The Brontë sisters lived sad, and tragically short, lives. Yet they managed to write stories and poems filled with mystery, passion, and intellect.
Masterpiece Theatre’s short film on the sisters, “To Walk Invisible,” is a beautiful (and sad) look at the lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. It chronicles three pivotal years in their personal and literary lives—a period which marks the beginning of their writing careers, and the decline of their brother Branwell, also an aspiring artist, who succumbed to opioid and alcohol addiction.
The film itself is lovely. It captures the Brontë’s beloved moors, mysterious talent, and moving devotion to each other. The costuming and set are thoughtfully prepared. One could say this film is the perfect foil for Masterpiece’s “Victoria” series, which is basically a nineteenth-century soap opera. The latter proffers palace intrigue, sparkle, and way too much mascara and brow liner for a Victorian-era society. The former, however, is simple, even austere at times, with an attention to detail and historical correctness that make the film shine.
What Inspired the Brontë Sisters’ Writing?
When reading the Brontë sisters’ works, perhaps the first sentiment that stands out is their strangeness. A tempestuous and brooding tone fills the pages of “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” There’s melancholy, heartbreak, and passion. Both books feature mysterious and often unhappy heroines. How did these sisters—who left work as schoolteachers and governesses to care for their ailing father and brother—manage to conjure up such narratives?
Judith Shulevitz suggested for The Atlantic that the Brontë’s childhood adventures helped shape their literary voices:
Motherless since they were very young, the Brontës enjoyed the benign neglect of their busy father and made the most of their freedom to develop elaborate fantasy worlds. They read everything they could; spent long afternoons on the moor that began at their back door; invented exotic kingdoms with voluminous histories and political intrigues; put on plays only they would see; issued magazines only they would read; and sewed novels and poems into miniature books written in script so tiny that no adult in the household could decipher them.
We get a taste of this at the beginning of “To Walk Invisible.” In the film’s opening scene, all four siblings are pictured playing with each other, while a fiery flame hovers above each child’s head. It’s meant to portray their talent—their imaginative genius. And it’s very important that all four children, Branwell included, share the flame.
Why Branwell Brontë Matters So Much to This Story
The sisters continue to write in secret, even as their lives shift and change. After Branwell has an affair with his boss’s wife and loses his job, he begins succumbing to drink and drugs. This, some would say, is secondary to the Brontë sisters’ own tale, and should not be overemphasized. Sophie Gilbert complained in her review of the series that Director Sally Wainwright spends too much time focusing on Branwell.
But Brawell’s story is indispensable to his sisters’. When we read about the life of Jane Austen, we’re struck by her fortitude and wit. But we rarely stop to think about the different space she inhabited: the rarity of female writers alive in her world (although there were a few), the societal and financial pressures on an “old maid.” In the Brontë’s case, we must add to this motherlessness the loss of two siblings and the addictive decline of another. They knew their father was growing old, and they needed some method to support themselves. Writing was not just a vocational aspiration, it was a financial necessity.
It’s also worth considering the way in which adversity separates the gold from the dross. The Brontë sisters, inhabiting a trouble-filled world, needed a respite from their hardships. Writing provided that. But they didn’t leave their troubles behind when they wrote: their stories were sharpened and honed by their hardships. Jane Eyre’s quiet plight has appealed to many women with unhappy childhoods, because—at least in this sense—she is real, less paper and pen than flesh and blood.
‘To Walk Invisible’ Shows How Suffering Shapes Genius
Perhaps the film is meant to offer commentary on gender roles and conceptions of privilege in the Brontë’s world. Branwell had every opportunity for success, but wasted each chance he was given. The Brontë sisters had few opportunities to hone a successful career, yet used each one to optimum effect and crafted opportunities where none existed.
But I don’t think Wainwright is pigeonholing the Brontë sisters (or their world) by making it a feminist object lesson. Indeed, their aging father, while bewildered and surprised when he discovers their fame, is also excited by and encouraging of their success. After the sisters’ publisher overcomes his initial shock at the fact that the “Bell brothers” whose work he’s been publishing are actually the Brontë sisters, he is overjoyed to meet them in person, and insists on introducing them London’s intellectual stars.
The series suggests that the sisters’ initial use of pseudonyms, while partially inspired by their desire to succeed in the “man’s world” of publishing, was also part of their effort not to shame their brother, who never succeeded in his artistic enterprises.
Thus, love for Branwell animates the series, giving depth to the sisters’ writing and personal travails. In one particularly moving scene, they take Branwell back into their arms, and lives, at his very worst and lowest. At least in this story, the siblings of the prodigal always proffer an open door, no matter the cost.
You Should Watch This Thoughtful, Lovely Film
These are not the only parts of the film worth applauding. The film’s consideration of addiction and abuse offer commentary on our own culture. The sisters’ dedication to their father’s happiness is also a touching aspect of the film. It would also have been interesting to hear more of Charlotte’s own back story—of all the characters in this film, she feels the most illusory (perhaps intentionally).
Because of Branwell’s sordid past and unhappy decline, there are a few moments that make this short film inappropriate for kids. But for those who enjoy the Brontës’ work (and even those who don’t), this is a worthy and thoughtful piece. It considers the meaning of family and sacrifice, love and suffering. It will be available to watch on PBS’s website until April 9, so you should watch it while you can.
Branwell Bronte’s name has been corrected.