I came across this Masterpiece Theater film on PBS the other day, and my heart leaped a little with an anticipatory thrill. Ever since ninth grade English class, when I fell in love with Jane Eyre, the Brontes have held an almost mythical position in my budding writer’s mind. And though I’ve read the books countless times, seen many film adaptations of their work, and (many years ago) read several biographies, I’ve never seen a movie about the Brontes themselves and their struggles.
To Walk Invisible focuses on the three years leading up to the publication of their books as well as their brother Branwell’s death, with intermittent scenes of the siblings as children, playing and creating their fantastic, imaginary worlds. The children are shown with strange, fiery crowns over their heads, as if signifying their creative genius, masters of their imaginations. Kind of weird, but I understand the intent.
Their father Patrick Branwell is the curate of Howarth, in North Yorkshire, amid the hilly, twisty cobblestone streets of the town, with the lonely, windswept moors all around. It helps to know a little about the events leading up to the beginning of the film: Charlotte and Emily have recently returned from Brussels after trying to open up a school for girls; while there, Charlotte had developed an obsessive, unrequited love for a professor she studied under. Anne and Branwell had returned home from Thorpe Green, a household where they held positions as governess and tutor, respectively; Branwell had been dismissed, purportedly for having an affair with his employer’s wife. Anne had left earlier, having known what was going on and being unable to cope with the shame of it.
Branwell, as the only son, is expected by the family to do great things. A writer and artist in his own right, his creative efforts are derailed by the doomed love affair, which sets him on a course of destructive alcoholism and drug abuse. The sisters wonder what their future may hold, since as women, they are not allowed to support themselves outside the home (except as governesses or teachers, positions they abhor), and it seems obvious their brother is not going to provide any kind of support. Already in their late twenties, their marriage prospects (the only other way to find security) seem dim.
But Charlotte (played by Finn Atkins, who brilliantly brings to life the diminutive, eldest sister’s fierce intelligence and practical ambition) has another idea: the three sisters should try to publish their work. Under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, they could “walk invisible”, and therefore be judged by their work rather than as women writing (which was considered vulgar, coarse and immoral).
They begin with a volume of poetry, propped up by Emily’s brilliant verse. It sells two copies. But it opens the door for their fiction: Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Charlotte’s The Professor, based on her experience of unrequited love for her teacher. Emily’s and Anne’s novels are published, but not Charlotte’s. She tries again with Jane Eyre, and it is this novel that eventually propels her toward fame and financial security.
In the meantime, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis, who manages to elicit pity from us for the dissolute brother, as well as contempt) continues to deteriorate and torment his family with his drunken shenanigans. Charlotte is furious at his behavior, Anne (Charlie Murphy) feels responsible for not stopping his tomfoolery at Thorpe Green, and Emily (Chloe Pirrie), though frustrated with him, has a soft spot for her brother and is often the one cleaning up his vomit or dragging him home.
The sisters finally tell their old, ailing father (Jonathan Pryce) that their books have been published, to save him from worry about what his daughters will do when he’s gone. He’s proud of them, and understands their desire to keep their identity secret, from the world, and especially from Branwell. But an error on the part of a publisher forces Charlotte and Anne to travel to London to fix it, thus revealing their identities.
It isn’t long after that Branwell dies from tuberculosis. There’s a sad little scene of the Bronte children, with the three sisters with their fiery crowns seated at a table, and Branwell, his own brilliant fire now doused, approaches them, offering his box of soldiers that they had played with and created their stories around. Young Charlotte looks at him gravely, and announces “You can go now.” Dejected, the boy turns around and leaves. Cue lump in throat.
The film ends here, with a jarring fast forward to the present, showing a crowded Bronte museum with subtitles that informs us of the fate of Emily and Anne. Tragically, Emily dies merely three months after Branwell, also from tuberculosis, and several months after this, Anne succumbs.
Oddly, there is no mention of Charlotte, who lives on to write several more books. She eventually marries a friend of the family, Arthur Bell Nichols, but dies from complications during pregnancy.
I’ve often had flashes of envy when I think about the Brontes–to possess such brilliance! To have your name live on long after you’re gone! But if the price is to live a short life of repression, unrequited love, and death all around you, I can pass. I’m grateful for the gifts of literature these three extraordinary women have left for the rest of us.