Emily marks the debut of actress Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park) in the director’s chair and has already gained prominence for controversy. It is because in the film, the reclusive author of Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, is said to have lived a romance with an assistant of her father, William Weightman, a young man of only 25 years who lived with the family for a few years. There is no evidence that the relationship actually took place. “I didn’t want to do a real simple biography,” Frances said in an interview.
“I wasn’t really interested in doing this as a story because I wanted to connect the movie with Wuthering Heights. I wanted to look at a young woman discovering who she is. Because of that, I just let the narrative do what it wanted to do and that’s what it wanted to do.”
It is, therefore, more of a work of historical fiction, with creative liberties with no factual basis to imagine a version of the life of someone who is biography. Interestingly, Weightman actually existed, was really handsome, and lived with the Brontë family while working in the local parish, but history points to him as the romantic interest of another sister, Anne, rather than Emily. That’s right, she would have thought of him to create the character Edward Weston, in Agnes Gray.
Biographers are unanimous in describing that there was at least a platonic relationship between the two after Anne returned to Haworth after a frustrating job as a governess and met William Weightman, her father’s, Patrick Brontë, new parish priest at St. Michael and All Angels, in Haworth. Weightman, who was from Appleby, Westmorland, arrived in August 1839, after graduating with a Master of Arts from the newly created University of Durham.
Weightman’s entry into the Brontë household replaced a previous assistant, William Hodgson, who had suddenly departed, in 1837. Before the two, Patrick Brontë had a problem when another assistant, Arthur Bell Nicholls, dared to ask for the hand of his daughter Charlotte. Unlike his predecessors, Weightman got along well with Patrick and came to be seen as a son. While living with the boy, Anne wrote several poems that suggest her attraction between the two, supported by Charlotte’s comment, years later, that her friend Ellen Nussey would have witnessed exchanges of looks between them. It helps to reinforce this version because, in Anne’s most famous work, Agnes Gray, the protagonist (Agnes) falls in love with poetry inspired by a parish priest.
In addition to the Brontë house, Weightman was also very popular with the villagers of Haworth. His joy has led some historians to portray him as flirtatious and insincere, a rumor indirectly fueled by Charlotte who regretted it after discovering the assistant’s affectionate side. As she later recounted, one night she saw him return to the Presbytery looking sad and tired, claiming to the writer’s father that he was discouraged because he had just seen a poor young woman who was dying. This girl, Susan Bland, was one of Charlotte’s Sunday School students, and she discovered that Weightman had not only visited Susan before she died but had also helped the family with groceries.
Weightman’s sudden death of cholera, three weeks after visiting a sick parishioner, would have interrupted what Anne’s fans imagined was a possible happy ending. She wrote a farewell poem, Farewell, supposedly for Weightman.
Farewell to thee! but not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of thee:
Within my heart they still shall dwell;
And they shall cheer and comfort me.
O, beautiful, and full of grace!
If thou hadst never met mine eye,
I had not dreamed a living face
Could fancied charms so far outvie.
If I may ne’er behold again
That form and face so dear to me,
Nor hear thy voice, still would I fain
Preserve, for aye, their memory.
That voice, the magic of whose tone
Can wake an echo in my breast,
Creating feelings that, alone,
Can make my tranced spirit blest.
That laughing eye, whose sunny beam
My memory would not cherish less; —
And oh, that smile! whose joyous gleam
Nor mortal language can express.
Adieu, but let me cherish, still,
The hope with which I cannot part.
Contempt may wound, and coldness chill,
But still it lingers in my heart.
And who can tell but Heaven, at last,
May answer all my thousand prayers,
And bid the future pay the past
With joy for anguish, smiles for tears?
There is nothing – until the film Emily – to suggest that instead of Anne, it was Emily the Brontë sister that had aroused any feeling in the parish priest. In Haworth, there is a plaque honoring Weightman within the parish in recognition of his dedication to the community.
In Emily, actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays the parish priest and actress Emma Mackey plays Emily. Frances O’Connor doesn’t care about historical criticism. In the trailer, we see that all the known stories about them are in another context. How could an unlived, shy, reclusive young woman have written something as dense as Wuthering Heights if she hadn’t somehow dreamed it up?
“She is a mystery, we know so little about her”, said the director about the author of one of the greatest classics of literature. “You can feel who she was through the romance,” he added.
And we can imagine too.