To Walk Insanity: Comparing Representations of Madness in Charlotte Bronte’s novels and the BBC drama ‘To Walk Invisible’.

Zoe Chadwick is a first-year PhD student at Newman University in Birmingham. Her research focus is on extreme representations of the mind and body in late-nineteenth century literature and culture. You’ll find her on twitter at @chadwick_zoe.

As the latest in a long line of dramatisations of the Brontë sister’s life and works, ‘To Walk Invisible’ has been well received by viewers and critics alike.[1] Written and directed by the famous Sally Wainwright, the two-hour long drama follows the life of the whole Brontë family, including the sisters, their brother Branwell and their father Patrick. Unlike other dramatisations of the life of the family, Wainwright addresses Branwell’s downward spiral into a life of mental illness, addiction and eventually death.

In this post, I compare Wainwright’s representation of Branwell’s mental illness to the sister’s representation of madness in their own novels. The comparison highlights how much Branwell’s illness influenced the sister’s writing and how accurately Wainwright depicts the way the sisters would have reacted to Branwell’s illness.

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The Brontë sisters as played by Finn Atkins, Charlie Murphy, and Chloe Pirrie in To Walk Invisible. © BBC

We see early in the drama that Branwell suffers with mental illness when, at five minutes and fifty seconds, we learn that he has been dismissed for having an affair with his employer’s wife, and he reacts violently to his father’s questioning. We also quickly see the effect that Branwell’s illness is having on the family when Charlotte, eleven minutes in, tells Anne ‘I relinquished my pen…because it frightened me, threatened to make the real world seem pointless, and colourless, and drab. In that way lies madness.’[2] Wainwright suggests here that, despite their fictional success, Charlotte if not all the sisters, had their own concerns about madness and detachment from reality. Owing to the fact that Branwell turned to alcohol addiction to detach himself from his own reality, it does seem likely that the sisters would have their own trepidations.

This is evident in Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights, in which, the violent and equally unhinged Hindley drinks himself to death, ‘He died true to his character, drunk as a lord.’[3] Emily’s representation of Hindley as selfish, unstable and violent is certainly consistent with Wainwright’s representation of Branwell’s own downward slope into addiction and depression. We can see, by combining Emily’s text and Wainwright’s imaginings of Branwell, how the home environment created by Branwell’s illness had such a profound effect on Emily’s writing. Wainwright even directly refers to the parallel between her version of Branwell and Emily’s version of Hindley at an hour and five minutes in when Emily says to Anne that ‘I would never have invented Hindley if I hadn’t been set such a fine example at home.’[4] Wainwright’s direct reference to Wuthering Heights here is poignant as there is obvious textual evidence that Branwell’s illness influenced Emily’s depiction of Hindley and Wainwright is drawing upon that foundation of characterisation in her construction of Branwell.

Despite the resentment that Wainwright’s version of the sisters feel towards Branwell, however, she does address that fact that what Branwell is experiencing is in fact depression at seventeen minutes in when in a letter to Leyland, Branwell writes ‘I found during my absence that wherever I went, a certain woman robed in black and calling herself ‘misery’ walked by my side and lent on my arm as affectionately as if she were my legal wife.’ Wainwright uses Branwell’s friendship with Leyland to represent the extent of Branwell’s illness to the viewers, despite the bitterness that the sisters show towards him at times. The sympathy that this generates from the viewers for Branwell highlights the progress that we have made in treating and understanding mental illness since the nineteenth century when compared with Branwell’s painful isolation.

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Branwell, as played by Adam Nagaitis. © BBC

Of the three sisters, it is Charlotte however, who represents mental illness differently to Wainwright’s representation in her novels. The most famous example of madness in Charlotte’s works is, of course, Bertha Mason. Who is locked away by her husband, treated like an animal and eventually burns to death in a fire started by herself.[5] In the novel, Jane Eyre, the protagonist Jane treats Bertha with pity, if not a little caution, but is largely benevolent towards the character.

In Wainwright’s depiction, Branwell is treated with contempt by Charlotte for much of the drama, which seems disjointed from the way her most famous protagonist approaches mental illness when faced with Bertha. This treatment does alter, however, after Branwell is diagnosed with ‘delirium trance’ one hour and fifteen minutes in, due to his withdrawal from alcohol. During the afore mentioned trance he almost burns the house down during his hallucination and so we see a parallel between Bertha’s death and Wainwright’s depiction of Branwell’s decline.

This diagnosis also acts as a turning point in the relationship between Branwell and his sisters. At one hour and twenty-four minutes Branwell is arrested for outstanding debt, and rather than his endless supporter Patrick, it is the girls that save him and pay the debt. From this point on Wainwright shows that the sisters begin to treat Branwell as suffering from an illness, such as Emily’s attentiveness during his night time sickness, rather than resenting him for his selfishness as they had done earlier. This seems, according to Jane’s treatment of Bertha, more accurate for Charlotte’s treatment of Branwell rather than the hostility that Wainwright has her display early in the drama.

Mental illness is notably absent, however, from Anne’s novels and so it is appropriate that Wainwright would choose to depict her as the gentlest and more compassionate of the sisters owing to the lack of anger towards mental illness in her texts. The gradual progress of the sister’s treatment of Branwell from anger to empathy in Wainwright’s drama highlights the lack of support and understanding of mental illness in the mid-nineteenth century and how the sisters took on the burden of building financial stability due to Branwell’s inability.

Whilst it is evident from Emily and Charlotte’s texts that Branwell had a heavy influence on their depictions and concerns surrounding mental illness, Wainwright’s depiction of the sister’s resentment towards Branwell is not always consistent with the pity shown towards madness, in Charlotte’s texts at least. The parallels drawn between Branwell and Hindley or Bertha in To Walk Invisible are, however, a viable and useful imagining of how Branwell may have inspired some of the most famous representations of madness in mid-nineteenth century fiction.


Works Cited:

[1] Rees, J. (2016) To Walk Invisible review: The Bronte sisters brought to fizzing, furious life. Available at: (Accessed: 03.04.2017).

[2] Bronte, C. (1847) Jane Eyre. 1999th edn. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

[3] Bronte, E. (1847) ‘Chapter Twenty-Seven’, in Wuthering Heights. 2000th edn. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, pp.161

[4] To Walk Invisible: The lives of the Bronte sisters (2016) Directed by S. Wainwright [TV Drama]. London: BBC.

[5] To Walk Invisible: The lives of the Bronte sisters (2016) Directed by S. Wainwright [TV Drama]. London: BBC.




One response to “To Walk Insanity: Comparing Representations of Madness in Charlotte Bronte’s novels and the BBC drama ‘To Walk Invisible’.

  1. Mental illness is NOT absent from Anne’s novels. What about her Tennant of Wildfell Hall? This is the prime example of how Anne saw the detrimental effect of alcohol on a human being. More so than Emily and Charlotte.

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