The Bronte sisters are often characterised as using their bleak West Yorkshire surroundings to write brilliant novels. The much bleaker personal circumstances that drove them to write is less talked about.
To Walk Invisible, a new BBC drama, tells the story of their lives. Charlotte, Emily and Anne grew up in Haworth, near Bradford, in the early 1800s.
This was a time when women didn’t have the vote and they had to pose as men to get published.
Emily says, “When a man writes something, what’s written is judged. When a woman writes, it’s her that’s judged.” Charlotte concludes, “We must walk invisible.”
They are invisible in other ways. Their father, Patrick, is blind before having an operation to restore his sight.
And their brother, Branwell, is too engulfed in alcoholism to notice them much of the time. As Anne puts it, “Does he even see us?”
Branwell has a huge impact on their lives. They wrote under immense stress. In one scene they are working in one room as Branwell abuses his father in the next, shouting and demanding money for drink.
The programme shows all the conflicting emotions this stirs up in the sisters and how each responds to it differently.
Emily at one time physically threatens Branwell and at another comforts him as debt collectors threaten to cart him off to jail.
There is a deep sadness and frustration in their lives because of Branwell.
But his drinking drives them to make a living out of writing so they can support themselves.
Having said that, the Brontes were well off. Their lives were nothing like the lives of most women in the early 19th century.
It is striking that Charlotte complains to Emily about life being so much harder for women before casually asking, “Are you still going to Paris?”
The dialogue is good and there’s humour in it. It feels true to life—as the women felt their novels were, compared to the sanitised novels of the time.
Their determination to succeed—sending manuscript after manuscript to different publishers—is impressive. They have to dupe the postman in order to get the replies, which are of course addressed to men who don’t exist.
But Emily is characterised as more likeable than Charlotte, who is the most determined. It isn’t clear if this is a judgement on how women should behave.
And there isn’t much detail of their work in the programme, save for some of Emily’s poems.
The Brontes wrote at a time of social turmoil and class struggle.
There is little reference to this besides Charlotte noting that one reviewer described the author of Jane Eyre as linked to revolution in Europe and Chartism, a huge working class movement that put fear in the heart of the British establishment.
There’s a question over whether the settings are too sanitised—there are no open sewers in the street, for instance. And there’s an awful sentimental scene nearer the end.
But none of this should put you off watching this moving and thoughtful programme.