To Walk Invisible: the Branwell Brontë myth

Fifteen years after the publication of Lucasta Miller’s acclaimed biography The Brontë Myth, Sally Wainright’s To Walk Invisible is a welcome sight to Brontë fans and scholars alike.

Wainright’s biopic explores some of the most turbulent years of the Brontë sisters’ lives at home in Haworth parsonage during their brother Branwell’s descent into depression, alcoholism, and laudanum addiction in his last years of life. If Miller’s biography was an attempt to uncover the realities of the Brontë sisters’ upbringing and home lives masked by Elizabeth Gaskell in an attempt to save her friend’s respectable reputation in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Wainright’s aim was to bring it to life. Indeed, Branwell Brontë until recently has remained something of a myth in Brontë scholarship. Although he appears in literal shadows in the portrait of his sisters on display at Haworth Parsonage (he painted himself out) and figuratively in the form of abusive alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), he is largely absent from the historiography of the parsonage. Thanks to Wainright’s beautiful script, a strong performance by Adam Nagaitis puts this to right.

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John Brown (Mark Knight) and Branwell Brontë (Adam Nagitis) walk through central Haworth. (BBC, 2016)

I’d studied the Brontës as part of my MA degree (it was, in fact, the reason I came to Leeds), but Wainright’s drama illustrated the struggle the sisters faced trying to publish their writing, alongside a very disruptive home life. The sisters, as Wainright shows, were most concerned about their art being real, and deflected accusations of ‘coarseness’ and ‘vulgarity’ in their writing because of this: life is coarse and vulgar. Reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or Agnes Gray remains a powerful experience because of their liminality between fantasy and reality, their varied narration devices maintaining some secrets for the plot, while remaining unapologetically frank about the unpleasant realities of Victorian society. Apparently the 21st Century public has yet to learn anything, amid complaints of “quite inappropriate obscenities” in the script. It is this realness that Wainright represents best in To Walk Invisible. From the loud screaming matches between Branwell and his ailing father Patrick, to the filthy streets of 1840s Haworth (where the average life expectancy was just 25 years), the film put struggle at its centre, the daughters’ strive for financial self-sufficiency and creative autonomy at a time when they were advised that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”  Where Elizabeth Gaskell represented Haworth as a small country town with a “lawless, but not unkindly population” (p. 8), and the Brontë sisters as wallflowers with overactive imaginations; Lucasta Miller moves some way to correcting this through use of population statistics, and Wainright by literally reconstructing Haworth as it was: a small industrial town, whose population were well known to the sisters through their father’s work as parish curate.What makes To Walk Invisible a welcome part of Brontë historiography and outreach is that it is actually biographical, refusing to sex it up or shy away from the dirt (physical, linguistic, and moral) that plagued Victorian industrial life, as other period dramas often do. In dramatising the unseemly, Wainright’s tale of three skilled women reaching unprecedented literary success in secrecy, silencing their ambitions so as to further upset and upstage their brother demonstrates their personal sacrifices and strengths. Like the sisters’ work, To Walk Invisible‘s devotion to realism ensures that it will endure.

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Emily (Chloe Pirrie), Anne (Charlie Murphy), and Charlotte Brontë (Finn Atkins) in the parsonage living room. (BBC, 2016)

Sources

  1. Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (London: Vintage, 2001).
  2. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Leipzig: Bernaud Tauchnitz, 1857) [Google Books].
  3. ‘[Letters] To Walk Invisible: Withering Heights of Gloom and Mizak,’ The Guardian, Monday 2nd Jan 2017.
  4. Benjamin Hershel Babbage, ‘Public Health Act, (11 & 12 Vict., cap. 63.) Report to the General Board of Health on a preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the hamlet of Haworth,’ (London: Clowes & Sons, 1850) British Library [C.T.159.(6.)].
  5. Letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (12 March 1837), Letter, Brontë Parsonage Museum [BSIXSou.1837-03-12].

 

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