Wednesday, 25 January 2017

TO WALK INVISIBLE a dramatisation of the Brontes lives by Sally Wainwright


To Walk Invisible is a drama documentary written and directed by Sally Wainwright, about the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne , their brother Branwell and their father Patrick during the years 1845 to 1849. This date span is dealt with flexibly. There are flash backs to childhood  when Branwell receives a present of some toy soldiers and the children use these soldiers, whose individual figures, they name, to write  poems, plays and create magazines and novelettes. They place them within a world they call Glasstown. Later as they grow older, Charlotte and Branwell extend this by creating their own country called, Angria, and Emily and Anne create their world called ,Gondal. These imaginary worlds are interlaced in the programme to show their early influences and their development as authors and artists. It references the time after 1849 with obituaries for Branwell, Emily and Anne and describes what happens to Charlotte and Patrick Bronte ,their father, at a later date.

The moors near Haworth.

The programme begins at a time after Branwell and Anne have left their governess and tutor roles for the Robinson Family at Thorpe Green and its emotional aftermath. It also deals with the dramatic event where Anne and Charlotte travel to London to visit their publishers Smith, Elder and Co on Cornhill in The City. The final part fades into the present day, showing  modern tourists  inside the parsonage  and we are then taken to the tourist gift shop and a view of the wild looking statue of the three sisters that is positioned beside the shop. The end is a little confusing seemingly becoming an advert for the Bronte Parsonage bookshop and the Bronte Society. It is linked to an English Literature course provided by the Open University.

The statues of Anne, Charlotte and Emily beside the Haworth museum shop.

Sally Wainwright, who wrote and produced ,To Walk Invisible, was an obvious choice to make this programme. She is a gritty Yorkshirewoman who understands the Yorkshire way of life. The fact that she is a ,”Yorkshire lass,” imbued with the landscape, people and a Yorkshire sensibility, connects her to the Brontes in no small way. She was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, in 1963. She was brought up in Sowerby Bridge where she attended Triangle C of E Primary School and Sowerby Bridge Grammar School. She went on to attended the University of York reading English. Intellectually, socially and emotionally she was formed by Yorkshire. Like the Brontes she started writing from an early age, the age of nine. While at university she had a play called ,”Hanging On,” put on at the Edinburgh Festival. She graduated from the University of York and became a bus driver to finance her writing. The Brontes did what was available to them too, to earn money. They became tutors , governesses and teachers which they hated but stuck with these  jobs because there was nothing else for women in their situation and the family needed money. Wainwright came from that sort of position too, albeit in the present day. Sally Wainwright has gone on to create very successful television dramas including, At Home With The Braithwaites, Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, all plays set in Yorkshire about Yorkshire people and she has also written for Coronation Street and The Archers. You could say she was predestined to write this drama about the lives of these Yorkshire writers, the Brontes.


Sally Wainwright.

There are two main strands in this biopic. There is a focus on Branwell, his attempts at becoming a professional artist, and writer and his dissolute character; an overriding precociousness believing the world owed him recognition as a great artist and writer. This is overlaid by his increasing drunkenness and alcoholism. We see the Bronte family struggling to barely function at times. We witness Branwell, almost destroying his father and sisters. The swearing and the implied and threatened physical abuse adds a bitter edge to the whole thing.
The second strand involves the literary pursuits of Anne, Emily and Charlotte, under the unbearable stresses caused by Branwell. Eventually, they kept their literary efforts a secret from him.  They wrote separately from each other, although they did use each other as critics. The contents of their novels, The Tennent of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, reflect the intensity of the life they lived and the self analysis they went through about relationships, moral conflicts and the many hardships they themselves underwent as tutors and governesses. Just being a Bronte seemed hard. 
Branwell wrote to the editor of Blackwoods Magazine; their father Patrick was a subscriber. Branwell had sent the editor some examples of his writing in the hope of gaining employment.
“Haworth 4th January 1837
Now, is the trouble of writing a single line,to outweigh the certainty of doing good to a fellow creature and the possibility of doing good to yourself?- Will you still so wearisomely refuse me a word, when You can neither know what you refuse or whom you are refusing? Do you think your magazine so perfect that no edition to its power would be either possible or desirable? Is it pride which actuates you- or custom- or prejudice?- Be a man-Sir! And think no more of these things! Write to me-….”
You can sense Branwell’s frustration at not getting a reply. However, he is also being rude and on the verge of insulting the editor. Branwell  did not take rejection well. Throughout his short life any job or positon or talent he had was wasted. It has been suggested, that if Branwell was living now, he would be diagnosed with attention deficit syndrome.

Haworth Parsonage today.

 Blackwoods Magazine was a periodical begun by William Blackwood in 1817. It was a combative magazine with radical views not just about politics but also religion and society. Charlotte, Emily and Anne were permitted to read these articles, in fact Patrick Bronte encouraged his daughters to read widely and no books were off limits in his library. Patrick taught his children literature, geography, history, mathematics, the classics, Latin, French and poetry. He encouraged them to go walking on the moors and observe nature and experience the elements. All these things were to influence their writing.

