To Walk Invisible uses outdated ideas about Branwell

To Walk Invisible’s Branwell Brontë

If you have any interest in the Brontë family at all, you’ll likely enjoy Sally Wainwright’s biopic To Walk Invisible. It tells the story of the Brontë sisters journey into publication and into fame and, with an excellent script and a fantastic cast, it truly is an excellent film. My only criticism is that it doesn’t treat Branwell very well.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: 1848 was not Branwell’s finest hour. Dismissed from his post at Thorpe Green for a possible affair with his employer’s wife, the revelation that he couldn’t be with the woman he loved sent Branwell into a pit of despair, drink, and drugs. And that, largely, is the Branwell shown in To Walk Invisible. That said, there are some historical inaccuracies (turn away now if you don’t want to see any spoilers!)

One scene sees Emily relate to Anne the tale of Branwell’s ill-fated trip to the Royal Academy in London. Branwell was to visit the Academy to provide his portfolio in the hopes of studying painting at the prestigious institution. The story goes that he didn’t make it to London, instead spending all his money on drink in Bradford and concocting a tall tale about being robbed. It’s a great narrative moment, but it isn’t true.

Branwell did indeed study painting with local painter William Robinson, and there were plans for him to attend the Royal Academy. A letter was even drafted seeking his admission. But it was never sent. The Royal Academy has no record of Branwell’s application, and there is no evidence of Branwell’s journey (or lack thereof).

Instead this tale has its basis in fiction; Branwell wrote a story of a young man visiting a city and being too nervous and overwhelmed to introduce himself to those he had planned to meet. Whilst it is always tempting, and even accurate, to draw biography from a writer’s fiction, there is no evidence to back it up in this case. In fact, there were plans for Branwell to spend a summer in Europe to further his painting career; if he could not be trusted with hard-earned money in London, no-one would suggested sending him to the continent.

To Walk Invisible should not be criticised for this inaccuracy; it was, and still is, a widely believed myth about Branwell, and To Walk Invisible is not a documentary. No doubt the myth was included to make a better narrative (which it does), but it’s always good to be able to separate the fact from the fiction.

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