Wednesday 16 February 2022

Review: Walking the Invisible, Michael Stewart (2021)

I was working at digital media company Refinery29 when I first encountered Michael Stewart. The ARC (advance reader copy) of his 2018 novel, Ill Will, was up for grabs on the freebies table. Mixed in with other books, as well as lipsticks and leggings, sent to our editorial team, Ill Will caught my eye. It was the subtitle which captured my attention: The Untold Story of Heathcliff. Not only was I a Brontëphile, with a Master’s in nineteenth-century literature, but I was also in the midst of writing my own Brontë-inspired novel—the book that would become Brontë’s Mistress (2020). 

By the time I read Stewart’s novel in January 2019 (and reviewed it for this blog of course!), I had an agent, but no book deal. By 2020, my novel was being released in the midst of a global pandemic. One silver lining was that the uptick in virtual book events meant writers could now straddle the Atlantic. Soon, Michael and I were appearing at multiple events together, along with other Brontë-related writers. We helped raise money for the Brontë Parsonage Museum by speaking at the Brontë 2020 conference. We spoke together at the Historical Novel Society North America’s conference too. And in 2021, Michael chatted to me on Instagram Live, while trespassing somewhere in the English countryside. It was very on brand. 

Of course, then (although Michael and I are yet to meet in real life!), I was excited to read his latest (non-fiction) book, Walking the Invisible, which was published last year. Part memoir, part history book, part hiking guide, Walking the Invisible is hard to categorize. It’s a book born out of Stewart’s love of nature and the Brontës, and as much about our century as it is about the nineteenth. He doesn’t shy away from talking about the social challenges and changes facing many of the towns, big and small, the Brontës lived in, and moves between education, political commentary, and personal anecdote seamlessly.

The book makes you want to walk in Stewart’s (and the Brontës’!) footsteps and I can’t wait to visit Yorkshire again with the volume in hand. I especially loved reading about the genesis of the Brontë Stones project—a group of stones with poems honoring the sisters, which walkers can visit in the Thornton/Haworth area—and about the wide range of personalities whom Stewart has encountered due to their voracious love of the Brontës. He doesn’t offer a definitive answer as to why so many of us continue to be fascinated by one of literature’s most famous families, but his book will be a valuable artifact speaking to the early twenty-first-century version of the Brontë Myth (one which owes more to Kate Bush than to academia).

My only (small!) gripe was with Stewart’s reference to Edmund Robinson (husband to Lydia Robinson—the mistress of my novel’s title). He includes an often repeated but false rumor that Lydia Robinson’s husband was old and decrepit, encouraging her to take solace in Branwell Brontë’s arms. In fact, Edmund was a year Lydia’s junior. 

Overall, I highly recommend Walking the Invisible. It would make a great gift for Brontë fans, and I can see this one flying off the shelves at the parsonage bookstore for years to come.

What book(s) would you like to see me review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you haven’t already, check out my novel Brontë’s Mistress, for more Brontë scandal.