Why is PBS Marketing the Brontë Sisters as Proto-Feminists?

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.

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  • Bravo for actually finishing the movie. I was so bored that I quit 25 minutes in.

  • ERP

    This characteristic spin by PBS perhaps explains why the Trumpites are so eager to punish that organization. And why so many who don’t like Trump are not as upset about it as they might be.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    There were quite a few women (and men) of the time who published novels under pseudonyms. Novels were seen as potentially a bit racy (like a lot of French novels or Gothics) or dealing with topics that were not subjects of polite conversation. Caroline Lamb’s novel was notorious for all of that, plus slander against a lot of her friends and crushes. People wanted to know author identities for prurient reasons.

    However, a novel that was seen as both fun and moral, like Austen’ s, had people intrigued for other reasons. The Prince Regent was such a sad fanboy that he got Austen’ s identity and invited her to tea at his palace in Brighton. She declined to enter society as an author, however.

    Aphra Behn and other female authors did go about openly in society as authors, playwrights, etc. It could be done, but you had to be rich enough to afford the dresses and have enough relatives at that social level. Or you had to not care what people thought.

  • NC Nora

    So…the trailer is the video equivalent of clickbait. Not the first time somebody’s tried to market a movie like this.

  • Gypsy Boots

    The world is full of millions of fascinating stories.
    But dull gray ideologues want to turn them all into variants of the same endlessly boring story, the master-slave power struggle famously templated by Hegel.
    How tedious, constraining and anti-human.

  • Thomas Wayne Wren

    I tried to watch it. Neither my wife or I couldn’t understand the dialect and we watch many Masterpiece productions. I suppose I could have turned on SAP but, from what I could understand, it seemed all too predicable.

  • Ivar Ivarson

    Huh, must be based on a historical novella . . . .