CRAIG BROWN: Why Bronte couldn't give it some welly11/03/2022
CRAIG BROWN: Why Bronte couldn’t give it some welly
I went to see the film Emily at our local cinema last week. Like so many movies these days, it’s ‘based on a true story’ — about the three Bronte sisters, all huddled together in their father’s parsonage, on the windswept moors around Haworth.
In films billing themselves as ‘based on a true story’, I find myself distracted by the nagging need to know what is true and what is false. ‘Based on’ has become an increasingly liquid term.
Often, the plot is so strong that I find myself caught up in it. But then something ludicrous occurs, or something preposterous is said or done, and I start fussing about the film’s authenticity.
Like so many movies these days, it’s ‘based on a true story’ — about the three Bronte sisters, all huddled together in their father’s parsonage, on the windswept moors around Haworth
Did Queen Victoria really drink Coca-Cola? Was Adolf Hitler really an accomplished wind-surfer? Did the Ancient Egyptians really invent the hula-hoop? And would Robin Hood really have said, ‘I’m jammin’ and lootin’ tonight’?
The plot of Emily revolves around Emily Bronte’s passionate affair with a young curate called William Weightman.
At first, Weightman captivates the other two Bronte sisters — Anne and Charlotte — with his handsome face and senstive sermons.
Emily seems less enchanted, but in due course she succumbs to his charms and the two of them begin rolling around in the hay. Not knowing for sure whether their romance was true or false, I was happy to go along with it.
But then came something very trivial that brought me up short. Emily is out on the moors with her black sheep brother Branwell. He is trying to get her to throw off the chains of convention and shout as loud as she possibly can. ‘Give it some welly!’ he urges.
Emily is out on the moors with her black sheep brother Branwell. He is trying to get her to throw off the chains of convention and shout as loud as she possibly can. ‘Give it some welly!’ he urges
Give it some welly? For the rest of the film, while this or that character was dying, or having sex, or communing with the dead, or bursting into tears, this phrase —‘Give it some welly’ — kept niggling away.
Would they really have used such a phrase back in Victorian times?
It seemed unlikely but, then again, you can never be sure.
For instance, I always imagined that the phrase ‘looking after number one’ was modern, perhaps entering the language in a James Dean film from the 1950s. But then, quite by chance, I came across it in a novel by Henry James, published in 1881, and I had to change my mind.
The plot of Emily revolves around Emily Bronte’s passionate affair with a young curate called William Weightman
Many other words and sayings that sound very modern turn out to have been around for decades, even centuries. For instance, etymological dictionaries tell us that ‘bimbo’ first entered the language in 1920, as did the words ‘T-shirt’ and ‘wimp’.
The earliest use of ‘recycle’ goes back to 1926. ‘Fly-over’ came in 1901, ‘social worker’ in 1904, ‘strut your stuff’ in 1926 and ‘Filofax’ in 1931.
Yet if any contemporary filmmaker tried putting them in a drama set in 1931, there would be howls of derision. So you can never be sure.
Back to Emily: as the young curate eagerly unbuttoned Emily’s corset in their rural hideaway, I found myself thinking about the phrase Branwell Bronte had employed, just a few minutes before. Welly, I told myself, must come from the Wellington boot, which was named after the Duke of Wellington.
Often, the plot is so strong that I find myself caught up in it. But then something ludicrous occurs, or something preposterous is said or done, and I start fussing about the film’s authenticity
The date of the Battle of Waterloo was 1815, so presumably the Wellington boot arrived on the scene around that time, or soon after. It must then have taken a while before it was nicknamed ‘welly’, and longer still for the phrase ‘Give it some welly’ to have entered the language.
By now, Emily and the curate were hard at it, but I was not going to let them distract me. What were Emily Bronte’s dates? I knew she died young, in the mid-19th century. But would 35 years or so — from 1815 to Emily’s death — have been long enough for the birth of the phrase, ‘Give it some welly’? I thought not. And even if the phrase was around in the mid-19th century, would it really have been used in that particular way?
When I got home, I looked it up. Sure enough, my first instinct proved correct: the first recorded use of ‘welly’ was in 1961 and the phrase ‘Give it some welly’ didn’t enter the language until 1977.
Emily Bronte was born in 1818 and died in 1848. This means that the producers of Emily are out by 120 years or more and pedants the world over can feel a small tingle of satisfaction.
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