“To Walk Invisible”: A Evocative Insight on Emily Brontë

On 30 of July, it was Emily Brontë’s 202 birthday. Born in 1818, Emily has been often portrayed as the most savage and wild sister from the Brontë family. But no one can neglect that she produced one of the most beautifully written artworks ever, not only evidenced in her only known novel Wuthering Heights but also in her poems. Emily’s poems have a strong imaginary and force that few poets can achieve.

I had posted on Instagram a photo where I gave a short insight on “To Walk Invisible” (2016). I was so glad to read that many of you loved the film. I thought I needed more space to develop an overview of Emily’s representation. I made a poll to ask you if you considered a post to be necessary too, and I have prepared this post for you.

In this post, I want to explain you why the film To Walk Invisible (2016) did an amazing job on portraying Emily Brontë. I give you an insight into some literary information about Emily and compare it with the biopic.

Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë, aged 15 -16. painted by Branwell, detail from “The Gun Group”. (1833 – 1834)

Emily Jane Brontë was the fifth daughter of Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë. She is better known for being the second sister of the sister writers named as the Brontës. She published her works under her pen name: Ellis Bell.

Unlike her sister Charlotte, about the life of Emily Brontë there is little information, the same happens with their sister Anne. But, The Parsonage Museum has continued the investigation of their life and celebrated the 200 years anniversary birthday of the sisters, and has been providing information and knowledge for readers around the world.

Emily’s savage unfamous fame can be seen in the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, written by Elizabeth Gaskell. She wrote:

“I distinguish reserve from shyness, because I imagine shyness will please, if it knew how; whereas, reserve is indifferent whether it pleases or not. Anne like her elder sister was shy; Emily was reserved”

– Elizabeth Gaskell. The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

In other words, according to Gaskell, Emily would not seem very friendly to someone because she is described as reserved.

The Brontë Sisters painted by Branwell. 1834. National Portrait Gallery. Reconstruction. Oil canvas.

When describing the famous painting Branwell painted about her sisters (he also had painted himself on it but he erased his figure afterwards), Gaskell says:

“On the side of the column which was lightened by the sun, stood Charlotte …On the deeply shadowy side, was Emily, with Anne’s gentle face resting on her shoulder. Emily´s countenance struck me as full of power”

– Elizabeth Gaskell. The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

As seen above, Emily is described as obscure and calls the attention that she seems to be powerful, instead of the delicate and gentle woman, characteristics that in those Victorian times ladies were supposed to have.

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights was published for the first time in December 1814 under the pen name Ellis Bell. Criticism was diverse, some praised the novel, but unfortunately, there were numerous critics who considered that the book’s publication was an error. Despite its disapproval, Emily kept some negative reviews on her desk:

“It should be called Withering Heights, for anything from which the mind and the body could be more instinctively shrink, than the mansion and its tenants cannot be easily imagined”

– quoted on Watson, H. “Wuthering Heights and Critics”. 1949

Watson (1949) made a recompilation of the reviews Wuthering Heights received, he adds that the novel was often considered savage, strangeness and painful because: “it did not conform to the accepted standards of the Victorian writing”.

Even less encouraging was Charlotte’s preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights. In the preface, Charlotte reveals that she and her sister were women who wrote under a men pen name. But she also calls her sister’s work immature with the aim to defend her reputation from the negative criticism.

Although, there are some contrary opinions on the information given by Charlotte about her sister Emily. Sarah Fermi (2019) has reconsidered that in her paper “What do we know about Emily Jane? Some well-known facts reconsidered” suggests that:

Emily before her death, made Charlotte swear never to reveal the truth about her real history, or even hint at what experiences enabled her to write her unique novel“.

– Sarah Fermi (2019). “What do we know about Emily Jane? Some well- known facts reconsidered”.

Fermi adds that to have written such a passionated and moving novel, it is highly possible that Emily could have experienced some romance from first hand.

Who was really Emily Brontë? We might find out by refering to the film To Walk Invisible (2016).

To Walk Invisible

Promotional poster of “To Walk Invisible” (2016).

To Walk Invisible (2016) was directed and written by Sally Wainwright. In general terms, it is a biopic that shows the viewers the life of the Brontë sisters and her brother Branwell. It was produced by the BBC. The overview is the following one:

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë face a bleak future, with their father half-blind and troubled brother Branwell in decline. As their situation worsens, Charlotte sees that writing could offer a way out. This is the dramatisation of the sisters’ lives as they published their first novels and their extraordinary battle for recognition. To Walk Invisible was written and directed by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax) and stars Finn Atkins, Charlie Murphy, Chloe Pirrie, Adam Nagaitis and Jonathan Pryce“.

