To Walk Invisible: A Review (contains spoilers!)

 

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Image from Daily Express

I first saw that the BBC was going to make a drama about the Brontë sisters a few months ago, and I have been looking forward to it ever since. The Brontë sisters are some of my favourite authors and reading Jane Eyre at the impressionable age of 15 was, I would say, the beginning of an interest bordering on obsession which has lasted for years.

To Walk Invisible was directed and written by Sally Wainwright, and aired on BBC One on 29th December: a festive TV treat.  It began with a surreal opening scene, featuring the four surviving Brontë siblings playing one of their favourite childhood games, set in their own fictional world of Gondal.  This is pretty much all we see of their childhood and next thing we know, the siblings are grown adults; the girls busy writing and going for walks across the dramatic Yorkshire moors, and Branwell is drinking himself into an early grave.  All of the actors were well-cast for their roles.  I particularly liked Chloe Pirrie as Emily Brontë.  She gave a very earthy yet at times, very impassioned, portrayal of Emily that seemed to reflect the characters from her only published novel, Wuthering Heights.  Charlie Murphy played Anne as she is always shown to be: sweet tempered, gentle and a bit of a pushover.  I did not warm to Finn Atkins’ Charlotte Brontë, but then neither did I warm to the (what I assume to be accurate) account of the real-life Charlotte I have come across in several biographies.  Of course, Jonathan Pryce could not fail to give a compelling and empathetic performance as the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Adam Nagaitis was a pathetic and at times, hateful Branwell.

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Image from radiotimes.co.uk

The first half of this drama was rather slow, I felt, and for those of us who may already know a few facts about the Brontës, it was a somewhat frustrating pace.  In particular, the drama seemed to focus very heavily on Branwell and how he drank.  I felt it was a shame for the drama not to show much of the childhood of these extraordinary people.  It might have added context to the way in which the sisters treated Branwell in their adult life.  I also felt it was something of a disservice to show only this side of Branwell, which sadly is pretty much all he is ever known for anyway.  Given that in one of the final scenes, the famous portrait of the three Brontë sisters is shown, it might have been nice to have had the artist – Branwell Brontë – credited earlier.  His end was sad and untimely and self-inflicted, but that is not all that there was to him and it is interesting to consider what he might have achieved had alcohol and drugs not had such a hold over him.

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Image from wikipedia

The pace picked up a little once the girls began to write their most famous novels and sought out publishers for them.  The scene in which Charlotte tells her father that she is the famous author of Jane Eyre is particularly touching and one gets a real sense of how brave, how thrifty and how ground-breaking these young women were.  The script alludes to the fact that at the time, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre were all viewed as fresh and radical.  It gives an idea also of how celebrated Charlotte was in her own lifetime and how successful.  This is further accentuated in another charming scene when Charlotte and Anne visit London and reveal themselves to their publishers.

After this, the drama moves quickly towards its tragic and, in my opinion all too abrupt close.  Inevitably, Branwell drinks himself to death and the sisters have to deal with the aftermath.  Charlotte and Patrick are shown in tears – a hint of what was to come.  The scenes we then view are from the modern day: images of the Brontë parsonage as it is now with its plastic covers protecting the table at which the novels were written and its bright and airy visitor centre and shop.  I liked the contrast and how tangible it made the history feel.  However, what I did not like was that the end of Emily and Anne’s lives was relegated to some typed text at the bottom of the screen, and the odd choice not to feature the rest of Charlotte’s.  Although sad, I think it a shame that we did not see how Charlotte dealt with the death of her siblings, or how went on to be celebrated further and to marry before she died of pneumonia in 1854.

I do not know if the writer had a specific purpose in showing only this small section of the life of the Brontë family, but as a viewer and a fan, it did seem that several important episodes which might have shed a little more light on the quiet and largely unfamiliar Brontë story, were unfortunately omitted.  That being said, To Walk Invisible was an interesting drama and worth watching for the performances of the actors.

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Image from radiotimes.co.uk

 

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen by Alison Weir

 

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Image from Amazon.co.uk

Elizabeth of York was the first Tudor queen.  When we think of the Tudors, our thoughts fly first to the notorious Henry VIII, and to another queen called Elizabeth, but Elizabeth Tudor is often overlooked.

