I watched PBS Masterpiece’s new program, To Walk Invisible, last night. It dramatizes a small slice of the life of three sisters, their destructive brother, and clergyman father. These sisters lived in obscurity for most of their lives, though now their names are famous and their works required reading in schools, printed in countless editions, and brought to life in several film adaptations: Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights) and Anne Brontë (The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall).
I was drawn to watch the program because Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre helped inspire my love of British literature at a young age (along with The Secret Garden). But after last night, I realized I knew very little about the author herself. Or her family.
The two-hour program shows the sisters feeling frustrated and trapped, forced to be dependent on the men of their family and chafing under the iniquities of life at a time when women were in many ways “powerless and invisible.” While their father stumbles along in partial blindness (both physically as well as blind to his son’s manic manipulations), the brother drinks away every shilling and opportunity given him, until the sisters begin to feel quite desperate about the future, and what will happen to them after their father dies.
The sisters have long written poetry and stories, but Charlotte begins to prod them toward considering publication as a way to support themselves. Emily, who was the most talented poet among them, at first refused to consider publication, unwilling to be scrutinized and judged by anyone willing to lay down a few shillings to buy their work. (Can anyone relate? :))
Finally, worsening circumstances at home spur them to action. It reminded me of my own writing journey in a small way, when after procrastinating for years, my husband’s difficult two-year-long layoff was what finally pushed me to finish my first historical novel.
Emily makes Charlotte promise that no one must ever know who they really are. To be taken seriously, they adopt pseudonyms containing their own initials that are neither female or male: Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell. Like most writers, the sisters experience rejection, but persevere, until each has a novel or more to her credit.
Even their own father does not know until Emily encourages Charlotte to confide in him, so he will not worry about their futures. The actor’s portrayal of his surprise and pride (in Charlotte, especially), was very touching to watch.
One of my favorite moments in the program came later when Charlotte receives an angry letter from her publisher that prompts her to reveal her identity at last. She and Anne to travel 17 hours by carriage to London to try to address a misunderstanding and right the injustice (Emily refuses to go with them).
When they meet the handsome young publisher at last and hand over the letter he sent to “Currer Bell,” he demands to know where she got it. The dismissive, suspicious way he looks at Charlotte, who is very short and plain, makes his disbelief clear.
She very somberly tries to explain the misunderstanding and all the while he just stares at her. Finally he says, “Sorry. You are Currer Bell?”
And then Charlotte’s eyes spark with indignation and she gets a little feisty. “What makes you doubt it, Mr. Smith? My accent? My gender? My size?”
His eyes widen and his face transforms—it is priceless. I think part of the reason realization dawns is because what she says echoes famous lines from Jane Eyre in which the heroine protests, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!”
The publisher begs her forgiveness, effusively shakes her hand, and sends for his head reader who first read Jane Eyre and recognized “its genius.” That man’s mouth drops open as well, star-struck to meet this plain but powerful author he so greatly admired. Loved it.
Yes, sometimes the Yorkshire accents are difficult to understand. And, being based on a true story, parts of it are dark and bleak (especially as the brother’s addiction spirals out of control). Sadly, Emily and Anne both died very young of tuberculosis, only a few months after their brother passed, and Charlotte herself died before the age of 40. Yet all three live on in their much-loved books.
Watching To Walk Invisible made me want to share Jane Eyre with my family, read The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, (I did enjoy the 1996 adaptation with Toby Stephens) and learn more about Emily Brontë (even though I am not a fan of Wuthering Heights). It inspired me to want to write more myself. If these sisters could write in their situation, I have no excuses!
These hard-working, compassionate, and faithful women accomplished a great deal in their short lives. I want to make the most of the time I’m given, too. If you are a Brontë fan or a writer, I hope you will watch, empathize, and be inspired as well.
If you missed it, you can watch it here for a limited time.