Supermodel Lily Cole Has Been Scouring Museums to Research Her New ‘Wuthering Heights’-Inspired Film

The model-turned-actress, whose participation in the Brontë bicentenary originally proved controversial, has dug into museum archives to develop the film.

Lily Cole, photograph ©Flo Kohl, 2018.

The British model-turned-actress Lily Cole ruffled some feathers in January when she was named a “creative partner” for the Brontë Museum’s upcoming celebrations of author Emily Brontë’s bicentenary. The appointment by the museum in the north of England, which is a shrine to to talented Brontë sisters, led one expert to resign from his post in protest. Now, Cole—a Cambridge University graduate with a double first in art history—has announced plans to release a short film inspired by the author on July 31.

The film will explore two intertwined stories of abandoned children: The real lives of desperate women who gave up their babies to the Foundling Hospital in London in the 19th century and the fictional story of Heathcliff, the hero of Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights—who, the story goes, was found abandoned as a child in Liverpool. (Cole’s film, titled Balls, takes its name from the colored balls mothers drew to determine whether or not their child would have a place at Foundling, a home for children that operated from 1739 to the 1950s.)

The film will be shown simultaneously at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England, and the Foundling Museum in London from July 31 to December 2. Cole drew from the Foundling’s extensive archives to identify wrenching stories of those who gave up their children at a time when British society offered little support to pregnant women (and even less to women who got pregnant out of wedlock). Alongside the film, the two museums will present objects from one another’s collection.

“Behind the emotionally compelling story of the Foundling Hospital and Heathcliff are women,” Caro Howell, the director of the Foundling Museum, said in a statement. “Yet their narratives are either absent, inferred or only partially sketched. In Balls, Cole shines a light on these known and unknown 19th-century women whose lives were so circumscribed by society, and considers the extent to which progress has been made.”

The Brontë Parsonage, in Haworth, Yorkshire, England. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In a post on Medium, Cole noted that in order to for their children to gain admission to Foundling Hospital, their mothers were often asked to explain to a male board of governors how the baby was conceived and demonstrate that they had been led to believe that the baby’s father wanted to marry them.

“2018 offers us both the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth, and the 100th anniversary of female suffrage in the UK,” Cole wrote. “Let us pause, and take stock: to reflect on how far we have come, and to reflect on how far we have yet to go. As the new women’s rights campaign plainly says: Times Up.”

The film, co-written by Cole and playwright Stacey Gregg, will be shot with a cast of actors in Heathcliff’s hometown of Liverpool. Its creators invariably hope it will quiet the debate over Cole’s qualifications, which kicked off when Nick Holland quit the Brontë Society in January, writing on his blog: “It’s best that I leave the society now, before they announce James Corden as the creative partner for 2019.”

At the time, 30-year-old Cole, who was the youngest model to appear on the cover of British Vogue and later wrote a six-part TV series on contemporary art for Sky Arts, quipped that she respected Brontë’s “intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.”

Meanwhile, the Brontë Museum is creating a linear work of public art in the form of four stones on the moors linking the sisters’ home in the parsonage at Howarth and their birthplace across the moors. The singer Kate Bush has penned the words that will be inscribed on Emily’s stone.


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