Sunday, April 9, 2017

"To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters," on PBS Masterpiece

I have always been fascinated by the Bronte family, as have so many other readers of their novels. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and “Villette” have been of special interest to me; I have read both multiple times, and taught “Jane Eyre” several times. So of course I was pleased to hear that PBS’ Masterpiece was presenting “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters” (March 26, 2017). It is a fascinating look at the lives of the three sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) and their unfortunate brother (Branwell), as well as their overwhelmed father. I already knew the story of their lives quite well, from studying and reading about them in various sources. This PBS production is partially based on Charlotte’s letters. It is a riveting but extremely bleak look at the family’s intensely intertwined lives in the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, over a period of three years when their novels began to be published. You would think that the time of these publications would be an occasion for joy for the family, and there were a few -- very few -- moments of joy, but these were muted, and any expressions of such emotion was suppressed by societal and family concerns. The societal concerns were, of course, the fact that women writers were not generally encouraged, respected, or accepted at that time. The family concerns were that the Bronte sisters’ brother, Branwell, was expected (by his family and by Branwell himself) to be the writer in the family, the one who would be published and gain fame, but he never did, perhaps from insufficient talent but mostly because he was an extreme alcoholic whose life was chaotic, full of debt, and much complicated by a failed love affair with a married woman. These were the two reasons the sisters (famously) chose to write their novels under pseudonyms. The three of them who were living at the time of this portrayal (two other sisters had died in childhood) were constantly having to take care of their brother, rescue him, cover up his misdeeds, and go along with his delusion that he was the gifted one in the family whose work (as a writer and as an artist) would soon be recognized. In other words, Branwell was the dysfunctional and highly disruptive center of the family, and the sisters were forced to be, and also chose to be, his enablers. Their mother was dead, and their father was bewildered and overwhelmed by dealing with his deeply troubled son. Branwell’s role in the family was a huge part of the grimness of the sisters’ lives, but it was exacerbated, it seems, by their isolation in a small town in Yorkshire, by the spare and cold aspect of the Parsonage where they lived, and by money worries. This Masterpiece production emphasizes the bleakness, the grimness of the lives of these amazing writers, through its portrayal of the parsonage, the scenery, the claustrophobia of the family members’ lives, the sisters’ plain clothing and severe hairstyles, and the fact that almost no one in the production ever smiles or laughs. There is affection among the family members, especially the three sisters, and they are a great support to each other, but the overall situation is depressing. In fact, I realize in writing about this production two weeks after I saw it that I am remembering it as if it were in black and white, although the actual show was in color. The sisters are portrayed very well by three strong actresses, and the actors playing Branwell and the family’s father are also good in their roles. This is a powerful piece, and of interest both to those already devoted to the Brontes and their work, and to those who know less about them but want to learn more.
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