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The front cover of an edition of Blackwoods magazine.

An underlying theme in, To Walk Invisible, is the source of their creativity and their thinking about the world. The education and the breadth of reading was one aspect but playing and imagining was a very large part of their creative development as well. Creativity is something which schools today know they should have time for but  is not easy to include in the everyday school timetable.  The toy soldiers that Branwell was given at an early age triggered the creation of whole worlds, which existed alongside their actual lives. In their letters and diaries, it is sometimes difficult to see the difference between the real world and their imaginative worlds. Perhaps they didn’t separate them.
The Reverend Patrick Bronte provided the money, from his meagre income, for Branwell’s art education and the travelling expenses to go to interviews.This caused the family to make sacrifices financially  so that Branwell might pursue a career. Branwell, however,wasted his fathers and the family’s money. This is highlighted in To Wlak Invisible most sharply by Branwell’s abortive visit to London to apply for entry to the Royal Academy. Branwell was granted an interview at The Royal Academy and travelled to London, using the families much needed money but he never made it to the interview. He spent his time drinking and so used up the money before returning to Hawarth. He got into debt and was nearly arrested on occasions only for his father to bail him out. He became a tutor to the children of the Robinson family at Thorpe Green but began an affair with Mrs Robinson, who Branwell described in one letter to a friend as dark eyed and beautiful . He complained that she wouldn’t leave him alone. He was dismissed from this post and the experience hastened  his sinking into drug addiction and alcoholism. Anne had also been a governess to the children at Thorpe Green and resigned just before Branwells dismissal. Strangely the children remained in contact with Anne.They seemed to have formed an attachment to her.

The Black Bull Inn in Haworth where Branwell would go drinking.

Branwell was  a walking, breathing disaster, not only to himself but to the rest of his family. One aggressive scene in the film depicts a burly gentleman confronting Branwell outside the Black Bull Inn, situated at the top of Haworth High Street just outside the gates leading to the church and the Parsonage. The man wants his money and threatens Branwell. Emily intervenes and stands toe to toe, face to face with the man and threatens to hit him harder than he threatens to hit Branwell.  On another occasion Branwell is in such a drunken state, dragging himself home, the three sisters walk past trying to ignore him but Emily turns and goes back to him and holds and cradles him. Emily, for all her harshness and austere outlook, can’t help her feelings of love for her brother. It is a dour production. The clothing is muted, dark colours, the skies are overcast or the lighting is toned down on cloudless scenes. The language is violent at times, with swear words delivered with strong Yorkshire accents.There are scenes that verge on the physically violent. It gives a very powerful sense of the hard and difficult lives the Brontes lead.

The Chapter Coffee House was situated near here next to St Pauls Cathedral.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the programme is when Charlotte and Anne go to London to confront Charlotte’s publishers, Smith and Elder at 65 Cornhill in the City. A problem had arisen. Emily and Anne had a different publisher, a Mr Newby. There had been a lot of speculation in the newspapers as to who Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell actually were. Mr Newby was the publisher for Emily and Annes’ aliases, Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte) and Acton Bell (Anne Bronte) while Smith and Elder published Charlotte's work under the name of Currer Bell.  Mr Newby had caused speculation by suggesting that they were one and the same person. Having suggested this and because he had the manuscripts of Ellis and Acton Bell, he put it about that he had the rights to publish Currer Bells next novel after the great success of Jane Ayre. Smith and Elder were obviously very concerned about this and thought that Charlotte (Currer Bell ) had given her next manuscript to Mr Newby. They wrote to Currer Bell ( Charlotte Bronte) setting out their concerns. Even the sisters  own publishers did not know who they were other than by the aliases. Charlotte, thought it right to visit Smith and Elder on Cornhill to set things straight. She wanted all three of them to go but Emily refused. In the end just herself and Anne made the journey. 

A map drawn by Patrick Bronte to show his daughters Charlotte and Anne where the Chapter Coffee House was located.

The scene depicted in the programme follows closely the details of the visit to their publishers that Charlotte gave to a friend, Mary Taylor, in a letter, from Haworth, dated 4th September 1848.
“ We arrived at the Chapter Coffee House ( A cheap boarding house that members of the clergy used situated in, Paternoster Lane, next to St Pauls Cathedral) .. about eight o’clock in the morning. We washed ourselves- had some breakfast-sat a few minutes and then set off in queer, inward excitement, to 65 Cornhill. Neither Mr Smith nor Mr Williams knew we were coming- they had never seen us- they did not know whether we were men or women- but had always written to us as men.
We found 65- to be a large bookseller’s shop in a street almost as bustling as the Strand- we went in- walked up to the counter- there were a great many young men and lads here and there- I said to the first I could accost- “May I see Mr Smith-?” he hesitated, looked a little surprised- but went to fetch him-We sat down and waited a while- looking at some books on the counter-publications of theirs well known to us- many of which they had sent us copies as presents. At last somebody came up and said dubiously, “Did you want to see me, Ma’am?” “Is it Mr Smith?” I said looking up through my spectacles at a young, tall, gentlemanly man. “It is.” I then put his own letter into his hand addressed to Currer Bell. He looked at it- then at me- again- yet again- I laughed at his queer perplexity- a recognition took place- I gave my real name-“Miss Bronte”- We were both hurried from the shop into a little back room…”

The site of 65 Cornhill today. This was the site of Smith and Elder , Charlotte Brontes publisher.

