Friday, 30 December 2016

To Walk Invisible - brief thoughts

Charlotte, Emily and Anne

BBC’s prestige drama To Walk Invisible, written and directed by Sally Wainwright, was a pleasure to watch as it charted the evolution of the Brontë sisters from homebodies with no prospects, concerned about what will happen after their father dies as their house is tied (not a problem in the event as he outlived them all) to published authors.  Admittedly it suffered from the common BBC problem of poor sound quality at times, swelling music over-emphatically directing the viewer’s emotions to the detriment of being able to hear what was being said.  But there was much to admire, particularly in the scenery (cgi very well used), faithfully recreating Haworth and the surrounding moors, and reminding the viewer that the parsonage was not isolated but was part of a thriving, and grimy, industrial district.

Characterisation was plausible, displaying the mingled affection and irritation which comes from living in each other’s pockets.  Charlotte is the shrewd ambitious one who nags a reluctant Emily, seeing how brilliant her poetry is.  Emily though lacks confidence, hiding it behind a facade of prickliness and undertaking the bulk of the household chores while the other two write (there is a lot of the domestic stuff shown, countering the assumption that writers lead rarefied lives while tending to reinforce the grim-up-north stereotype).  Anne wants to keep up creatively yet is conscious, as is Charlotte, she is not quite in the same rank as Emily and Charlotte; perhaps an unfair depiction as Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have been reassessed in recent years and found to be surprisingly tough-minded.  Useless alcoholic brother Branwell, with delusions of talent, lacks application and is resentful because of it, knowing he can get his own way if he is obnoxious enough.  And father Patrick is long suffering, always naively optimistic with no foundation that Branwell’s latest crisis will be a turning point leading to his recovery, and taking the girls for granted despite his affection for them.  That he is spectacularly unaware of their prodigious literary activities is brought home when Charlotte enters his study and to his astonishment diffidently mentions she is the author of Jane Eyre and it is doing rather well.

The surprisingly deep bond between Emily and Branwell is touching, evident when they sit on a five-bar gate with their heads resting together looking at the moon before baying companionably.  On a Sunday morning the sisters walking to church find Branwell in the lane clutching a wall in a terrible state.  They blank him and continue tight-lipped, suddenly Emily stops and turns round, not to give him a deserved punch in the kidney but to take him back.  The film is full of such touches: I especially liked the moment where Arthur Bell Nicholls has helped to bring an incapable Branwell inside, losing his hat in the passage, and he and Charlotte awkwardly stoop together to pick it up leaving Arthur on his knee, foreshadowing their marriage; by contrast the homage to Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton with Branwell out of it was too studied and the effort to endow him with a tragic aspect unwarranted.  The suggestion Branwell accidentally caused Emily’s death from TB three months after his own by coughing blood into her face as she nursed him is horrifying.  He never gave anything of value to his family, instead bringing chaos and pain into it.

It struck me afterwards that it would be possible to map Wainwright’s depiction of the siblings onto Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (or at least four-fifths of the Famous Five, though the film’s large but mysteriously little-seen dog obviously intended to suggest the model for Pilot in Jane Eyre could stand in for Timmy).  So the go-getting and bossy Charlotte is Julian.  In-your-face Emily is George.  Branwell appropriately is Dick, even if Branwell never follows Charlotte’s orders as Dick does Julian’s.  And pretty Anne Brontë, dragged along in her sisters’ wake, doubles the feminine slightly drippy Blytonian Anne.  Where the Famous Five go adventuring on Kirrin Island the Brontë sisters mount expeditions into their imaginations.

However, the story is not about the novels themselves, though there are glimpses of what inspired them.  Primarily it is about the struggle of the three sisters to make something of their lives in a world which does not look favourably on independent female achievement, and attain on their own behalf the financial security their father’s death would remove and Branwell could never provide.  In true Yorkshire fashion creativity is allied to business sense, as the scene in which Charlotte, Anne in tow, descends on her publisher George Smith in London indicates.  If practical business also entails an element of invisibility, such as assuming the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer in order for their words to be judged rather than them, so be it.

After a bizarre episode on the moors with the three sisters backlit – godlike – by a triple sun, an almost transcendental experience presumably inserted to remind viewer that notwithstanding all the talk of business their legacy is greater than something merely produced for money, hackwork, the film more or less concludes with Branwell’s death, his sisters’ fates relegated to a brief postscript.  Unfortunately, by stopping when it does it makes their sad ends seem subordinate to that of their feckless and undeserving brother.  If he was the centre of attention in life, there is is no reason he should be in death.

We finish with shots of the parsonage as it is now, concentrating on the shop selling trinkets which would surely have made the Brontës’ toes curl.  The old place is certainly a lot cleaner than it was in the 1840s, and I was pleased to see a healthy ethnic mix looking at the key rings and mugs; as I recall, during my visit to Haworth the clientele was homogeneously white.  But why suddenly insert tacky commercialism into the moving story of this talented set of writers who have enriched our culture so profoundly, botching the last moments of a fine two hours of television?