I first became intrigued about this interesting and admirable lady when the BBC showed an adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen.  This is a brilliant, engrossing series which I would recommend to anyone with an interest in historical drama but what it led me to read was something more factual and more focused: Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York, The First Tudor Queen.  Though fascinating and unbelievably dramatic, I was always felt very confused about Medieval royal history in Britain.  I know there were several kings called Edward, there was someone called Elizabeth Woodville (whom I had previously supposed was the same person as Elizabeth of York), and there was a long series of wars called ‘The Wars of the Roses’, which ended with Richard III’s death, and Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne.  After that, things become clearer to me with the dawn of the Tudors.  I was very thankful, therefore, to find that Alison Weir begins her biography by explaining something of the politics of the time and about Elizabeth’s parentage.  It turns out that Elizabeth Woodville was Elizabeth Tudor’s mother.  A young widow with two children, she married King Edward IV in 1464 and bore him several children, of whom Elizabeth of York was one, as well as two sons who went on to become those poor little princes in the Tower of dark historical fame.  The marriage was a happy one and Elizabeth Plantagenet enjoyed a happy childhood, but her troubles began when her father died suddenly in 1483.  This is perhaps also when Elizabeth’s true strength of character was formed.  A hangover from the years before Edward IV’s relatively stable reign, as soon as he was dead, various factions began vying for the crown.  His sons were probably captured and murdered; by whom remains a mystery to this day.  Elizabeth Woodville kept the rest of her family safe in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey.

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville

In July 1483, Richard, Elizabeth’s uncle was crowned king and Elizabeth had to live not only with the devastating realisation that two of her siblings, (to whom she was allegedly very close) were probably dead, but also with resentment as, in these tragic circumstances, she should have inherited the throne. To appease matters, Richard eventually invited Elizabeth, along with her sisters to court.  At this time, several rumours began to circulate that Richard in fact desired his niece and even killed his wife, Anne Neville so that he could marry her.  In her biography, Weir dismisses these rumours, and clears Elizabeth of any desirous feelings herself.  Instead, she had her betrothal to a young man named Henry Tudor to keep her going.

In 1485, King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  Shortly afterwards, Henry Tudor, against whom he had been fighting was crowned king.  One of his first actions was to inform his parliament of his intentions to marry Elizabeth of York.  The wedding took place in January 1486, and resulted in widespread celebrations and jubilation all over the country.

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Elizabeth of York and Henry VII (image from thehistoryvault.co.uk)

From the very beginning, Elizabeth was a popular queen.  She represented a unity between two families and an end to the bloody wars that had raged on for years.  She also conducted herself exactly as a renaissance queen was expected to.  In many ways, she complimented her husband, who is generally remembered as someone who could appear rather cold and harsh.  Elizabeth emerges from the pages of Weir’s biography as someone who was warm, grounded, clever and loving.  She enjoyed a very happy marriage to Henry Tudor, who seems genuinely to have loved her despite the arranged and political nature of their union.  Together, they had several children, one of whom grew up to become King Henry VIII.  He was allegedly always very fond of his mother and felt her loss acutely when she eventually died.  One interesting narrative thread that Weir explores is the sense of quiet and uncomfortable unease with which both Elizabeth and Henry must have lived surrounding the legitimacy of their claims to the throne.  As far as many people were concerned at the time, Elizabeth was the true royal in their marriage and it was through Henry’s marriage to her that he achieved his right to the throne.  There was also the dark shadow cast over Elizabeth by the uncertainty of what had happened to her brothers all those years before when she was effectively a captive in Westminster Abbey.  If it ever turned out that her brother, Edward, had not been killed, but had in fact perhaps been living abroad until it was safe for him to return, then where would that place her and her husband.  More tantalising is the question of how would she have felt?  In 1497, she was faced with such a dilemma when a young man named Perkin Warbeck claimed that he was Edward V and attempted to invade England.  He eventually surrendered to the king’s army and was hanged on 23rd November 1499. Without wishing to trivialise the emotions that must have been felt by the husband and wife, such events must have created a significant amount of awkwardness, resentment, suspicion and maybe even guilt between the couple.

Despite their tempestuous beginnings in life, Elizabeth and Henry were successful rulers; their reign was one of stability, peace and economic growth.  Their marriage was mutually supportive, fair and affectionate.

