A film by the actress and model Lily Cole, which caused a storm over Top Withens earlier this year when it was commissioned by the Brontë Society, will have its premiere tomorrow, as part of a weekend of events celebrating the bicentenary of the author of Wuthering Heights.
Ms Cole’s appointment as the Society’s create partner in Emily Brontë’s anniversary year was labelled a “disgrace” and a “farce” by the literary expert Nick Holland, who in January resigned his membership in disgust.
But her film, Balls, is a deeply serious account of Emily’s flawed romantic hero, Heathcliff, whom she considers to have been a violent domestic abuser.
The title refers to women forced to abandon their babies and whose chances of having them accepted by a Foundling Hospital depended on the colour of a ball they picked from a bag.
“I re-read the book and it really drove home to me how awful Heathcliff is as a character,” Ms Cole said on Radio 4’s Today programme. “He’s an abuser and he’s so violent. I’m surprised he’s still considered a romantic hero.”
But she said readers were drawn to him because of his own background as an outcast – a hint dropped by Emily Brontë in placing his origins in Liverpool at a time when the city was at the hub of the slave trade and of immigration from Ireland.
Her film will be screened tomorrow evening at the Baptist Centre in Haworth, close to the Brontë Parsonage and to the windswept farmhouse of Top Withens that was her inspiration. It will then be shown at the Parsonage Museum until the end of the year.
Jointly funded by London’s Foundling museum, it is one of a range of new works commissioned for the bicentenary.
A weekend of celebrations in Haworth, whose parsonage was home to Patrick Brontë and his family, will start today with the best-selling novelist, Kate Mosse, and other leading writers gathering for I Am Heathcliff, a collection of 16 short stories inspired by his character.
Ms Mosse, who curated the selection, will be joined by fellow contributors Juno Dawson, Dorothy Koomson and Louise Doughty to read from the anthology and officially open the programme of events.
Ms Cole will be in Haworth for tomorrow’s premiere and again on Monday – the date of the anniversary – for a series of readings from well-known writers on “what Emily means to us”. A marquee has been built in Parson’s Field, behind the Parsonage Museum, to host most of the events.
Rebecca Yorke at the museum said Emily herself was known to be shy and might have preferred to spend her birthday at home, rather than celebrate.
But she said: “I would like to think that she’d be very pleased to know that people still held her work in such high regard.”
Her anniversary has generated interest from around the world, and Ms Yorke said: “We always knew that Emily’s bicentenary was going to be the big one, and the whole nature of our program is about exploring why she still is so popular and why people still connect with her.
“So I don’t think the interest is really surprising.
“Still, the support that the celebrations are getting is quite overwhelming.”