At times it seems as if the only stories worth telling about women these days are those where women can be cast as warriors, trailblazers, radicals, or “hidden figures,” all of whom are fighting a singular common enemy: men. What these stories often achieve, unfortunately, is feminist biographies that lack the intricate complexities of the lives women lived in the past. Call them one-dimensional heroines.
A similar movement is afoot in the history of great writers. One such campaign, dubbed #ThanksForTyping, highlights the wives who did editorial work—typing, researching, editing—for their writer-husbands. Evidently gratitude in marriage is no longer acceptable; a social justice movement must be launched on behalf of these supposedly wronged wives. Another recent effort at one bookstore involved turning books authored by men backwards so their bindings are hidden to highlight gender imbalance in the publishing world.
Into this climate arrives PBS’s Masterpiece Theater film about the Brontë sisters, To Walk Invisible. The movie has all of the expected focus on the three Brontë sisters’ schemes to become published authors in the 1800s despite being women. In fact, the trailer focuses almost entirely on the theme that women were not taken seriously and could not pursue meaningful work. As the character who plays Emily Brontë says in one clip, “When a man writes something it’s what he’s written that is judged; when a women writes something it’s her that is judged.” In another, Charlotte assures her sisters that “of course we’re not going to use our real names. It must be men’s names.” She further admonishes them, “We must walk invisible.”
Of course the story is far more complicated than the feminist-inflected marketing of the movie suggests, and To Walk Invisible actually shows this if watched all the way through. One learns that the Brontës themselves wanted fiercely to protect their privacy, and nurtured an equally ferocious desire not to be critiqued and ridiculed; as well, they were contending with a brother sick in mind and body who had tarnished the family name (but whom they sought to spare further embarrassment) and they were a family without sufficient funds who needed to earn money from writing.
It was Charlotte Brontë who initially figured out how to break into the publishing world while protecting her family: she published under a masculine nom-de-plume. Her sisters followed suit. “We didn’t want Bramwell to know,” the sisters told their father, referring to their brother who was also a writer but who was suffering the fallout of drug and alcohol addiction. “It would be like rubbing salt into a wound.” Emily Brontë in particularly wanted to protect her privacy. Even when it becomes clear to the Bronte sisters that they must explain to their publisher that they are indeed women, Emily refuses to go.
What’s equally interesting about the Brontës’ publishing secret are the reactions of the men who later found out the truth. In the television production, after Charlotte tells her father she’s written a book that’s sold “quite a few editions,” and that it is about to go into a second printing and has a theater production underway, he offers the timeless line so many children wait to hear: “I am very proud of you.”
Later in the movie, when Charlotte and Anne must reveal their real identities to their publisher to resolve a potential legal dispute, he initially struggles with the news. “What makes you doubt me?” Charlotte says. “My accent, my gender, my size?” But the publisher quickly tells them he is elated and immediately begins to gush over her “genius” and her “glorious” work. “You have to meet people…. The whole of London will fall off itself to spend a minute with [you].”
When Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was reviewed in 1848 in Quarterly Review, there was already ample speculation about whether a woman (people suspected it was a governess) was behind the work. The reviewer addressed the rumors of its mysterious authorship and concluded that, man or woman, it didn’t make a difference; it was a “remarkable novel.”
In other words: the Brontës were successful on their own terms in their own times. Society-at-large did indeed hold different views about women and work outside the home during this time and that is part of their story. In the end, the full movie belies the PBS trailer’s insistence that the story of the Brontës is solely one of women’s subordination. The Brontës’ writing success and the publishing plot they hatched was driven by necessity, talent and choice. A better trailer could have focused on a more accurate message—their resilience and creativity, not victimhood alone.