On Sunday night, PBS aired To Walk Invisible, a movie that follows the Bronte sisters as they struggle to get their work published while dealing with familial issues. What was wonderful about this drama was picking up on the tidbits of fun facts about the sisters- from Emily’s love of her dog to Charlotte’s enrapturement with Emily’s poetry. For those familiar with the works of the Brontes, it was astonishing to see the sisters go about daily life in the often dark and dull atmosphere of their home with the knowledge that this environment produced colorfully imaginative works. And that imagination we catch only in the brief scenes where the sisters and their brother are shown playing as children. Indeed, after watching, this movie is as much about Branwell as it is about his famous sisters.
Why? Simply because the movie starts with Branwell’s dismissal from Thorp Green and ends with his death. Throughout, we see him turn to alcohol as he grapples with the expectations of his father, his separation from Mrs. Robinson, and his failure with his own writing and poetry. And though he falls again and again into the same self-destructive cycle, we witness Emily taking care of him and the bond he shares with her. While the movie shows how his negative behavior affects his sister, much of the screen time is devoted to showing Branwell and his conflicts. It is Branwell’s troubles that seem to dominate the story with the issues surrounding women in publishing and the Bronte sisters’ relationship with each other taking a backseat to Branwell’s problems.
The portrayal of Charlotte with the constant scowl on her face was well done considering her impassioned speech to Anne about the status of women in society and the unfairness of it all. Here is a woman that is angry- angry at being pigeonholed into a small domestic sphere by men, angry at how her intellect is dismissed because of her sex, and angry at the immobility of her life due to few options offered to her as a woman in nineteenth-century England. She’s enraged and bitter and she has the right to be. On top of all this, she is also dealing with heartbreak from her unrequited love for a married man. Charlotte is ambitious and her drive to be more than what society expects is seen in her attempts to get her sisters’ work published along with hers- often butting heads with Emily in the process.
Emily writes beautiful, fiery poetry which comes as a surprise as she’s shown to be the sister who is the most attuned with the reality of their household and not as focused on her writing as her sisters are. Hearty and tough, she takes care of Branwell and is seen, again and again, in the kitchen kneading dough. The numerous depictions of her working with her hands serve to reinforce her as someone who is used to the robust life on the moors while also subsuming the wildness of the landscape, as seen by her howling at the moon with her brother. She is outwardly domestic but uninhibited at heart- a heart that produces her impassioned poetry and writings. She’s also the most reluctant to go forward with publishing her writing and also does not accompany Charlotte and Anne on their trip to London to reveal their identities as authors of their works. It’s clear that Emily writes for herself and that her family and her home are the most important things to her.
As for Anne? For years, Anne has not been as widely acknowledged as her sisters have been, and this quietness surrounding Anne is unfortunately reflected in the movie as well. Whereas Emily and Charlotte are shown as more active participants, Anne is passive and the movie glides over her to focus more on her sisters. There was a hint of Anne’s spiritual character as well as possible tension when Charlotte brushes off her poetry as cute and “charming” while giving more praise to Emily’s poetry. I wish we could have seen more of these dynamics explored but we are offered only a limited view on Anne. Her gowns, however, were bright and delightful to see!
Though the movie seemed to indicate that it focused on the Bronte sisters and their journey to becoming published authors, I didn’t see as much of these concepts as I had hoped to. We do hear them voice the struggles of being a female writer: “When a man writes something, it’s what he’s written that’s judged. When a woman writes something, it’s her that’s judged” Emily tells Anne. They have to use male pseudonyms in order to get published, but not before facing many rejections from publishers. The relationship between the sisters themselves is seen in sometimes amusing moments, like when Emily shoves Charlotte’s head for reading her personal writings. There is definite friction between Emily and Charlotte and their differing views on what is most important to them but it gets swept aside under the main focus on Branwell and the conflicts his actions cause to his family.
There was potential for so much more to be explored within this movie, but it did a great job at capturing the strife between chasing your dreams and being held back by the reality of your life and how some (Charlotte and her sisters) triumph and some (Branwell) do not.