There have been two streams of costume dramas hitting mainstream consciousness of late: In one corner, we have the “Downton Abbey”/”Poldark”/”Victoria” model, slightly edgy but mostly conventional smoldering and corsetry; on the other side are “Reign,” “Vikings,” and “Outlander” — smoldering and corsets for sure, but also gruesome violence, lots of sex, and a feeling of this is what it was really like.
Of course, neither path is any more realistic than the other, and of course we don’t come to historical drama for realism any more than we turn to a sitcom to learn the news. The job of a costume drama is to sweep us away to another era — the specific details never quite as important as the overall feeling of it all. In Shakespeare’s day, he dressed the Kings and Queens of ancient Egypt in the gowns of the current monarchy; even then, audiences knew all good stories are really ageless, and that we can best appreciate them when we can best relate.
Which is why we find the women of “Reign” fighting and scheming their way out of arranged marriages, rather than merely accepting their fate; why Robert (Hugh Bonneville) on “Downton Abbey” doesn’t pause before accepting his just-outed butler (Rob James-Collier) back into the family fold; why Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (Jane Seymour) sided with the Cheyenne over the American government: We want to see some of the trappings of history, but we also require our heroes to think at least partly the way we do.
Either way, some finessing of historical realities is not just de rigeur but mandatory; much as people crave authenticity in historical dramas, that doesn’t mean we want to see the dental hygiene or bathroom habits — or unquestioned misogyny — of 19th century English life. So what a relief it must have been for writer/director Sally Wainwright (of “Happy Valley”) to have as her muses three women who were singular for their — for any — time: The passionate, secretive, witchy and amazing Charlotte (Finn Atkins), Emily (Chloe Pirrie), and Anne Brontë (Charlie Murphy), heroines of PBS’s March 26 special “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters.” Not only was Wainwright spared the work of adjusting their thoughts and behaviour to appeal to a 21st century audience, she was gifted with three of the most interesting women in British history.
The casting of this film offers a quick visual precis to the differences between Charlotte (the plain, romantic one), Emily (the weirdo, feral one) and Anne (the pretty, conventional one). Their work is mostly collectively remembered to the point that it may take even an English major a moment to identify which wrote “Jane Eyre” and which “Wuthering Heights.” Anne is least-known of the three, though her work was equally as popular at its time of publication.
In one of the many odd, fascinating tidbits about these sisters’ lives, her sister Charlotte disallowed republication of Anne’s work after her death so her work (the novels “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”) never quite gained the widespread fame of her sisters’ work.
As with Jane Austen’s “Austen-ite” fandom, fans of the Brontës’ work also tend to be fans of the women themselves. While their novels were originally published under male pseudonyms (who, crucially, shared a pseudonymous surname; family so important to these women that even their avatars had to be related), these are unquestionably the work of women. Each of their novels caused a stir upon publication for their portrayal of women who were more than the foils or window dressing of other novels, not only protagonists of their own stories but given layered characterization and were unquestioningly independent.
At a time when women weren’t encouraged to gain an education, let alone write, that three sisters — growing up isolated on the Yorkshire moors, without much by way of formal education — crafted some of the best English-language novels of all time is in itself fascinating, of course. They lived during a time and place when tragedy and death marred everyone’s lives, but perhaps the particular onslaught of tragedy that marked their family led to the kind of introspection that allowed them to write these books. Their mother died young; two older sisters both died of diseases likely stemming from their time spent at the inarguable inspiration for the cruel academy in Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre.”
Following these deaths, the children remained at home for a less formal education, spending their free time collaborating on a shared writing project about a Narnia-like fantasy world. Their brother, Bramwell (Adam Nagaitis, truly the “…and Peggy” of this family) descended into various addictions and other self-destructive behavior; the women channeled their emotions into writing multi-layered, feminist novels.
Basically, if there isn’t a “Reign”-like origin story series in the works, there will be eventually.
“To Walk Invisible” doesn’t focus on their teen years, but rather the retroactively crucial three-year period during which each sister’s most famous books were published. Perhaps due to their juvenelia as co-authors, there was enough similarity in their published works that a prevalent rumor was that Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were three pseudonyms for the same very prolific writer. Like other female authors of their time, the Brontës did not choose male pseudonyms out of choice but necessity. It was transgressive, basically unnatural, for a woman to author a book — let alone the ferocious volumes these three created.
Part of the legend of the Brontë sisters — like that of so many artistic icons — is that they each died young, highlighting the unlikely ability of each of them to basically create an instant classic out of each of their scant volumes. This film works to shift the focus from the sisters’ tragedy, the sort of Edward Gorey litany of woes that tend to comprise most of our knowledge of their history, and back toward where it belongs: Their fascinating time spent alive. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s stories are discovered every generation by the primarily young women who find themselves drawn to, and represented by, the strange and strong women of their novels. As proof, nearly all of the recent filmic and literary adaptations of both their novels and their lives have been created by women. Their works are appealing to many demographics, but something about their feminist sensibility finds a majority of their fans among women; there exists a sort of dividing line between those who are drawn to Austen and those drawn to the Brontes, as if a sort of classic-literature Hogwarts Sorting Hat had evolved itself, over the decades and generations.
This film’s title is drawn from the sisters’ determination to publish their work anonymously: “When a man writes something, what’s written is judged,” as Charlotte explains to her sisters. “When a woman writes, it’s her that’s judged. We must walk invisible.”
Her words ring true even now, when many female authors still publish under male pseudonyms or initials, when “Teen Vogue” and “Cosmopolitan” are routinely sidelined for their political reporting, when the bestseller lists still tip heavily in favor of male authors; when female essayists, storytellers and comics are judged at face value rather than by their art, as though women are incapable of irony. For these three women to write the books they did is admirable; that their works still serve to challenge our understanding of women’s role in society is noteworthy and a little bleak; but for a film like this to elevate and celebrate their achievements, not just to write these books but the lengths they were forced to go to just to see them published, makes this the perfect time to re-introduce ourselves to the Brontë sisters.
“To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters” airs Sunday, March 26th, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on “Masterpiece” on PBS.