This portrays Charlotte Bronte's propensity for the dramatic, not only in her writing, but in her life too. Many of her letters are vivid descriptions portraying her emotions, feelings and thoughts.
There were few opportunities for work for the unmarried daughters of poor clergy men. One thing they did acquire was an education which enabled them to be teachers and governesses. Their Aunt Bronte, their fathers sister, who lived with them after their mothers death, provided the money for Charlotte and Emily to spend time at the Pensionnat Heger run by  Monsieur Heger in Brussels. Charlotte's emotional attachment to ,Monsieur Heger, that developed while she was in Brussels, is not covered by this programme however. They learned French and some Italian and German. Ability with languages made them far more employable as teachers.They thought about setting up their own school in Haworth and had notices printed advertising ,”The Misses Brontes Establishment,” offering an extensive educational experience including a range of languages, mathematics,  writing , music, drawing, needlework and history. This was not successful, perhaps because of the remote location of the parsonage in Haworth.


Some buildings in Haworth near the church and the parsonage.

“To Walk Invisible,” has received some criticism for its harsh portrayal of difficult lives, the stresses placed on them all by Branwell and the sense of desperation  the three sisters felt in needing to make a living and earn money. We can learn something of their lives by reading their letters and through their novels and now through this television programme. The themes of their books reveal much. Anne wrote about the plight and hardships of being a governess in Agnes Grey. The Tennent of Wildfell Hall dealt with the topic of marital abuse and in particular the abuse of women that was exceedingly shocking to Victorian sensibilities and is pertinent today. Anne Bronte is becoming a woman’s movement icon.
“I see that a man cannot give himself up to drinking without being miserable one-half his days and mad the other.” 
Anne Bronte: The Tennent of Wildfell Hall
Emily wrote about the strength of human passion to almost a surreal level in Wuthering Heights and Charlotte dealt with issues of fidelity and love and morality in Jane Eyre.  
“Feeling . . . clamoured wildly. “Oh, comply!” it said. “. . . soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?” Still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now.” 
Charlotte Bronte:Jane Eyre

A wooden carved panel on the door of 32 Cornhill depicting Charlotte and Anne Bronte meeting William Makepeace Thackeray at the offices of Smith, Elder and Co.

I think “To Walk Invisible,” captures many of the issues in the lives of the Bronte sisters. It can be said it is a modern view and that it is sensational but the evidence shows that there were sensational elements to their lives and their lives had rough and harsh elements.   Somebody dramatising the Brontes lives in fifty years time will have a different outlook and approach to it using the same facts and evidence.“To Walk Invisible,” is a powerful piece of television drama and Sally Wainwright is the right person to have written the script and produced the TV programme. “Eeh by gum! Flippin eck!” 

References:
 http://www.open.edu/openlearn/whats-on/tv/walk-invisible

https://www.bronte.org.uk/

The Brontes: A Life In Letters by Juliet Barker

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte




7 comments:

  1. Lovely photos from Haworth. I really enjoyed the film, it brought the plight of the Bronte family to life so realistically. I've always been touched by their tragic story and, especially that of Branwell. This film also made you sympathise with Patrick Bronte. Beautiful adaptation.

    I have visited Haworth and always find it curious how the village looks so quaint these days although it was full of squalor and misery back in the day.

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    1. It is a wonderful place to visit, you are right, Anna. I love walking on the moors too.Thanks for reading it. Tony

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  2. Dear Tony, it is a marvelous post! God knows when we, in Brazil could see this... I will share your post in my FAcebook, but first I'd like to know if you can put Google Translator in you blog, as I did in mine. You know most of my readers They don't know English...

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    1. I am glad you read this Raquel. I will look into the translator.

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    2. Hi Raquel. I have just added Google translator. All the best, Tony

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  3. Tony, I hadn't heard of this yet! I'm always interested in the Brontes, though this sounds like one I'll have to be in the right mood for. Sometimes I'm in the mood to not have my gentle visions disturbed, you might say! The Haworth of my heart is a far gentler village than the one occupied by the Brontes.

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    1. Thanks for reading it Jean. It is worth seeing though. I hope you can bring yourself to see it when it comes across the Atlantic.

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