All the Bronte Sisters You Could Ever Want


Are you ready to wander the moors with me and Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë? Because it’s time for some serious gothic moping, bitches! Let’s get tragic and tubercular with my favorite authors and two filmed versions of their incredibly unexciting lives — as we await the American premiere of the latest Brontë biopic, To Walk Invisible, coming to PBS on March 26, 2017.

The life of the Brontë sisters has been made into movies before, even though the women really didn’t do much worth noting aside from writing their brilliant novels. Honestly, they sat around in a little house out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere England (yes, I’ve been there twice, it’s cute, but dull). They left for a few short stints to attend school and work as governesses. And then each one got tuberculosis and died. The end. Boring-ass story. OK, Charlotte went to London briefly and did marry her father’s terribly stuffy curate (that’s like an assistant pastor), and gasp she was pregnant when she died, so at least one of these chicks got laid. But no good came of it. This life story is not the stuff that high drama is made of.

Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, UK

Photo I took at my last visit to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. Maybe growing up with a cemetery in your front yard makes you predisposed to gothic drama.

Of course, that’s the mystery. It drives people crazy to think that the women who created the high drama in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had zero action in their own lives. It’s called IMAGINATION, folks! The Brontës had it, like whoa. They were well read and, in their isolation, they loved to make shit up. Their whole lives were filled with fan-fiction. Seriously, think about all the Kirk/Spock fan fiction created by women in the 1970s. With no personal experience of gay male life (and no internet for research), women created stacks of elaborate porn ‘zines, in story, verse, and pictorial forms. Don’t ask me how I know, just trust.

Anyway, back to the Brontës. I previously reviewed 1946’s Devotion, which was an awful attempt at stirring up some romance into the Brontës’ lives. Also, crappy crappy costumes, but I guess that goes without saying given the production date. I had slightly higher hopes for these two subjects, first a BBC five-part miniseries titled The Brontës of Haworth (1973) and then a French feature film Les Soeurs Brontë (1979). Let’s take them one at a time…

1834, Bronte Sisters by Branwell Bronte

Branwell painted this portrait of his sisters around 1834, and it remains about all we know of what they looked like.

Branwell Bronte

And this self-portrait doodle is all we know about Branwell.


The Brontës of Haworth (1973)

The Brontes of Haworth (1973)

With all the time in the world, this feels like you’re at home with Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Branwell, papa Brontë, and auntie. I’m not sure if this is a good thing. Yes, the five hours are thorough and historically accurate. But dayum, I’m a literary completist, and I found myself bored at times.

The Brontes of Haworth (1973)

Yup, a whole lot of derpy bonnets. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The first three episodes are dominated by Branwell’s frankly pointless life, and I’m reminded that the best thing he ever did was to paint himself out of that portrait of his sisters. It’s like he finally realized what a loser he was in comparison to his brilliant sisters. Except his goddamned patriarchal father never did! Patrick Brontë Sr. spent all his time and money putting Branwell forth in hopes the boy would be a great painter or at least make a decent living somewhere. But nope, the boy was only skilled at warming a barstool in the local pub.

The Brontes of Haworth (1973)

Why the crazy hair on Branwell? Go look at that self-portrait. Now look at this.

The Brontes of Haworth (1973)

Shitty screencap, but check the side-eye Emily gives her dad. She can’t even.

If you’re going to spend this much time on the topic, then why not delve into some details that were reflected in the Brontë sisters’ novels. The only part of their childhood we see is playing with toy soldiers, which, yes, was an influence on their fantasy juvenilia writing. But even better would have been to show the school Charlotte attended for several years, which was probably the model for Lowood School in Jane Eyre. She had been at this unpleasant boarding school with her older two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died at ages 11 and 10 when Charlotte was 9 (all the children were born within about a year of each other).

The Brontes of Haworth (1973)

This is all we see of the Brontës’ childhood — toy soldiers. Meh.

