‘To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters’ Review: Survival Instincts and Literary Ambitions

The hard-won triumphs of the Brontës are the subject of a new Masterpiece drama.

it is the struggle to survive, not literary ambition—though that ambition is a strong one—that takes precedence in the lives of these sisters.
.. father distinctly more concerned with his only son, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis) than with the doings of his dutiful daughters.
.. Their ultimate triumph arrives with the emergence of their actual identities after writing wildly successful works, all under male-sounding pseudonyms.
.. Charlotte gave when asked why she liked to write anonymously. If offered one gift by a good fairy it would be, “Grant me the power to walk invisible.”

The Brontës’ Secret

The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives. Midrash isn’t just a Jewish hermeneutic, by the way. You could call the Gospels a midrash on the Hebrew Bible, the lives of the saints a midrash on the Christ story, the Koran a midrash on all of the above.

.. Charlotte’s writing would have been even better, Woolf says, had she “possessed say three hundred [pounds] a year.”

.. Motherless since they were very young, the Brontës enjoyed the benign neglect of their busy father and made the most of their freedom to develop elaborate fantasy worlds.

.. Charlotte hung on a year longer, mostly because she fell in love with her teacher and colleague Constantin Heger. A brilliant, charismatic professor, he was the first male non-Brontë to recognize their powers and treat them as intellectual peers.

.. But in her next novel, Jane Eyre, and her last,Villette, she put her work history to spectacular use. She expressed her outrage at the degraded status of governesses and teachers. She condemned the isolation and vulnerability of a woman who goes into the world to make her own way. She let loose her feelings for Heger, electromagnetizing the novels with sensuality.

.. In short, had Charlotte been in possession of 300 pounds a year, she could never have written novels that startled her readers then with their frank depiction of middle-class women’s working conditions and continue to edify those of us who also have to earn our own living.

.. Deborah Lutz calls attention to the mixed meanings of 19th-century housework in the sisters’ lives and novels, especially needlework, with which ladies were expected to keep their hands busy at all times. Charlotte was indignant when her first mistress demanded that she add sewing to child care, requiring her to make doll clothes and stitch hems on sheets.

.. As a governess, Jane Eyre hides behind her stitching when she wants to watch rather than talk.

.. It has only belatedly dawned on readers that Nelly is an unreliable narrator. Read in a certain light, her story seems to be hinting that it was she who sabotaged the families as much as or even more than Heathcliff. If so, she did this by skillfully deploying the two main weapons of the household help: obscurity and ubiquity.

.. That the poet Ellis Bell was Emily Brontë came out only after her death, at age 30, one year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. She didn’t intend unsubtle readers to see Nelly any more than she wanted them to see her.

.. And therein lies at least one solution to the Brontë mystery. The sisters hid their subversiveness behind housewifery, and used their seeming eccentricity to excuse their shirking of social niceties. Early on, when their old housekeeper grew too lame to work, they took over her duties rather than let a stranger into their house. “I manage the ironing and keep the rooms clean,” Charlotte wrote a friend. “Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen. We are such odd animals that we prefer this mode of contrivance to having a new face among us.”

.. life in their “attic” didn’t make the Brontës near-madwomen. It made them writers—admittedly, almost the same thing.

.. Dickinson’s biographer Alfred Habegger asserts that for her, reading an 1883 life of Emily Brontë “effectively validated her idea of power based in weakness.”

.. The Brontës lived as they did because they needed privacy to write their extraordinary but scandalizing novels—alternately extolled as having no “rival among modern productions” (as one critic said of Jane Eyre) and attacked for a “low tone of behavior” and “coarseness” (charges leveled against all three sisters’ works).