If you’ve seen Emily, you may be wondering whether famous Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë really had an affair with a local parish priest named William Weightman. Well, writer-director Frances O’Connor didn’t intend for audiences to view everything in Emily as factual.
We’ll get into more about Emily Brontë and William Weightman below, but what you should understand about Emily is this — O’Connor wants audiences to look at the movie as a story inspired by the Brontës’ lives, not factually based on them. Emily uses real historical figures and circumstances as a jumping-off point for a story about what might have inspired Emily Brontës famous novel Wuthering Heights — as well her sister Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.
“Once we get to the mask scene in the film, if the audience still feels that they’re watching a biopic, I think we’re in trouble,” O’Connor laughs in an interview with MovieMaker, referring to an early scene in which the Brontës, plus Weightman, gather around and take turns trying on an old theatrical mask.
“I did all the research, and then I read Wuthering Heights, and I really wanted to create a film that really celebrated her voice,” O’Connor adds.
Emily stars Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as William Weightman, a young curate (an old-fashioned word for parish priest) who works with her father, Patrick Brontë (Adrian Dunbar). At first, Emily and William are at odds. But then William becomes Emily’s French tutor and they start to soften toward each other. Alexandra Dowling plays Charlotte Brontë, Amelia Gething plays Anne Brontë, Fionn Whitehead plays Branwell Brontë, and Gemma Jones plays Aunt Branwell.
The result is a fictional story inspired by real-life people.
“I wanted to tell a story that’s about a young woman existing within the patriarchy, trying to find her voice,” O’Connor says.
Below, O’Connor tells us what’s real and what’s fictional in Emily.
Did Emily Brontë really have an affair with William Weightman?
The short answer is that there’s no evidence to support that Emily Brontë had an affair with her father’s curate, William Weightman, O’Connor tells us. But he was a real person who did interact with the family, and Emily and her sisters did refer to him as “Celia Amelia.”
“William Weightman was a real character that existed who worked alongside the Brontës. He was called Celia Amelia by the Brontë sisters. He was a flirt. He did die when the sisters were in Brussels,” O’Connor tells us. “There was a period of time where it was Branwell, Weightman and Emily kicking around the parsonage for about two years while the sisters were away. And I don’t think she had an affair, but we don’t know.”
O’Connor thinks that Emily’s brother, Branwell Brontë, and Weightman might have inspired two of the characters in Wuthering Heights.
“She might have been looking at these guys in terms of Bramwell being like Heathcliff and Weightman being like Edgar in a way,” O’Connor says.
And from what is known of Emily in real life, she was indeed shy.
“She’s definitely an introvert. She was definitely socially anxious,” she says.
O’Connor also doesn’t believe the rumors that it was really Anne Brontë who had an affair with Weightman.
“That’s actually not proven, and in fact, Juliet Barker says in her book, The Brontës, that actually Charlotte was the one who was the most in love with him,” O’Connor says. “And he clearly was not interested in her. And so he I felt like she kind of invented this — Juliet Barker talks about a bit that there’s really very little evidence that there was any connection to any of them [having an affair with Weightman]. But it’s kind of become that, from like one little reference that Charlotte writes in a letter. But it’s kind of disputed by a couple of historians.”
Did the Brontë family really have that mask?
This one is actually based on fact. Yes, O’Connor tells us, there really was a theatrical mask gifted as a wedding present to Emily’s parents, Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell, by an unknown person. But the scene where Emily channels the ghost of her late mother is made up.
“The mask was a real object that the Brontës had in their house. It was given as a wedding present — they didn’t find out who it came from. And he did make them put it on — Patrick made them put the mask on, when they were children, to speak through,” O’Connor says. “So I just saw it when I was doing my research and I was writing. I thought it would be a great kind of conduit for her [Emily’s] creativity, and also a great symbol of her connection to her mother, which is also kind of the feminine and the creative — and that thing about masks that we put on as women and hide behind. Perfection and all of that.”
Did Emily and Branwell really get tattoos?
Although O’Connor assures us that it would have been possible for them to get tattoos in the 1800s, that scene where Branwell and Emily write “Freedom in thought” on their arms is again a bit of artistic license on O’Connor’s part — “my imagination,” she says.
She clarifies that in the movie, she intended for the words to have just been written in pen ink on their arms, not real tattoos.
“Emily was a free thinker. She really was someone who had original thought and her own ideas. And for me, that’s really important at a time where there’s so much kind of group thinking and group consciousness around everything,” O’Connor said of her inspiration for the scene.
Did Charlotte really burn all of Emily’s writings after she died?
Ultimately, that tidbit comes down to historical hearsay, O’Connor says.
“There was just, like, an anecdote about that, after Emily died, Charlotte burned all her letters, all the last bits of what she had written. And there was a rumor that she’d started writing a second novel, and that Charlotte also burnt that. But we don’t know, it was kind of like hearsay from somebody who lived amongst the Brontës. It’s kind of something that’s been passed down through 150 years,” O’Connor said.
But the idea of Emily wanting privacy — for the world not to know all of her most intimate thoughts — was intriguing to her. So she wove it into the fictionalized version of the story.
“When I read that, I thought, [this is] somebody who kind of feels like, ‘I don’t want people to know any more about me, I want to be private.’ And I feel like that’s a feeling that we all feel at the moment in our world — like, I’d love to be able to have my world be private, in a way that everything’s out there now for everybody. So she sort of says, ‘I just want all of my stuff gone so people can’t know anything more about me. And I think that there’s a kind of sadness with that for her,” O’Connor says.
Emily is now playing in select theaters.
Main Image: Oliver Jackson-Cohen as William Weightman and Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë courtesy of Bleecker Street.