The Brontes of Haworth (1973)

I’m dubious too, Char.

There were also a number of teaching and governess positions that Charlotte and Anne took that are simply dropped. Even Emily tried teaching once and hated it terribly. But this is all glossed over fairly lightly in favor of dwelling on Branwell attempting to be a grand artist. I don’t get it — we know he sucked, and the girls triumphed, so why lionize him? I mean, other than male bias? REALLY?

The Brontes of Haworth (1973)

Charlotte sending the sisters’ writing to London publishers, that’s where the story should focus.



Les Soeurs Brontë (1979)

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Kendra has been teasing me for ages, saying I need to watch this movie for Snark Week. She’s just a hater and doesn’t recognize the true genius of the Bronte sisters. The biggest thing really wrong with this movie is that it’s French, because it’s just weird to have these iconically English writers speaking in French the whole time, especially when it’s filmed on location in north England.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Recreation of the famous painting with Branwell in the center. This has the reverse problem of most shitty paintings in historical movies — it’s TOO good; Branwell was a crappy painter so the original was a lot more homely.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Oh you patriarchal fool, Mr. Brontë.

As a 115-minute movie, it’s still a bit meandering, due to the subject matter, and there’s still too much focus on Branwell. The title is The Brontë SISTERS, “Soeurs” means “Sisters,” not “Brother and Sisters,” sheesh. This movie starts with the portrait Branwell paints of the sisters and him, and halfway through the film, he finally scrubs himself out of it. So there’s that. And while this film does show Anne’s time as a governess, her distress seems to be a mere backdrop for Branwell’s affair with the lady of the house. Yes, it happened, but again, I want more of the sisters, less of the bro story.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Poor Anne, stuck trying to teach these snooty kids.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Meanwhile, Branwell bangs the mom.

Then there’s Emily (played by Isabelle Adjani, a few years before Queen Margot) as a cross-dressing tomboy, which is quite the fictionalization. Between that and Anne’s perpetually crimped hair, this version loses a few historical accuracy points. But for sheer gothic drama and hand-staple-foreheadness, this version delivers. We’ve got moor-wandering, tortured poetry, artsy cinematography, dark hallways, enigmatic clouds, and pretentious classical soundtrack. I would have loved it a lot more if I’d seen it as an angsty teen when it first came out.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

I really don’t buy Emily wearing her brother’s clothing.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Or shooting? Nope.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Anne has a crimping iron and is not afraid to use it.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

Charlotte & Emily’s schooling in Brussels is covered, if briefly.

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

They argue about going to London to see their publishers (Emily bails on the trip).

Les Soeurs Bronte (1979)

And after her sisters die, Charlotte goes to London as a celebrity (for 5 seconds).


OK, you’ve seen the competition, and the bar is set pretty low. Now let’s find out how the Brontë sisters look on TV in the latest version. Brits have already seen it, and Americans get it next weekend. Will you be tuning in?

22 Responses

  1. SaucyMarla

    Love this article. As a funny aside, the last screen cap looks like he’s got a manbun!!

  2. andrebd

    I already saw “to walk invisible” and I loved it!
    I can’t wait to see what you gals think of it.
    There is quite a bit of Branwell in it too, but I think it’s very well justified.

    • Kendra

      All the Branwell stuff just makes me think of Cold Comfort Farm, where the horrible writer (played by Stephen Fry) who keeps hitting on Flora is writing a book arguing that Branwell wrote all of the Bronte novels!

    • M.E. Lawrence

      “To Walk Invisible” is definitely the best of the lot (although I rather liked the ’73 version, which stayed pretty true to the characters). Again, though, too much Branwell here–poor man; everybody hates Branwell–but he really was the dreadful, dreaded focus of the family at this point. I find “Les Soeurs” just hilarious: three of the great beauties of modern French cinema, moping around acting inscrutable-yet-intense, and speaking FRENCH. I don’t Charlotte would have approved of their doing this.

