To Walk Invisible: the Branwell Brontë myth

Fifteen years after the publication of Lucasta Miller’s acclaimed biography The Brontë Myth, Sally Wainright’s To Walk Invisible is a welcome sight to Brontë fans and scholars alike.

Wainright’s biopic explores some of the most turbulent years of the Brontë sisters’ lives at home in Haworth parsonage during their brother Branwell’s descent into depression, alcoholism, and laudanum addiction in his last years of life. If Miller’s biography was an attempt to uncover the realities of the Brontë sisters’ upbringing and home lives masked by Elizabeth Gaskell in an attempt to save her friend’s respectable reputation in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Wainright’s aim was to bring it to life. Indeed, Branwell Brontë until recently has remained something of a myth in Brontë scholarship. Although he appears in literal shadows in the portrait of his sisters on display at Haworth Parsonage (he painted himself out) and figuratively in the form of abusive alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), he is largely absent from the historiography of the parsonage. Thanks to Wainright’s beautiful script, a strong performance by Adam Nagaitis puts this to right.

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John Brown (Mark Knight) and Branwell Brontë (Adam Nagitis) walk through central Haworth. (BBC, 2016)

I’d studied the Brontës as part of my MA degree (it was, in fact, the reason I came to Leeds), but Wainright’s drama illustrated the struggle the sisters faced trying to publish their writing, alongside a very disruptive home life. The sisters, as Wainright shows, were most concerned about their art being real, and deflected accusations of ‘coarseness’ and ‘vulgarity’ in their writing because of this: life is coarse and vulgar. Reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or Agnes Gray remains a powerful experience because of their liminality between fantasy and reality, their varied narration devices maintaining some secrets for the plot, while remaining unapologetically frank about the unpleasant realities of Victorian society. Apparently the 21st Century public has yet to learn anything, amid complaints of “quite inappropriate obscenities” in the script. It is this realness that Wainright represents best in To Walk Invisible. From the loud screaming matches between Branwell and his ailing father Patrick, to the filthy streets of 1840s Haworth (where the average life expectancy was just 25 years), the film put struggle at its centre, the daughters’ strive for financial self-sufficiency and creative autonomy at a time when they were advised that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”  Where Elizabeth Gaskell represented Haworth as a small country town with a “lawless, but not unkindly population” (p. 8), and the Brontë sisters as wallflowers with overactive imaginations; Lucasta Miller moves some way to correcting this through use of population statistics, and Wainright by literally reconstructing Haworth as it was: a small industrial town, whose population were well known to the sisters through their father’s work as parish curate.What makes To Walk Invisible a welcome part of Brontë historiography and outreach is that it is actually biographical, refusing to sex it up or shy away from the dirt (physical, linguistic, and moral) that plagued Victorian industrial life, as other period dramas often do. In dramatising the unseemly, Wainright’s tale of three skilled women reaching unprecedented literary success in secrecy, silencing their ambitions so as to further upset and upstage their brother demonstrates their personal sacrifices and strengths. Like the sisters’ work, To Walk Invisible‘s devotion to realism ensures that it will endure.

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Emily (Chloe Pirrie), Anne (Charlie Murphy), and Charlotte Brontë (Finn Atkins) in the parsonage living room. (BBC, 2016)

Sources

  1. Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (London: Vintage, 2001).
  2. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Leipzig: Bernaud Tauchnitz, 1857) [Google Books].
  3. ‘[Letters] To Walk Invisible: Withering Heights of Gloom and Mizak,’ The Guardian, Monday 2nd Jan 2017.
  4. Benjamin Hershel Babbage, ‘Public Health Act, (11 & 12 Vict., cap. 63.) Report to the General Board of Health on a preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the hamlet of Haworth,’ (London: Clowes & Sons, 1850) British Library [C.T.159.(6.)].
  5. Letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (12 March 1837), Letter, Brontë Parsonage Museum [BSIXSou.1837-03-12].

 

December Almanac

Happy New Year, lovely readers! The last month of 2016 has been an absolute whirlwind: I graduated from my Master’s with Merit, ate three Christmas dinners in a week, drank an astonishing amount of beer, and set myself a rather ambitious amount of homework over the Christmas holidays which is slowly but surely being finished. December was rather exhausting but as I make a slightly bigger dent in my reading I’m feeling a little more positive about my PhD.

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Papa Clarke, Victoria Clarke MA!

Of course, it wasn’t all Chartism and mince pies! Here are some of the other delights I’ve been feasting my eyes, ears, and eyes and ears on of late:

Reading

  • Rohan McWilliam, ‘On Reviewing,’ Taylor & Francis (2016). As someone who has yet to write a book review, it made sense to get the lowdown from the grandaddy of reviews at the Journal of Victorian Culture, and it’s an excellent checklist for how to critically evaluate a colleague’s work for publication – least of all, ‘read the book.’
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Americanah (2014). It took me a couple of attempts to finish this before, but Adiche’s writing is so rich and welcoming that once I’d finished volume 1, I felt sad when I wasn’t reading it. Adiche’s third novel explores two high school sweethearts as they individually leave Nigeria and experience, for the first time, racial tensions in their respective journeys through the United States and England, before returning home.

