Miss Bronte. Written and performed by Mel Dodge. Directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford. Bravo Theatre. The Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. September 9 at 8pm and September 10 at 2pm. Tickets $46/$41 at theq.net.au or 6285 6290.
Despite living most of her life in an isolated parsonage with her sisters, Charlotte Bronte wrote one of the best known of all love stories, Jane Eyre. But as writer-performer Mel Dodge shows in her play Miss Bronte, Charlotte Bronte had a passion of her own.
"Charlotte Bronte wrote love letters to her married French professor, Monsieur Heger," Dodge says.
Bronte had gone to Brussels for a year when she was 26 to study and teach. Heger worked a lot with her on her writing and she developed strong feelings for him that didn't evaporate when she returned home. She put a lot of him into Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.
"A lot of the hero in her book is quite similar to him – he was surly and dark and brooding but quite generous."
And she kept writing to him, passionate letters that he tore to pieces and discarded but that his prying wife discovered and sewed back together without his knowledge. The letters are now in the British Museum.
"We don't have his letters to her – I suspect she got rid of them," Dodge says.
It seems, she says, that the intensity of feeling was unbalanced: Bronte's feelings about them were stronger than Heger's. And, she says, there is some evidence that Charlotte Bronte was not the only student Heger was carrying on an epistolary relationship with – "I don't think she knew that."
But Miss Bronte – coming to the Q after a couple of performances in the Canberra region – is about more than this relationship. It is set in 1849, after Charlotte's siblings Anne, Emily and Branwell had all died and jumps around over the previous 20 years when they were writing. Anne wrote two novels, Charlotte four, and Emily one, Wuthering Heights – while they lived with their widowed father Patrick, a clergyman, who would survive all his children: he died in 1861. Charlotte Bronte did not marry until 1854, to her father's curate; she died in 1855 aged 38.
Dodge became interested in the Bronte sisters while studying Victorian literature at university and was particularly fond of the passion and drama of Jane Eyre. She decided to delve deeper into its background and discovered the story behind it and decided to dramatise it.
"I began writing it 3½ years ago – it was a long process of writing," the New Zealander says.
She did a lot of research and writing before the play opened in Wellington 2½ years ago. After having a baby, she arranged an Australian tour.
"I create the world," Dodge says, and she does so with the help of director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and designer Marisa Cuzzolaro, who designed a set to evoke the vicarage in which the Brontes lived.
As for what we learn about Bronte in the play, Dodge says, "I think we see someone who is passionate, who is adventurous, who is intelligent, and who is very much devoted to her family."
There might be something of the author in her fictional character, Jane Eyre, whom Dodge calls "one of the pioneer feminists, a very feisty woman".
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