The Bronte sisters have gathered a devoted following in the last two centuries, from fans of their remarkable novels to scholars devoted to uncovering the mysteries of their improbably quiet lives. Their works have been adapted for screen numerous times, but dramatic interpretations of the writers themselves are fairly rare. It was therefore a treat when Happy Valley‘s Sally Wainwright announced that she would be writing and directing a period drama about Bronte family.
To Walk Invisible is the result, and whether you’re a Jane Eyre enthusiast or completely unaware of the history, it’s remarkable television. It’s set in the very specific years of 1845-1848, when the death of a relative meant that the three Bronte sisters could return from their low paid work as governesses to their childhood parsonage in Yorkshire. Indeed, with its carefully chosen air date between Christmas and New Year, the television film certainly tried to tap into the feelings of many who have returned to their family homes, changed and unfamiliar.
At least, that’s certainly what Charlotte (Finn Atkins), Emily (Chloe Pirrie) and Anne Bronte (Charlie Murphy) feel when they’re back in old rooms. Faced with their anxious father (Jonathan Pryce) and wayward, alcoholic brother Branwell (Adam Nagaitis), their mutual devotion to writing becomes the single means of escape and an answer to the terrifying prospect of financial desolation.
The tricky thing with creating a walking and talking interpretation of mysterious writers of the past, is that many readers will have their own version of what the writers are like. Chances are, it’s influenced by the novels that they created, but biographies, studies and essays can all have their impact. Since many readers of the Brontes discovered them at a younger age, and with reading being such a solitary activity, interpretation of a deceased author is a both highly personal and emotionally charged.
It’s something I came face to face with myself – whilst Charlotte and Anne were spot on, it was disconcerting to see this version of Emily. I’d imagined a small, waifish character, but Pirrie’s Emily is tall, honest and fluctuating between aggressive anger and a desperate care for her siblings. I blame a certain urban legend for my original interpretation, yet as it was, the Emily in To Walk Invisible was far more developed, far braver than I’d ever given her credit for.
Even then, every Bronte fan will find something in this drama, especially as it carefully adds references to the novels they would create. For example, Charlotte is recovering from an infatuation with a married man, which gently echoes Jane Eyre’s lost years after discovering Rochester’s secret wife. Emily gleefully reflects on a piece of gossip that directly echoes the family situation of Wuthering Heights‘ Heathcliff. Meanwhile, Anne is torn over what to do about Branwell’s alcoholism, an illness she would return to in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
When it comes to Branwell, his actions become a central point that directs the drama, often in very visceral ways that belie the traditional perception of period dramas as clean and tidy. Some viewers may disagree with this focus, feeling that it detracts from the sisters themselves, but their responses to him clearly show their different characters. Take Charlotte’s strong self-control and determined ambition, Anne’s endless empathy and Emily’s passionate, almost physical, pain. As we know, Branwell’s tragic end was to have consequences for all the sisters, as Emily and Anne soon passed away from the same illness. Therefore, it makes sense that he should form such a pivotal role.
To Walk Invisible was truly worth the wait – carefully crafted and featuring fantastic performances, it recognises the strengths (and human failings) of the Bronte sisters whilst still treating them with the respect they deserve. Watching it was an emotional experience for one for whom the books and the women behind it have been so personally formative, and seeing an interpretation that reveres Charlotte, Emily and Anne as much as we do is a wonderful gift for Bronte fans.