– “To Walk Invisible” (2016). BBC UK.

It would be simply to say that the film shows the decadence of Branwell under alcoholism, the constant preoccupation of her sisters, and how they constructed their novels. This is a masterful and emotional biopic any Brontëan should watch.

Before we focus on Emily, portrayed by Chloe Pirrie, it is relevant to mention that this is a moving film and artistically beautiful that deserves recognition. Wainwright did an excellent directing job and screenplay. The actors give us a perfect insight into the Brontës, their characteristics, their thoughts, their manners, one can easily picture the writers of those works we love so much. Also, the music composed by John Lunn, the costume design by Tom Pye and the landscape creates a perfect picture.

* Be Aware! From Now On Expect Spoilers!

The beginning of the film can be a little confusing for someone who is not familiar with the Brontës. It starts with Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell as little children. You can see Charlotte being the most decided of the sisters, while Branwell can be clearly identified for his intense red hair. There is a scene when Branwell arrives with some toy soldiers and shows them to his sisters. The children name them according to their favourite heroes. This passage is described by Elizabeth Gaskell in her book The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Gaskell assures her readers that Patrick Brontë gave his children some toy soldiers that were fundamental for developing the children’s imagination and they allowed to produce the juvenilia, that is to say, Glass Town and Angria, a world created mainly by Charlotte and Branwell. With this in the mind, the ending is even more emotional, especially when Branwell passes away and there is a flashback of the children and Branwell taking the soldiers away while his sisters say goodbye. It is such a beautiful metaphor for saying that now the sisters will be the creators but Branwell will be there no more.

We should focus on Emily. Chloe Pirrie did an amazing job portraying the grown-up Emily Brontë, we are able to see her full of strength and energy, her thoughtful mood, her caring side and, also, her reserve behaviour. What I remark and I loved it so much, is that in this film we readers (and lovers) of Wuthering Heights and Emily’s poems can have an insight on her inspirational and creative process. We can see the important bound she had with Branwell and the effect landscapes had on her works.

We see a grown-up Emily working in the Parsonage, which might remind us of Ellen Nussey’s words when she saw Charlotte’s sister as a grown-up:

“Emily Brontë had by this time acquired a lithesome graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house except for her Father (…) She had very beautiful eyes, kind (ly) kindling liquid eyes, sometimes they looked grey, sometimes dark blue but she did not often look at you, she was too reserved”

– quoted on Sarah Ferni (2019). “What do we known about Emily Jane? Some well-known ‘facts’ reconsidered”.

In the film, the Brontë family is starting facing Branwell’s secret, that he is not what his father expects him to be. But Emily says about Branwell: “We should see him from what he is. It’s not fair on him”. During the whole film, we see Emily taking care of Branwell, and it is impossible not to think of Cathy nursing Hareton in Wuthering Heights. Even Elizabeth Gaskell mentions in The Life of Charlotte Brontë that Emily was a self-sacrificing woman and was capable of starving herself in order to assists the ones she loved.

As a personal opinion, regarding Emily and Branwell, in that scene when Emily waits for Branwell’s arrival late at night, he is drunk but still, Emily waits for his brother, they start howling at night, I could not but recall the following quotation from Wuthering Heights:

“I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free”

– Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights

We should remember, that in the Victorian Era women were, unfortunately, dependent on their husbands or brothers, it was not accepted for a woman to be self-sustained. the Brontë sisters being concerned and worried about their futures as their father is getting old and Branwell is not very promising for his increasing alcoholism and depression, the latter one caused by unrequited love for the mistress of the house he was working as a pupil and was fired out after having a love affair with her. The sisters are obligated to seek their own way to finance themselves. Charlotte asks Branwell about his plans and he reveals him that he had been selling his works and was thinking about publishing a novel. This conversation leads her to search for Emily’s poems.

In real life, Charlotte wrote a letter to his published, dated on January 1846, where she recalls that episode of finding Emily’s poems:

“One day in the autumn of 1845 I accidentally lighted on a volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse, I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me—a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music, wild, melancholy, and elevating. My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed: it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. . . . Meantime my younger sister quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that since Emily’s had given me pleasure I might like to look at hers. I could not but be a partial judge, yet I thought that these verses too had a sweet, sincere pathos of their own. We had very early cherished the dream of one day being authors. . . . We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and, if possible, get them printed”.

– Charlotte Brontë. The Brontë’s Life and Letters. ed. Clement King Shorter (1908).