On the 11th February 1503, Elizabeth died a few days after giving birth to a daughter.  Her death though the result of a short illness, was unexpected and untimely.  She was widely mourned and Henry shut himself away for six weeks after the funeral, suffering mentally and physically.  Indeed, Weir argues that from this point on, Henry’s health steadily declined until he died in 1509.

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Image from henrytudorsociety

A couple of months ago, I visited Westminster Abbey with my brother.  I had not been there since I was a little girl and so my memories were hazy, but I remembered having been very impressed by the glorious and ostentatious tomb of Elizabeth I, and that of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  This time, it was the tomb of Elizabeth of York that arrested my walking and forced me to stop and contemplate.  Standing there below her saintly carved image, it was moving to consider the gentle and romantic queen lying somewhere close by.

How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore – A Review

 

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image from wendymoore.org

Firstly, I would like to say that the subtitle of this book: ‘The true story of one gentleman, two orphans and an experiment to create the ideal woman’, does not do the content of this work justice.  How to Create the Perfect Wife focuses on the socially awkward and eccentric Thomas Day, a gentleman who was born on 22nd June 1748 in the East end of London.  After his father’s death one year after he was born, he became the heir to a substantial fortune which would ensure that he would never have to work.  He was, it would seem, very intelligent and had a true desire to do good in the world.  In 1773, he and his friend, John Bicknell produced one of the earliest published attacks against slavery, a poem called  The Dying Negro, which opened readers’ eyes to the cruelty and injustice of slavery at a time when it was also very fashionable.  Day was not afraid to be unique and to stand up for what he believed in.  He did not care about fashionable clothes, or about leading a frivolous party lifestyle, though he could certainly have afforded to.  Instead, he wanted nothing more than to live a quiet, frugal and self-sufficient life, far away from the bustle and materialism of London society.  He took his inspiration from the popular philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and decided that to complete this idyllic dream, he would need a devoted, humble and hard-working wife by his side.  And here, we have to flaw in his character; the extraordinary experiment that Day set upon, with the full knowledge of his closest friends, to adopt two young orphans and raise them to be his future wives.  When one proved more suitable than the other, he would abandon the scheme for her and concentrate on the winner.

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Thomas Day by Joseph Wright image from wikipedia.org

The two girls that Thomas Day chose were Ann and Dorcas, or as he later named them, Sabrina and Lucretia.  Moore gives a very moving account of their early lives in the foundling hospital and of the lives of the women who had to give up their babies to such a fate at this time.  She goes to great lengths to explain the status of someone with no known parentage, which was essentially non-existent in 18th century Britain.  No doubt Day felt he was doing these girls a favour then, and perhaps in some ways he did.  Both were provided with an education and with money as Day had promised in a contract he drew up with a friend before the scheme went ahead.  The life of the girls under Day’s guardianship was extraordinary, as is the reaction of the people with whom they mixed.  Moore regularly draws comparisons with modern sensibilities and invites us to                                                                    question how such a man would be viewed today.

Yet this book focuses on so much more than this one social experiment.  In it can be found a wealth of information about 18th century society, the lives of the rich and the poor, the laws at the time, and an insight into the lives of some very interesting characters.  Day’s close friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth should have a book all to himself.  Poignantly, each chapter is named after an important woman in Day’s life, and I cannot help but feel that this is a deliberate choice of Moore’s to give status to these second-class citizens, whom Day really did not seem able to understand or empathise with.  Moore delves into what their thoughts and feelings might have been.  This is difficult with the likes of Ann and Dorcas, whose early experiences were overshadowed by the way in which Day wished to portray them.  But Moore’s research is meticulous and they emerge from this book as full of life and as real as the men whose lives were so much more heavily documented.

The writing of this book is extremely compelling and after reading it, I felt that there was something tragic about the life of Thomas Day and indeed some of the women who featured.  That is what struck me – what Day did was undeniably wrong and at the very least, selfish, yet he did not intend to be a selfish person.  It was in his very nature and his province to help others.  So what we have here is a comprehensive account of a complex human being – one who seems to jump out of the pages at you as if he were flesh, and forces you to ask uncomfortable questions, to feel disgust at certain behaviour and to try to understand why it took place.   I think that’s all one can ask for from a biography.  It is simply fascinating.