him, but but she says her old feelings toward him just weren't there any longer. Emily tells her sister that love is the only thing that matters. She tells Charlotte that Nicholls will come back for her and she will see for herself.
Emily goes unconscious and Charlotte runs to call for Dr. Barnes. Emily has her dream again about the dark horse and rider. This time he takes her with him. She dies.
Charlotte goes to the view of the moor that Emily loved so much. She says: "I have found the meaning, dear Emily. Goodbye, my dear one."
Nicholls waits for her and together they walk back to the house.
Wow, a terrific film. And quite the tear jerker, if one can really gets into the film. In one sense, the Bronte brother and sisters did not really have much of a life. They were the children of a pastor and there was always a lot of pressure on them to be extra good. And they were relatively isolated in a small town. Perhaps this is one reason why the siblings used their own imaginations to go to a world where things were more interesting. Anne, Emily and Branwell never married. Charlotte only married after the death of the three siblings. She became pregnant but died during child birth.
Perhaps because their lives were peaceful, they did more imagining and they did more writing. All three sisters became published authors.
In a way, it's a sad story because none of the siblings were really happy. And because in those days they didn't talk openly about their feelings, the sisters really didn't know each other very well. The brother was a raving alcoholic and the sisters were saddened by love affairs that never worked (except near the end of Charlotte's life). And yet, two of the sisters were great writers.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
See Bronte (1983) .
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