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Hila Shachar, ‘Walking New Myths: Sally Wainwright’s Brontë Biopic’

2017 January 6

Hila Shachar is a Lecturer in English Literature at De Montfort University, Leicester, and a member of the Centre for Adaptations who specialises in the adaptation of literary works and authors in various media including film, television, and ballet. Her book, Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), was featured in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, as well as nominated for the 2012 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. She also works as a writer for The Australian Ballet, and has a forthcoming monograph titled, Screening the Author: The Literary Biopic (Palgrave Macmillan).


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Like many other Brontë fans, I eagerly settled down to watch the new Brontë biopic, To Walk Invisible, which recently aired on BBC One on Thursday, 28 December 2016. Its timing is not an accident; that holiday lull period when the nation stops seems like canny timing to release an anticipated drama. It also spoke to me of the ideas that Sally Wainwright raises in this latest Brontë biopic – at an ‘invisible’ time of the year when many of us are in an ‘in-between’ state heading toward the new year and taking a break from daily working life, the BBC releases a drama where invisibility and ‘in-betweenness’ is key.

Ostensibly, To Walk Invisible follows the lives of the Brontë siblings Branwell, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily, presenting them to a contemporary audience. While this biopic doesn’t introduce anything new about their lives to someone who is well-versed on the Brontës, it is obviously not made for experts, but for a general audience. The ‘newness’ of the adaptation of their lives on screen rather lies in what director and writer Sally Wainwright has chosen to do with the facts we know, and how she has manipulated and condensed their biography into a fruitful plot line centring on Branwell’s addiction and his sisters’ response.

Clearly, Wainwright focuses on Branwell’s downfall to highlight the economic impetus for the sisters’ desire to get published, thereby de-romanticising the myths which surround the three sisters, and also, the myths that surround so many authors about why they write. Rather than pure ego or purely noble ideals of beauty (although there is a bit of that in Charlotte’s desire to get published in the biopic!), the driving catalyst for publication is the need to survive; that is, the need for money when their brother does not enact his role as the typical male provider.

This is cleverly done by Wainwright, who has explained in an interview in the January 2017 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, that the ‘myth that the Brontës didn’t really understand the power of what they were writing was started by Charlotte herself’ when their works ‘were later criticised for being brutal and unfeminine’ (116). The myth that the sisters didn’t know any better because they were naive creatures who lived in social isolation is now a cliché, and factually inaccurate.

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It’s important to remember Charlotte had a heavy hand in constructing this myth – not as a form of outright deceit for its own sake, but rather for survival. In order to write honestly as a woman about things that concerned women, one must become ‘invisible’ via various techniques, which include male pseudonyms, but which also require more complex forms of myth-making about the so-called ‘feminine innocence’ and lack of knowledge of the sisters. They most certainly knew exactly what they were doing, and were not people who cowered behind words unnecessarily.

Wainwright’s To Walk Invisible has been referred to as ‘feminist’ drama, and indeed, it is one when examined from this angle of conscious myth-making and a desire for economic independence, separate from male ‘providers’. So, in a certain way, Wainwright’s biopic works as a de-mythologising drama – it lays bare what Charlotte sought to cover for their own protection. This is highlighted explicitly in the scene where the sisters discuss how women’s words are treated and why they must take on male pseudonyms, summarised neatly by Emily in the following statement: ‘when a man writes something it’s what he’s written that’s judged. When a woman writes something it’s her that’s judged.’ It’s depressing to consider how true these words still ring today.

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There could not be a more feminist statement than this in a period drama, and for a director and screenwriter to present it so bluntly and efficiently, without adornment, and with the straightforward talk of Emily as played so brilliantly by Chloe Pirrie, is itself a rare thing in contemporary costume dramas. For all our claims that we have come so far, we have really not – I can count on one hand the number of contemporary period dramas that are willing to state things this bluntly.

In a way, this is homage to the straight talk of the Brontës’ letters, from which Wainwright borrows in this drama. And yet, what makes this drama so contradictory and complex, is that it doesn’t just leave things bare, it also constructs its own myth-making to rival Charlotte’s.

For me, the most striking and lingering scene comes near the end, when the three sisters are walking on the moors with Charlotte’s good friend, Ellen Nussey (who herself was a major influence on Elizabeth Gaskell’s highly influential 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë, which spun its own myth-making). They see a vision of three suns – which is perhaps an allusion to the rare optical illusion of anthelion, where the sun is reflected on either side, making it appear as if there are three suns on the horizon.

In order for this phenomenon to occur, the right environmental conditions need to be present – that is, the perfect timing of the sun’s position in the sky and the right temperature in the air. This reflects the Brontë sisters themselves, who needed the right environmental conditions of economic necessity coupled with the position of women in the Victorian era to fashion their iconic status in English literature – but this image suggests this is part of a cultural illusion that prefers the myth over the reality.

What I respond to when I watch such dramas is not just the facts, but also the symbols. And to me, this image suggests many symbols. When the sisters question what this phenomenon could be, Nussey responds by stating that it represents them. The three suns aligned with the back of the three sisters’ bodies are strikingly presented on screen in a still image that comes to a sudden halt, moving us into the present where we travel into the modern Brontë Parsonage Museum, and then back to the sisters. Wainwright’s message about how the three sisters’ powerful words ‘travel’ beyond that constructed invisibility of myth, into the modern age, is clear. However, what is less clear to me is the myth we are left with via this last image.

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It seems to me to be an image that resonates with that state of being stuck ‘in-between’. The sisters, in contemporary feminist myth-making, are placed in a position of revolutionary writers who sought to say what was invisible in the lives of women, and who in the process, made themselves visible; and yet, they are also, ironically, still stuck in a static image.

What is this static image? What does it imply or suggest? I have no clear answers for this, only an intangible feeling as I was watching it – ultimately, I can only summarise this feeling as a suggestion of how far the sisters have travelled in their culture, and how far many women have travelled too, but also, how much more we need to look forward to in our current, ambiguous, and in-between state of contemporary feminism that is both politically ‘invisible’ and yet, all-too-visible as a ‘brand’. The sisters are looking forward, and so, I guess, must we.

The fact, however, that To Walk Invisible raises all these ideas is a testament to its potential as a screen drama that delivers in terms of powerful imagery and powerful performances. To Walk Invisible doesn’t just make you consider the lives of the Brontë sisters, but also makes you think about what we have done with those lives in the present; and that is a real gift to be given in that ‘in-between’ state of the holiday season.

There are of course, other gifts in this drama, such as Pirrie’s bound-to-be cult performance of Emily who threatens to hit Branwell back if he lays a finger on her (and we believe her); the spine-tingling moment when Charlotte is shown writing the first line of Jane Eyre; the simple and honest scene where Anne and Emily state ‘I love you’ to each other as sisters (consider how rare it is for women to say that to each other on screen); and that moment when their father asks if Emily is feeding the damn dogs again at the dining table, responded to with a ‘no’ as she feeds the dogs on either side of her. For anyone who has been to Haworth, this is also a nostalgic trip into its real landscape that pulls at the heart and senses – there is really bad and ugly weather, and there is also plenty of beauty, and they sit comfortably together in this drama. Go on, treat yourself, and watch it.

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