Watching

  • To Walk Invisible,‘ BBC (2016). Sally Wainright’s much-anticipated biopic of the Brontë sisters aired on the 29th December and my little nerd heart wept. Incredible casting and a well-researched script made for wonderful viewing as the sisters began to prepare their writing for publication, living in secrecy while caring for their alcoholic brother Branwell during the last years of his life. I’ll share a review soon, but the tl;dr version is ‘stop reading this and watch the thing.’
  • Victorian Bakers at Christmas,‘ BBC (2016). My two favourite things are Victorian studies and food, so I was enthralled by the initial run of Victorian Bakers. The Christmas Special brought to light how strongly the Victorians changed Christmas into the commercial event we are familiar with now, including the different incarnations of Santa Claus (from an American pronunciation of St. Nicholas) and the disparity between aristocratic Christmas feasts and the scanty fare that would have been eaten by Bob Cratchit and his contemporaries. Most importantly of all, it showed that life as a baker and citizen of Victorian Britain was hard for most people, a rather unsubtle nod to present ‘austerity Britain.’
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The Victorian Bakers gather around the pie of my dreams. (BBC)

Listening

  • Stuff Mom Never Told You, ‘The Cost of Fast Fashion‘ (2016). I’ve been a huge fan of SMNTY for a couple of years now and was heartbroken to hear that Cristen and Caroline have now left the series, and this episode was one of their best. ‘Fast Fashion’ dates back to the Industrial Revolution and although finding new + cheap clothes is a recipe for a great dopamine high, it’s one tainted by the industry’s continued exploitation of women of colour in manufacturing, as well as the negative environmental impact of disposable fashion. It’s made me confront my own shopping behaviours and encouraged me to attempt to not buy new clothes in 2017.
  • In Our Time, ‘The Gin Craze’ (2016). Melvyn Bragg is joined by historians Angela McShane, Judith Hawley, and Emma Major to examine the origin of the ‘gin craze’ that swept eighteenth century Britain, from its origins in protestant loyalism (as opposed to supporting Catholic French Brandy) to attempts to control the problem, and the satire behind Hogarth’s famous illustration.
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William Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane (1751) satirises the various moral panics surrounding gin, from riots to neglectful mothers.

 Happy January!

Autumn Almanac: November

Today it’s the first day of December, and I’m now officially two months into my PhD. Here are some things that have happened in November:

Onwards and upwards! Here’s what my eyes, and ears have feasted upon this month:

Reading

  • Jennifer Worth, Call The Midwife (2002). Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of her time as a young midwife in London’s East End is beautifully written and wonderfully inviting, offering snapshots of cases she worked on and the families and lives she was, for professional purposes, sharing. Fans of the BBC adaptation will enjoy the book – my only complaint is that it was too short.
  • Dr. Susannah Lipscomb, ‘On and Off Script,’ History Today. Having seen Lipscomb speak briefly on public history at Senate House’s History Day workshop this year, I very much enjoyed her article about the day to day realities of television consultancy work. Given that historical dramas and documentaries are the main point of entry for non-specialists in history, it pays to be sure that they are as accurate as possible while remaining engaging and entertaining. I spent my first PhD supervision discussing the historical inaccuracies of ITV’s Victoria – what Lipscomb asks is how do we balance these facts while ensuring good telly? At the end of the day, it’s a dialogue between historians and the public, which, Lipscomb argues, is worth the work.
  • Alan Mays, ‘The Best Way To Get Laid in the 19th Century’: A celebration of cheeky calling cards. If anyone has success with this in the 21st century, please get in contact.
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Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson (1900).

 

Watching

  • Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016), BBC. I’d never heard of David Olusoga before, and what a wonderful presenter he is! This series is a timely (i.e.extremely delayed) consideration of Black British identities, stretching right back to the Roman empire. Each episode is comprised of many case studies of both remarkable individuals and group adversities faced by Black people in Britain, each ending with celebrations and memorialisations in the local communities today. Watching this made me angry that I’d never heard of most of these figures before, and exposes the sheer extent of whitewashing in the British school history curriculum.
  • ‘San Junipero,’ Black Mirror (2016), Netflix. Part of the latest of Charlie Brooker’s technological dystopias, San Junipero was wonderfully optimistic for a change, enabling two queer women to meet in a cloud-based shared memory and live the lives denied to them by ‘real life’ circumstances. Furthermore, it’s a wonderful story about two femme women which both explores and rejects the ‘dead lesbian’ trope of contemporary television. TL;DR: I cried with joy.
  • The Victorian Slum (2016), BBC. A recent example of the ‘living history’ trend of recent years, the Slum shows several 21st century families tracing their family histories and taking stock of how times have changed. My boyfriend described it as a ‘historical privilege check,’ and what better way to draw our attention to the importance and necessity of the welfare state than to experience life without it? Still, one wonders at the participants’ shock and awe that a recreated slum was filthy – they didn’t even live that accurately. None of them were prostitutes…
  • Virago: Changing the World One Page At A Time (2016), BBC. Interviews with current and former Virago staff and authors trace the history of this revolutionary publisher, and explores its future. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on Virago Modern Classics, a project to re-release works by women ‘lost’ throughout history, making a case for their popularity today.
  • Back in Time for Brixton (2016), BBC. The most recent of the BBC’s living histories, this time the Irwin family are invited to live through forty years of Black migration to Britain, experiencing first hand some of the hardships of their ancestors who arrived on the Windrush in 1954. It’s an engaging and accessible part of the #BlackandBritish series, and a welcome change from the previously very white, middle class ‘Back in time for…’ series.
  • Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016), Netflix. As an avid Gilmorean (last week I got a respectable 65/78 on a GG pub quiz), this has been the television event of the year. Though parts of it felt gimmicky and several favourite characters were absent (looking at you, Sookie), it felt like being welcomed home. I laughed, I cried. The whole series really did feel like a tribute to the cast and writers who worked so hard during the original run, not least the sadly missed Edward Herrman, following his death in 2014.
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Pugin & Rollinson, ‘The Royal Circus,’ The Microcosm of London Vol. 3 (London: Meuthen, 1904) p.13.

See you next month for another round up of things I’ve been doing that aren’t my PhD!