The Brontes: To Walk Invisible

Anne, Emily, Branwell, and Charlotte Bronte in a painting by Branwell around 1834.  He later painted himself out of the portrait. www.

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

On March 26, 2017, PBS broadcast the film To Walk Invisible The Bronte Sisters. I found this title curious since the film devoted a great deal of time to Branwell Bronte, the sisters’ only brother. Branwell cast a shadow over the lives of his family for multiple reasons: he was the only male heir; he was as talented as his sisters; and he was an alcoholic and drug addict. That the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were superbly gifted writers goes without saying. However, Branwell remained the unrealized talent.

For my Senior Seminar as an English major at Indiana University Bloomington in the 1970’s, I was fortunate to have been accepted into the seminar, “The Brontes,” spearheaded by Professor Susan Gubar. We read everything, and I do mean everything, poems, novels, and unfinished manuscripts, written by The Brontes, including Branwell. Jane Eyre’s pluck and compassion; Heathcliff’s virility and vulnerability, Helen Graham’s defiance and liberation thrilled me no end. Yet Branwell’s dissolute living seemed to me to stem from a sense of fear and sense of inferiority. He certainly could have applied to study art in London, but he shrunk from what? The competition? His possible lack of great talent? Whatever his demons, Branwell squandered his money on drink, and then returned to his father’s home at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, England. He painted portraits, worked on translations of the classics such as Homer, and composed poetry.

I found Branwell intriguing. I mused about what his life must have been like with the intellect and writing grandeur of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne under the same roof. His sisters elected not to reveal to him the success of their novels, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey because they feared upsetting him. Clearly Branwell turned out to be a disappointment, having thwarted his own considerable talents, and having engaged in a liaison with his employer’s wife, Lydia Robinson, which resulted in another loss of a job. Branwell’s behavior worsens as To Walk Invisible progresses, as it did in reality. The continual havoc he inflicted upon himself and upon his family becomes increasingly hard to watch. His death serves as a relief that put him out of his addictive thrashing and raving, opium as the drug of choice and the alcohol. All I could think of was what I pondered in my Senior Seminar class on The Brontes all those years ago: such tormented talent cast aside. I even wrote my lengthy Seminar paper on Branwell. To Walk Invisible rekindled my interest in Branwell, in spite of his demons.

Ciao for now.


Facts are, in Fact, Facts

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, commonly known as 1984

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

I have been lately contemplating what changes mean. Certainly we have witnessed the emergence of populism in our government; furthermore, we have experienced 2016 as the warmest year on our planet. One change that I find troubling is the recent rhetoric regarding “alternative facts”.NPR’s broadcast on The Two-Way, on January 25, 2017, discussed how Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post cited the phrase from George Orwell’s book, 1984. She talked about 1984  On CNN’s Reliable Sources, in which Tumulty said “alternative facts” was a “George Orwell phrase.” Expanding on that idea in an interview today Tumulty said it reminded her of the double speak found in 1984 where “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”

Within Orwell’s 1984 dystopian society, “alternative facts” are actually prevarications, falsehoods. For example: Fact: The earth is spherical in shape. What would an “alternative fact” be, that the earth is flat, an idea prevalent during the Middle Ages? If I remember my earth science class correctly, Isaac Newton proved the earth is spherical in shape in the 17th century, although he was aware that Greek astronomers in the 3rd century B.C. believed as Newton did. Another example: Fact: The earth rotates around the sun, a fact Copernicus presented in the 16th century, although those savvy Greek astronomers wrote about a heliocentric universe in the 3rd century, B.C. Is an “alternative fact” one that adheres to the ancient belief that the sun rotated around the earth? Thanks to my former earth science teacher, I retained these facts. Facts are, in essence, facts, and as such are not open to “alternative facts”.

In my many years of teaching in higher education I have stressed the importance of doing one’s own work, and not resorting to plagiarism. I informed my students that anyone who cheats, likely would cheat in larger things later in life. The example I use is Bernard Madoff. There is a sense of pride in doing  one’s own work; there is little dignity in scamming from the work of another. Another salient point I present is that of the student who attempts to steer the class conversation in a different direction in order to deflect from the reality that the student did not do the homework. Or the student simply has nothing to say on the class subject because the student is so ill-informed that he tries to redirect the conversation in order not to highlight his own ignorance.

Purporting fabrications and distortions of facts and truth are behaviors we attempt to correct in children. To hear and read about adults engaging in such nefarious behavior is both an affront to our dignity and an insult to our intelligence. George Orwell understood this.

Ciao for now.