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The Brontë sisters are the feminist heroes we need in 2017

Anne (Charlie Murphy), Emily (Chloe Pirrie) & Charlotte Bronte (Finn Atkins) in To Walk Invisible.
Anne (Charlie Murphy), Emily (Chloe Pirrie) & Charlotte Bronte (Finn Atkins) in To Walk Invisible.
PBS Masterpiece
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday was last year, but 2017 is shaping up to be the year of the Brontë sisters regardless. They’ve left the bookshelf to show up onstage and onscreen, and everywhere they go they bring with them allegories of fighting the patriarchy.

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë — the sisters who lived in witchy isolation on the English moors and the authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, respectively — are the subjects of Masterpiece Theatre’s biopic To Walk Invisible, which aired on PBS in February (donors of PBS member stations can stream it here). And in March on the stage, Jen Silverman riffed on the Brontë legacy in The Moors, her play about two literary sisters living in isolation on the moors, with a governess visiting and something mysterious and sinister in the attic.

The three Brontë sisters, with their proto-feminist ideology and the barely veiled feral rage that runs like an undercurrent through their books, would always mesh well with the feminist anger that’s so prevalent today. But the thing that makes them a near-perfect fit — the thing that both To Walk Invisible and The Moors use as the sisters’ chief antagonist — is the problem of their brother, the much-despised alcoholic Branwell. It’s Branwell who, like a living embodiment of the patriarchy, keeps trying to hold the sisters back, and Branwell whom they must defeat.

His mere existence, both in the Brontë sisters’ real lives and in these two new works, underscores an important, unfortunate connection between the Brontës’ era and our own. And by extension, it explains why the sisters’ work feels so modern today.

The Brontë novels are powered by sheer rage against the patriarchy

What animates the Brontë sisters’ work is a specifically feminine anger in response to their patriarchal society, a feeling of being hunted and trapped and confined and degraded that is peculiar to women of great intelligence and few opportunities and resources.

So you have Jane Eyre kicking and biting as she is tied down and admonished to sit still and be quiet, like a good girl; you have her chafing at her isolation in the schoolroom and remarking, “Women are supposed to be very calm generally, but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.”

You have Wuthering Heights Catherine Earnshaw slapping and pinching and biting like “a rude little savage” out on the moors, and then dressing herself up in a silk gown and pretending to be domesticated so that she can marry well, because she’ll have no money otherwise. You have The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’s Helen resolving to redeem her dissolute husband through love and good works, as a woman should, and finding instead that he has ruined her life.

The Brontë novels are about women who want to be free and who have been trapped by the patriarchy. And luckily for our current cultural moment, the Brontë sisters come with a dissolute brother tailor-made to represent the patriarchy.

Branwell was supposed to be the Brontë family genius. That didn’t work out for him.

As the children of a country curate in class-conscious Victorian England, the Brontë siblings existed in a tricky social limbo: well-educated and socially respectable, but with hardly any money. And as the only boy, Branwell was expected to provide for his sisters.

The family had high hopes for him. Branwell was intelligent and creative. As a child, he was a leader in the elaborate, imaginative games the Brontë children played, with their detailed fantasy worlds and histories. His father gave him a classical education. He created his own self-published literary magazine and tried to support himself as a painter.

But Branwell failed at all of his artistic pursuits. He began to drink. He commenced a series of jobs as a clerk or a tutor and was fired from all of them. He drank ever more heavily.

Charlotte, Anne, and Emily took jobs as governesses and teachers and supported themselves, kept house for their elderly father, and worked on their literary masterpieces on the side.

Branwell moved back into his father’s house, ostensibly to make a go of things as a poet and novelist, and instead drank so much that he set fire to his bedsheets in a drunken stupor. He dabbled in opium and laudanum. He wrote letters to his friends begging them to send him five pence worth of gin, “because I know the good it will do me.”

By this time the sisters were all published novelists, and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was a massively successful best-seller. But they kept their successes a secret, to spare Branwell’s feelings.

Branwell died of tuberculosis at the age of 31, three years after he left his last paid position and moved back home.

But still, his reputation as a thwarted genius lingers. For years, critics speculated that it was Branwell, not Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights, and while that theory has since been widely discredited, it still emerges from time to time to be presented as a plausible idea.

Branwell is a man who produced nothing and squandered his talents, but the fantasy of his wasted potential hovers like a mist over his sisters’ enormous achievements. It made multiple critics believe that Branwell — poor, tragic Branwell — must have written Wuthering Heights. A book that brilliant couldn’t possibly come from a woman.

For To Walk Invisible and The Moors, Branwell stands for the patriarchy itself

In PBS’s To Walk Invisible, Branwell is both inspiration and impediment to his sisters. Charlotte walks in on him scribbling half-drunk, in a desultory fashion, and she watches him with hungry eyes as lazily informs her he plans to publish a novel: “Novels are where the money is.”

“You’ll need a good story for a novel,” Charlotte says carefully, and Branwell grins with smugness and superiority.

“When have I ever lacked for a good story?” he asks her.

But it’s clear to Charlotte, as to everyone, that Branwell would never have the stamina or the willpower to write a novel. She calls her sisters together for a conference and suggests they try their hand at publishing first a volume of poetry and then a novel each.

But they’re women, Emily points out. They’d be held up as objects of ridicule and shame.

“We must walk invisible,” Charlotte says, and decides that they will use male pen names.

Branwell tells everyone who will listen that he’s about to become a great novelist, as his drinking problem develops and he abandons every artistic project. His sisters write some of the greatest novels of the English language and live in obscurity. No one knows who they are or what they’ve done.

In To Walk Invisible, Branwell is the patriarchy aping and overshadowing women’s genius. But in Silverman’s play The Moors — with its queered-up, gothic-to-the-nth-degree atmosphere — Branwell is the patriarchy destroyed.

The sisters of The Moors, Agatha and Huldy, aren’t literally the Brontës, but their hyper-gothic house (in which every room is somehow the parlor) and their literary ambitions (Huldy writes a diary full of swooningly wicked fictional men taking advantage of her; Agatha ghost writes love letters to innocent young governesses) are clearly meant to evoke the Brontë sisters. And like the Brontë sisters, Agatha and Huldy have a wicked brother named Branwell.

“He gambled,” says Agatha sternly. “He deflowered virgins. He ran up considerable debt.” And eventually, she gets tired of it: “One gets sick of cleaning up after others. And then one wishes to be rid of them.”

So she locks Branwell in the attic, like Jane Eyre’s Rochester did to his mad first wife.

It’s an ingenious reversal: The patriarchy has gotten to be a nuisance, so let’s do to it what it does to women. Let’s put the madman in the attic, and let the madwoman out to wander free on the moors.

The Brontë sisters may have invented the trope of the madwoman in the attic, but they are the original madwomen on the moors too. They are the witchy heroines kicking and biting and scrabbling their way to literary history.

But it’s Branwell — disappointing, underachieving Branwell — who many still think was probably a genius, despite having very little proof, and who makes his sisters feel so urgent and important to us today. He gives us a face for the figure his sisters are kicking and fighting against, and a name for the implacable forces arrayed against them.

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