When it comes to the Brontë sisters, questions—and mythology—abound. How did three relatively sheltered women, the daughters of a priest living in rural Yorkshire, write some of the most passionate and proto-feminist novels of the 19th century? To Walk Invisible, a two-hour drama airing on PBS on Sunday, touches on the fascinating contradictions of the Brontës, focusing on the three-year period when the sisters determined to publish their writing as a means of self-preservation. Aware of how they would be judged as women entering a man’s realm, they elected to use gender-neutral pseudonyms, so they could, as Charlotte explained in a letter, “walk invisible.”
To Walk Invisible is written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the creative force behind the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. Like Happy Valley, a gritty drama about a forceful female police sergeant that’s developed an ardent American fanbase on Netflix, it draws much of its mood from the sullen bleakness of the Yorkshire landscape, suggesting a hostile, imposing environment that fosters strength in some and despair in others. In both dramas, Wainwright explores women forced to endure familial hardship: In the Brontë family, the burden is their brother, Branwell, whose descent into alcohol and drug addiction coincides with—and possibly spurs—the literary success of his sisters.
To Walk Invisible, though, takes a more abstract, fragmented approach. In the opening scene, the four surviving Brontë siblings are literally seen as children with fiery halos burning over their heads to represent their creative potential. They conjure live characters from a box of toy soldiers and engage in fierce, screamed games in their family home. Then, abruptly, the action shifts to the middle of the 19th century, where Branwell (Adam Nagaitis) has returned in disgrace from a teaching job after having an affair with his employer’s wife. As the sisters deal with his self-destructive behavior, and with their father’s (Jonathan Pryce) increasing frailty, Charlotte (Finn Atkins) discovers poems written by Emily (Chloe Pirrie), and decides publishing their work is the only way of securing the family’s future.
The drama’s undeniable strength is its three female leads: Pirrie, Atkins, and Charlie Murphy as Anne Brontë, who find great depth in their three different characters, and their complex bonds. Pirrie’s Emily is ferocious and mercurial, running the household with a matter-of-fact steeliness that belies moments of profound compassion for her siblings. “When a man writes something, it’s what he’s written that’s judged,” she says acidly, while the three sisters are considering their pen names. “When a woman writes something, it’s her that’s judged.” Murphy’s Anne is a peacemaker and Emily’s confidante, who nevertheless breaks with her sister when their integrity is questioned. Atkins’s Charlotte is quiet and reserved, but also the most ambitious of the three. When her publisher doubts that she’s really the Currer Bell who wrote Jane Eyre, she fires back, “What makes you doubt it Mr. Smith? My accent? My gender? My size?”
Wainwright draws compelling drama out of the sisters finding their literary talents, like superheroes discovering their powers for the first time. When Charlotte rifles through Emily’s possessions to find her hidden poems, the music swells and her face alters perceivably as she reads them, overcome with emotion. There’s comedy, too, when Charlotte confesses to her father that she’s written a book, and he assumes it’s another homemade manuscript in her “tiny little writing,” rather than the colossal success Jane Eyre had become—a book so powerful critics were calling its author “complicit in revolutions across Europe.”
That the sisters are so intriguing is what makes To Walk Invisible’s heavy focus on Branwell so frustrating. Clearly, Wainwright wanted to draw parallels between the era of the Brontës and modern-day Yorkshire, still rife with drug and alcohol abuse that devastates communities. Nagaitis allows Branwell flashes of sympathy, but he is, from a beginning, a lost cause, enabled by his father as he terrorizes his household. His violent and self-pitying decline spurs his sisters’ desire for self-determination, but it also distracts from their more remarkable story. There are fleeting hints of the thwarted romance for Charlotte that inspired Mr. Rochester, and of the village gossip that sparked Wuthering Heights, but Branwell ultimately receives more attention than any of the sisters individually, even as his path is, tragically, the most predictable.
But To Walk Invisible succeeds by humanizing the Brontës to an unprecedented extent, hinting at how their isolated and turbulent home life might have nurtured a capacity for creativity and imagination that resounded in all three women. Shot against the wild backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, it’s a strikingly different kind of costume drama. In the drama’s strange conclusion, Wainwright jumps forward in time to the modern-day Brontë Parsonage Museum, a clumsy but well-intentioned reminder of how powerful these sisters’ legacy would become.