Viewers of the film know that what Charlotte described to her published was represented on the screen. We could see an upset Emily, a passionated Charlotte and a patient Anne.

Aside from Emily’s rage towards Charlotte for invading her private space, “To Walk Invisible” offer us an insight on Emily’s inspiration for writing her poetry which, at least to me, it produced me a need for grabbing her poems and start reading them over again. She goes to walk to the moors with her dogs, we see nature all around us, as when we open her book grass seems to bloom from their pages and our mind takes us to such amazing places.

There are wonderful scenes where Chloe Pirrie resites Emily’s poems to Charlie Murphy (Anne Brontë) while they are walking together in the moors. Pirrie takes the reading task very seriously and with a powerful voice which sometimes it is impossible to contain tears of emotion by being touched by those wonderful words. These scenes recall Charlotte’s words on the preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights:

“Ellis Bell did not describe as one whose eye and taste alone found pleasure in the prospect; her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle; they were what she lived in, and by, as much as the wild birds, their tenants, or as the heather, their produce. Her descriptions, then, of natural scenery are what they should be, and all they should be”.

– Charlotte Brontë. 1850 Preface to Wuthering Heights.

Now, regarding Emily’s only published novel, scholars still discuss the possible source that nurtured inspiration to its author.

“To Walk Invisible” dramatises Charlotte’s version narrated on her preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights:

Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knows them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them, she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine“.

– Charlotte Brontë. (1850). Preface to Wuthering Heights.

Although, in the biopic, we don’t see an Emily who does not know what she had done with her characters as Charlotte adds later. We are shown Anne talking with her sister about writing and there is a passionated Emily telling her that she had found inspiration, by hear some tragic tales, for a possible writing novel, Anne encourages to write it and Emily surprises her by telling her sister that she needs to buy some paper to start writing it down.

Chloe Pirrie as Emily Brontë. “To Walk Invisible” (2016). BBC.

The film also gives us an insight into the reaction the Brontë sisters had when their works were published. It shows us the famous trip Anne and Charlotte did to London in 1847 to visit their publisher. When The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published, it was believed to had been written by Charlotte (Currer) and not by Anne (Acton). The sisters realized that it was necessary to make clear in person that Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell were different people. In the film see that Charlotte insist her sister to visit their publisher, Anne agrees but Emily does not. This negative from Emily’s side to hide her true identity and remind as Ellis Bell is mentioned real life, on a letter dated a year later, where she says:

Permit me to caution you not to speak of my sisters when you write to me – I mean do not use the word in plural. ‘Ellis Bell’ will not endure to be alluded to any other appellation than the ‘nom de plume’. I committed the great error in betraying her ‘his’ identity to you and Mr Smith – it was inadvertent – the words ´we are three sisters´ escaped me before I was aware – I regretted the avowal the moment I had made it; I regret it bitterly now, for I find it is against every feeling and intention of Ellis Bell”

– quoted in Fermi (2019)

By reading that Emily didn’t want to reveal her true identity and gender, we can easily recall the words she says in the biopic to her sisters when they are discussing whether they should show themselves as women writers:

“When a man writes something it’s what he has written that’s judged. When a woman writes something, it’s her that’s judged”

– “To Walk Invisible” (2016)

It seems highly possible that Emily didn’t like the idea of revealing her name because of the social conventions of her times. Women were criticized mercilessly for their gender and not objective. Additionally, their intellectual works were seen as inferior.

We are never going to know how Emily Jane Brontë really was, but the most important thing that we will always be sure is that she is the author of some of the most poetical and beautifully written works in English language.

“To Walk Invisible”, the biopic of the life of the Brontë sisters gave us an evocative insight of her person, we could see her passions, her inspirations, her love and her endurance.

If you saw “To Walk Invisible” do you agree with me or have a different opinion?

Work Cited – To Know More

“To Walk Invisible” (2016) find it on Amazon.

Brontë, Emily. (1996). Wuthering Heights. Penguin Classics.

Brontë, Charlotte. (1996). “Preface to Second Edition 1850). Wuthering Heights. Penguin Classics.

Fermi, Sarah. (2019). “What do we know about Emily Jane? Some well-known ‘facts’ reconsidered”. Brontë Studies: The Journal of the Brontë Society. Apr. 44.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. (1997). The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Penguin Classics.

King Shorter, Clement. (1908). The Brontë’s Life and Letters.

Watson, Melvin. R. (1949). “Wuthering Heights and the Critics”. The Trollopian. Vol. 3, No. 4 (Mar. 1949), pp. 243-263

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