Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë secretly harbor dreams of publishing their stories. However, writing, they have been told, is not the life for a woman. Unfortunately, their brother Branwell is slowly descending into a life of degeneracy and madness, and their father is aging and blind. Faced with the prospect of having to support themselves, the sisters hatch a plan to publish their work under pseudonyms.
Based on Charlotte Brontë’s letters, To Walk Invisible highlights the struggles the Brontë sisters faced as women writing in nineteenth century England. To publish would be, as Emily notes, to expose their characters–rather than their writing– for public judgment and scrutiny. They realize that in order to be taken seriously, they must publish under male pseudonyms. And thus begins two hours’ worth of dramatic whispering and sneaking about their own home.
Some of this sneaking about seems funnily obsessive considering the fact that their brother Branwell is often away or too drunk to be cognizant of anything happening around them and that their father Patrick never shows any desire to stifle his daughters’ creativity. What exactly are they hiding and from whom? Maybe the sisters fear one of their two servants will gossip? At any rate, the show really works to play up the drama of the situation, perhaps realizing that it is difficult to make three sisters living in isolation on the moor a very action-packed story.
However, anyone willing to watch a two-hour drama on Masterpiece about the Brontë sisters is probably already invested in the work and will not need the high stakes to be so obviously emphasized. The show does a nice job recognizing the fan base by bringing in some historical details and nods (such as Charlotte’s awkward future husband) and highlighting the personalities of the three sisters: wild Emily, level-headed Anne, and passionate Charlotte. The effects of the moor on the sisters’ personalities (especially Emily’s) is also predictably emphasized through a series of long walks throughout, and some readings of Emily’s poetry are brought in at strategic moments.
Unfortunately, Branwell Brontë also makes an extended appearance, but he adds little to the story. Brontë fans know of the sister’s hapless brother who died before he could fulfill all the great things expected of him. He certainly has a place in the story of the sisters’ lives. However, the sisters’ efforts at publication are far more compelling than Branwell’s debauchery. No one expects Branwell to give up his drink, to become suddenly responsible, or to publish all the great works he says he will. His wild lifestyle probably is meant to contrast with the sisters’ quiet lives and to add some more action to the story. However, I don’t think many viewers are particularly interested in Branwell and it’s certainly difficult to be invested in him when it’s obvious from the start (from history or the drama) how he will end.
To Walk Invisible is a compelling story, but one that I suspect will mostly interest viewers who are already fans of the Brontë sisters, though it’s also possible that the drama will introduce new audiences to their works. (Anne Brontë is, I would argue, still unfortunately overlooked in favor of her sisters.) It’s an intimate glimpse at the lives of the Brontës full of fun historical nods that fans will love to spot. I just wish we had seen far less of Branwell.