I’d seen the trailers – this Brontë biopic promised an accurately short Charlotte, and an Emily who doled out physical violence when enraged that her poems were read without her permission. This is the version of the Brontës that seems most plausible to me, and when the warning came up on iPlayer – Guidance: Contains some strong language and some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting – recommending it for viewers of 16 and over, I was hopping up and down on my sofa with glee.
I have to say, it didn’t disappoint. Branwell dropped F-bombs like you wouldn’t believe. And it didn’t shock me one bit. Because people in the 19th century did drop F-bombs. Yes! I’ve waded through enough trials and inquests to see a delightful range of historical swearing, and even if they edited out blast (“b—t!”) in newspapers, they still found marvellous ways to be offensive. I found an F-bomb in a document from 1804. Joseph Worrad of Walsall was on a defamation charge for having declared in a drinking house that “Mr [Redacted] keeps a wife for Mr [Redacted] to fuck.”
I’m leaving it in its original there, because it was left in its original form in the defamation document. It shocked me when I read it, but after a sharp intake of breath, I laughed. And it looks as if the hearing took place in Lichfield Cathedral. Yes, imagine if you will, F-bombs flying behind that stunning carved frontage. The Georgians really knew how to party.
But then that’s the thing about the Brontës. The Georgian period and the Romantics cast a long shadow over them, and while critics have scratched their heads over Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, decrying them as aberrations from the Victorian realist novel, they are really heirs to the Romantic and Gothic tradition. Byron was popular with the Brontës, and one of Charlotte’s crushes was on Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (“Publish and be damned!”).
Anyway. Suffice to say that I think To Walk Invisible captured a reality about the Brontës which is usually ignored. Yes, the grimness, the bleakness is always a backdrop, but I think To Walk Invisible added an important element of grittiness – to the setting but also to the characters, particularly to Charlotte and Emily. At one point, Branwell falls into the mud and a debt collector calls him a ‘little twat’ – it’s a level of realism which is very welcome in costume dramas.
Emily is often portrayed as dreamy and otherworldly, whereas this Emily was an independent spirit, who had an animal skull in her bedroom; she was stroppy and she wasn’t going to hide it.
CGI was used to create a period-accurate Haworth. The extensions to the Parsonage had gone, as had the cluster of modern buildings behind it. The churchyard was treeless. This was really great to see on screen because, even though Haworth is on the edge of the moor, it’s difficult to grasp, seeing it now, quite how close to the moor the Parsonage was. It certainly made it all the bleaker.
But I do think that you need to know something about the Brontës’ lives and works in order to enjoy this fully. I watched it with my partner who, although he has been dragged to Haworth, had questions as he watched it (“Who’s that?” when Ellen Nussey arrived near the end). Even so, you don’t need to be a Brontë expert – but there’s details that Brontë fans will love, such as the dogs wearing their brass collars, which you can see on display in the Parsonage.
To Walk Invisible begins with the four surviving Brontës playing as children in a fantasy landscape, showing how their imaginary worlds fed into the sisters becoming published authors. Branwell, their brother, featured prominently (along with his F-bombs), but not to the point of overshadowing the sisters. They were, after all, part of a tight-knit family, and the tragedy of the family hope turning to drink and being dismissed from every job he tried weighed heavily on them. Had he been a financial success, the sisters could have expected him to help support them if they turned from governessing or didn’t marry – this happened in many Victorian families. But as he became increasingly dissipated and unstable, they realised that they had to shift for themselves, and this is why Charlotte was driven to make money from her writing.
There is a fantastic scene when Charlotte and Anne go down to London to visit her publisher. He is dubious about the two women, until Charlotte talks to him like Jane Eyre. Unfortunately, they didn’t include a scene where Charlotte sat for her famous portrait by George Richmond and he asked her to remove her hat – except it wasn’t millinery, but an ill-matched hairpiece!
The ‘story’ seemed quite close to Juliet Barker’s exhaustive The Brontës. But I’m fairly sure Barker explains that it was standard in wills at the time for it to state that a widow’s inheritance from her late husband would pass to his children if she remarried. I’ve certainly seen it many times myself in my own research. This was because a woman’s property became her husband’s on marriage. In Brontë lore, the clause in the will of Lydia Robinson’s husband (she was the original “Mrs Robinson” who, it is thought, had been carrying on with Branwell while he was tutoring her son, hence he was dismissed) is used to explain Branwell’s further plunge into despair. He had no access to Lydia after being dismissed; his hopes were raised when her husband died that he could marry her, but Lydia couldn’t marry her because she would be impoverished on losing her inheritance.
Mr Robinson’s clause is seen as her husband’s deliberate act to keep Lydia and Branwell separated – but is this so? If clauses such as these were standard, then he’s not deliberately stopping her from marrying (he’s protecting his money from passing to another man, away from his own children). Lydia was from a more wealthy background than Branwell anyway – even if they had been carrying on, there may not have been an expectation on either side that they would ever marry. Even Branwell, unconventional as he might appear, must have realised that a marriage between two people of such different status was pretty much impossible. But perhaps, even if he knew it was utterly unrealistic, he hoped that Lydia would marry him – in one fell-swoop he’d have a wife and fortune. What he ended up with was failure and misery, and a scene in To Walk Invisible where’s he’s sat on a chamber pot without his trousers.
To Walk Invisible doesn’t cover the entirety of their lives in massive detail – we don’t go to Cowanbridge Clergy Daughters’ School, and although Arthur Bell Nicholls appears briefly (knocking over his tea when Charlotte walks in), we don’t see Charlotte head down the aisle with her curate. The story is focused on the sisters’ breakthrough as authors: the story ends before they die, which is a good approach, avoiding our last view of them being as tragic, pale young corpses.
I have to say that I wasn’t wild about the final sequence. The sisters see a triple sun on the moor, and Ellen Nussey says it’s like the three of them. That would’ve been a really good spot to end it on, but then there was a sequence which started with a guide showing a visitor the dining room of the Brontë Parsonage Museum – which didn’t grate too much – and the camera swung round to show visitors thronging in the lane – again, not grating too much – but… but… but! The camera swooped through the doors of the… the giftshop! Perhaps it’s because my dad used to work for visitor centres and museums so I know, cynically, that they’re all designed so that you have to exit through the gift shop. Hmmm… I now have an unaccountable desire for some Authentic Yorkshire Fudge.
Anyway. Despite that one slight carp, To Walk Invisible has to be one of the best Brontë biopics – if not the best. It’ll satisfy viewers who are dedicated Brontëites, and for the Brontë-curious, you’ll want to find out more. And if you haven’t a clue about them, then it’s an excellent period drama with a gritty, realistic feel. It was a worthy conclusion to Charlotte’s bicentenary year, which had otherwise been overshadowed by that playwright from the Midlands, who had died two hundred years before her birth.