Maybe you think of Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in the 1943 film “Jane Eyre,” or Merle Oberon telling Laurence Olivier in 1939’s “Wuthering Heights” to “smell the heather.”
The characters in these famous novels by Charlotte and Emily Brontë are as quintessentially English as anything in Thomas Hardy.
You probably never think of Ireland.
The Brontë siblings, you see, were all half Irish.
Patrick Brontë was born Patrick Brunty in County Down. He changed his name when he went to University in Cambridge as a young man. Brontë served as Perpetual Curate of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church in Haworth from 1820 until his death, ten years after the death of Charlotte, the last remaining of six children.
In the one-woman show “Brontë,” presented by the Alloy Theater Company, which plays May 8-25, actress Maxine Linehan plays Charlotte Brontë with an Irish accent.
That’s because, Linehan explained, Charlotte herself had that brogue.
Charlotte’s English mother Maria died when she was only 5, and she was brought up by her Irish father. Maxine, one of the cofoundera of Alloy Theater Company, was drawn to the role of Charlotte Brontë in part because she wanted to “bring awareness to her as an Irishwoman.”
Maxine also was struck by some similarities she shared with the famous English author.
Maxine’s own father was also named Patrick, and, she said, was similar in some ways to Patrick Brontë:
“They were typical stern but loving God-fearing men. I know exactly what it was like to grow up with a man like that.”
Maxine was born in County Down, like Patrick Brontë. She was brought up in Cork.
Charlotte, said Maxine, was a strong-willed woman although “shy to the point of uncomfortable in public.”
Still, when Charlotte was told that the character of Jane Eyre shouldn’t be written, “she was like, ‘I’m writing it,'”said Maxine.
Although she performed her first professional role at age 17 with the Irish Operatic Repertory Company in Cork, as Luisa Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” her father Patrick wanted her to study a “real job. Acting was not regarded as a real job.”
So Maxine went to the University of London and became a member of the Inns of Court, and has the wig and gown to prove it. Maxine first came to New York as a counsel for a Media company.
When asked what her goals in life were at the interview, she said she wanted to live in New York, and work as an actor.When the Media company opened a New York office, Maxine came out to open it.
It was the experience of loss, when both of her parents became ill, that put Maxine’s goals back into perspective for her.
“I thought about how short life is, and what’s important,” Maxine said.
She turned to acting eight years ago, and never looked back.
William Luce, who also wrote a bio-play about Emily Dickinson called “The Belle of Amherst,” first wrote Brontë as a radio play in 1979 for Julie Harris. Luce subsequently adapted it for film, directed by Delbert Mann, made on location in County Wicklow in 1983.
|Charlotte Brontë (Mrs. A.B. Nicholls) by George Richmond||, 1850|
Harris appeared in the stage adaptation in Los Angeles in 1987, and in San Francisco in 1988.
“Brontë” takes place in 1849, when Charlotte has just returned from the funeral of her sister Anne, dead at just 29.
Anne, like Emily and Charlote, was an author; she wrote “Agnes Grey” (1847) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hell” (1848).
With Anne’s death, Charlotte was the last remaining sibling; originally there had been six.
Her brother Branwell had died two years previously, and Emily the year before. In the play, Charlotte talks about her life, and her memories, including the publication of “Jane Eyre,” published under the pen name Currer Bell, in 1847, and the revelation to her astonished publisher that she and her sister Emily were both women.
Although it’s a low point in her life, Charlotte will go on to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, and travel to Ireland on her honeymoon. She died while pregnant in 1855 at only 38.
It’s the first time Maxine, who recently completed a national tour in “South Pacific,” has played a real person.
Maxine is better known as a musical theatre performer, but this role was “just one that I could not let pass me by.” Researching the role was challenging.
Because Charlotte lived and died so long ago, Maxine could not consult any audio or video.
What she could consult, said Maxine, were letters.
Charlotte’s best friend Ellen Nussey saved all of her letters, which came to over 300.
“She talked a lot about growing up with an Irish father. She lost everything, but still retained an incredible sense of humor and strength. In the play, she talks about what it is like to be left alone, with this legacy she is responsible for.”
Maxine feels a similar responsibility to Charlotte’s legacy.
“In a time when women were not supposed to be great, but had very specific roles, an were raised in a society that thought a woman’s job was to get married and take care of their family, Charlotte was able to create a way to be in Victorian society while a the same time having this other persona.”
Along with Charlotte’s letters, Maxine consulted the biography Patrick Brontë had commissioned from Elizabeth Gaskill about his daughter. But, said Maxine, it turned out that the two-volume book had some Victorian spin on it, to make Charlotte seem more acceptable in that society.
The book “Jane Eyre,” Maxine pointed out, was considered scandalous when it was written.
The title character has desires that many thought should not be ascribed to a female.
Athough Maxine said she thinks “we’ve come a long way on the feminist front,” for her it’s important to portray Charlotte Brontë as
“a woman who was way ahead on these issues. I think people who read ‘Jane Eyre’ don’t know that much about the woman behind the book.”
Maxine has lived in New York for 10 years, and calls it home.
But she said she will always be “Irish to the bone and proud of it.”
And in portraying Charlotte Brontë she demonstrates just that.