The three Bronte sisters had a dark secret. They wrote stories.
In early Victorian England, this was considered unladylike and downright unseemly. So naturally they kept their vice cloistered, a conspiracy wonderfully dramatized in a new PBS production titled To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters.
Premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, To Walk Invisible follows the delicate path of Charlotte (Finn Atkins), Emily (Chloe Pirrie) and Anne (Charlie Murphy) Bronte up to the point when they finally could stand it no longer and outed themselves.
The drama therefore stops just short of its most tragic turn: that both Emily and Anne died shortly thereafter, apparently of tuberculosis. Emily was 30, Anne 29.
Charlotte lived only a few more years, dying in the midst of a pregnancy at 38. She was the only sister who saw any of the recognition all three would eventually receive for their novels, poetry and other writings.
For the record, that notably includes Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
To Walk Invisible paints the Bronte family as tight-knit and reasonably well off for the times in which they lived. Their father Patrick (Jonathan Pryce) was a caring if somewhat distracted preacher.
Their mother died when they were young, and their only surviving sibling, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis), was a drunkard and a roustabout.
Charlotte, Anne and Emily became the de facto caretakers for the family, and the custom of the day said that would be their full-time and only employment.
I don’t think so, the Bronte sisters said.
They had taken to writing back when their father and aunt were home-schooling them, and that remained their pastime of choice.
Charlotte was particularly prolific, writing long letters that provided much of the information on which Sally Wainwright created and wrote this drama.
Scenes here suggest the sisters often wrote in the same room, neatly working on the small sheets of paper that were still something of a luxury in the 1840s.
Since two hours of people hunched over a desk writing wouldn’t make for a very exciting show, we see a fair amount of other family drama, like Branwell being dissolute.
We also see the sisters secretly debating strategies about what to do with their work. Since women writers were rarely taken seriously in the early 19th century, despite the success of Jane Austen, they submitted their early manuscripts under male-sounding pen names.
When that worked, they debated at length whether to take a deep breath, travel to London to the publisher’s office and reveal themselves. That scene is masterfully played on both sides, as the publishers must quickly reset their own assumptions about who was capable of creating such well-crafted stories.
In the larger scope, To Walk Invisible fits well with the tone of the stories the sisters wrote. Those stories don’t shock us the way they shocked some of their Victorians readers, but we see in their lives some of the ambivalence, challenges and brooding darkness.
Wainwright’s direction captures a period feel in both visual and logistical details. It’s quite clear that the early deaths of all three sisters were caused in part by primitive medical practices and the lack of what we would consider basic sanitation. To Walk Invisible illustrates a world where that was simply how it was.
There’s a fair amount of darkness in this story, because the lives it chronicles were not easy. There’s also a fair amount of humor. Mostly there’s admiration for three women who in a very short time accomplished things their world saw no reason to think they could.