  3. Susan Pola

    I’m going to watch. I have a love-hate relationship with the Bronte sisters. Jane Eyre makes me either want to ‘Gibbs head slap’ or commend her for her unwavering honesty and remaining true to herself. Heathcliff makes me gag while rooting for the next generation.
    Hopefully, in this telling, they stick the patriarchy where it belongs…

  4. janette

    In some ways To Walk Invisible feels like a one hour version of “The Brontes of Haworth” without the derpy bonnets. I really enjoyed it however and look forward to your review.
    Saw the French film way back when I was in first or second year Uni and loved it at the time.(Even though I was a few years beyond the “angsty Teen” stage)
    I think the reason the schooling is dropped in most versions is that producers don’t think audiences will be interested in a kid’s perspective and the reason Charlotte’s time in Brussels is dropped is because it doesn’t reflect well on her as the rather desperate woman hitting on a disinterested married man even though that episode strongly influenced her writing. The Bramwell story is ‘safe” whether it is from a patriarchal perspective or feminist perspective. (The girls succeed while the boy flounders)

    • Trystan L. Bass

      I can see why, say, one production made those story choices, but it’s irritating whey they all do it. Get creative, folks! (Yeah, right, like any movie/TV will *sigh*)

  5. Pina

    Yay, the Brontes! I watched half of To Walk Invisible, but it was a bit too slow paced for my mood at the time. It was quite Branwell-centric, too. I agree with janette in that writers probably like the irony in how he was supposed to be the successful one but nothing came of his apirations, while his obscure sisters became so lastingly influential. He is also the odd one out among the four Bronte siblings who survived into adulthood –his sisters form such a perfect trinity– sticking out as a kind of human incongruity which modern writers love to investigate.

  6. Frannie Germeshausen

    Did Bramwell inspire the lush brother in Wuthering Heights? Anyway, here’s to the power of women’s imagination, and that we’re still trying to figure out how the hell they knew all this about love, sex and the soul after almost 200 years. To the Bronte Sisters!

  7. Stephani

    Perhaps I’ll watch just to toss some shade toward the Brontes. As a staunch Janeite, I can’t even with them. I’m probably too sensible, though. (Burney and Radcliffe make me similarly nuts.)
    Heathcliff is just a creep. Both creepy and a creeper. I give him a day-pass when played by Tom Hardy, though.

  8. Susan Pola

    I’m watching it now. Is there a polite word or phrase for ‘little sh*t’? I’m speaking of Bramwell.

  9. Jamie LaMoreaux

    Off topic a tad, I can’t believe someone remembers those horrific K/S fanfics! I worked for a sci-fi dealer that sold them under the table. we tripled the price and sold them like hotcakes. back to topic: I watched the recent PBS offering on the Bontes and yes there was way to much Bramwell. and the story, setting and characters could best be described as GRIM, Glum and Depressing. I pitied the poor father (well acted by the way) but geesh, what a terrible life! I’ll stick with Austen (being a Janeite myself!)

  10. Roxana

    No mention of the school project? For several years both before and after the trip to Brussels the three Bronte sisters seriously considered opening a school. This was the most lucrative career open to an educated lady of the time but there were problems; Charlotte hated teaching and Emily could barely deal with people who weren’t her family or survive away from Haworth. Anne was the only one of the three to successfully hold down a job and live away from home. She wasn’t happy but she made a reasonable success of it. The Reverend Bronte’s blindness and Branwell’s dipsomania were a good excuse to just drop the whole idea which they did with scarcely a sigh.
    The Bronte’s wanted to write, not teach.

  11. frankhatton

    I have a fantasy that I travel back in time. Offer the sisters an American delicacy and as they bite into it announce that it is a hot-dog. Charlotte would be furious, drop the thing on the floor. Emily would be on the floor laughing her head off. Ann would be sitting, blank faced, wondering if she should even be there.