LURID: Branwell Brontë—Wastrel or Romantic Hero?

Branwell Brontë died 168 years ago this weekend, on September 24th, 1848.  His cause of death was listed as “chronic bronchitis and marasmus”, a polite way of saying he was a coughing, half-starved, alcoholic, laudanum-addicted wreck who finally, mercifully, proved unequal to the struggle of drawing breath.

He lived just long enough to witness the first glimmering of what his sisters would become – Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published in 1847, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848.  This cannot have helped his condition. Once, too, Branwell had dreamed of becoming a celebrated author, but, like his other plan to set the world on fire as a renowned poet and portrait-painter, or to marry his one great love, his literary ambition had dissolved into the bottom of a brandy glass.  Charlotte, Emily and Anne deliberately kept Branwell out of discussions about their work. They knew their success would choke him.

Branwell was a coughing, half-starved, alcoholic, laudanum-addicted wreck who finally, mercifully, proved unequal to the struggle of drawing breath.

They failed, however, to keep Branwell out of the legends that grew up after their deaths.  He only published a few poems in his local newspapers during his lifetime, but Branwell’s name is forever associated with the nineteenth century classic novels written by his sisters.  The Brontë label is a powerful one, conjuring up lowering skies, windswept moors, unbridled passion and haunting poetry.  Although Emily, Anne and Charlotte’s novels are all unique, common threads run through all of the books. Theirs was the Romantic impulse at its most pure and intense.

Readers couldn’t – and still can’t – get enough, but unfortunately the sisters died young and only produced a volume of poems and seven novels between them.  However, Elizabeth Gaskell published her Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857, whetting readers’ appetites for more dramatic, shocking stories not by the Brontës but about them.  Gaskell inspired a slew of secondary texts, part fact, part fiction, about the sisters’ eccentric lives – and their supposed loves.  It was impossible to spin yarns about Anne, Charlotte and Emily without including their brother, a controversial figure who loomed large on their collective horizon.  And so Branwell became an integral part of the Brontë literary legacy.

It’s easy to see why biographers have been drawn to Branwell, although he was not the irredeemable black sheep many of them would have us believe.  It’s all too tempting to view Branwell as another Brontë anti-hero, brooding and bitter, flummoxed by failure and resentful when his talents fell short of his sisters’.  The truth is more complicated, and more poignant.

Branwell was born on June 26th, 1817, the fourth of the six Brontë children, and the only son.  His father, Patrick, had achieved great things in life and had great expectations for the only boy in his brood. The son of a lowly Irish farmer, he had clawed his way into St. John’s College, Cambridge, and thus hoisted himself up many rungs of the social ladder.  When Patrick brought his young family to Haworth in 1820 he had high hopes that his position as a clergyman would pave the way for even greater advancement for his offspring.

Patrick felt the best chance of future security would come through education.  Although the family was respectable, they were far from wealthy, and all the Brontë children needed to be prepared to earn their own living.  The girls had few prospects. At that time, a job as a governess or teacher was a clergyman’s daughter’s only hope for some small measure of financial independence.  After their mother’s death (from cancer), the four older girls, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, were sent away to school at Cowan Bridge, but Patrick decided to educate Branwell at home.  This is possibly because of Branwell’s rumored epilepsy (it was considered a considerable disability, even insanity in the 1820s), but more probably because Patrick knew no finer scholar than himself – who better to nurture the sparks of genius in his beloved only son? So he tutored Branwell in the finer points of Latin, Greek and Mathematics, in the belief that responsibility for the family’s future rise in the world rested on the boy’s spindly shoulders.

However, Fate had more cruel tricks in store.  Maria and Elizabeth did not fare well at school – they both contracted tuberculosis, and were brought back home to die in the summer of 1825.  After their older sisters’ deaths, the four remaining Bronte siblings became a closed circle, centered on the Haworth parsonage.  Their family circumstances, although sad, were not considered particularly tragic for the time.   Things were a lot worse outside the parsonage walls. The infant mortality rate in industrial Haworth was almost fifty percent and the average life expectancy for those who survived beyond infancy was twenty-five years.  This may have been down to the open sewers and shared privies – frequent outbreaks of typhoid meant Patrick conducted up to eight funerals a day in the crowded graveyard adjoining the family home.  Insulated from the worst of Haworth’s grim living conditions, the Brontës grew up in conditions uniquely – if accidentally – engineered to cultivate their creativity and imagination.

Despite the loss of their mother and sisters, their comparative poverty and isolation, and the perpetual damp seeping from the stone flags of the parsonage, the Brontë children had an inspiring and even enviable childhood.  They took lessons together in the mornings, enjoyed the blustery freedom of the moors in the afternoons, and spent their evenings reading books and newspapers with their father, who saw no reason to shield his children from the darker political and social scandals of the day.  Their favorite periodical, Blackwood’s Magazine, championed the work of Romantics and radicals such as Byron, Wordsworth, Hogg and Shelley. They developed a taste for the Gothic by listening to the housekeeper, Tabitha Aykroyd, retell her favorite local legends and ghost stories.  All this fed into their fictional creations, the African kingdom of Glass Town, the empire of Angria, and the island nation of Gondal, domain of Emily and Anne.  They drew maps and portraits, constructed histories and genealogies, and wove an elaborate web of political and romantic stories in these settings.  Taking their cue from Blackwood’s and Byron, these stories were of love and betrayal, heroism and dastardly dealings.  Initially, they were written in books so tiny Branwell’s toy soldiers could read them. Huddled round the dining room table or pacing up and down, the siblings became each others’ inspirations and adversaries, muses and critics — the best kind of writing partners.  

Branwell tended to dominate the narratives, coming up with concepts such as ‘Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine’, full of stories written by himself and Charlotte under various pseudonyms, and moving on to the next thing when he was bored.  While Anne and Emily focused on the female-ruled island of Gondal,  Charlotte and Branwell wove their tales of Angria in tandem, sharing common characters and history, critiquing and satirizing each other’s creations.  The endless round of battles, rebel uprisings, political campaigns, romantic rivalry and melodramatic death scenes owed much to the novels of Walter Scott, the Arabian Nights, the Iliad and the Aeneid. Charlotte’s champion was Arthur Wellesley, Marquis of Deuro.  Branwell favored Young Soult, a poet, in whose voice he wrote verses, and the dashing (and sometimes debauched) nobleman Alexander Percy, Earl of Northangerland, who bore more than a few similarities to his idol the Duke of Wellington.  Despite the fact they had never ventured more than a few miles from Haworth, the siblings wrote confidently about their fictional city, Verdopolis, and the upper class intrigue that fuelled their narratives.

When Charlotte picked up her formal education again, leaving for Roe Head boarding school in 1831, Branwell continued to immerse himself in Angrian adventures, devising situations for Charlotte to respond to when she came home for the school holidays, and once even walking the twenty miles to the girls’ school to appraise her of an important new development.  Angria was the wellspring of constant discussion and invention, as real to them as the Yorkshire moors, a place they both escaped to, well into their twenties, when the pressures of reality became too much to bear.  

In late adolescence, Branwell began to feel the heat about settling into a career – which he had every confidence would be illustrious.  He believed he could make a good living as either a poet or a portrait painter.   He was studying the latter with a tutor, William Robinson, who somehow failed to pass on the rudiments of mixing proper paints and preparing canvases.  This meant that much of Branwell’s extant work has disintegrated over time, including his most famous portrait (and his main claim to posterity) which now hangs in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery.  Painted around 1834, it portrays his three sisters. Branwell sketched himself into the group, but then, for whatever reason, painted a pillar over the top.  Over the years, the pillar has faded, and the ghostly image of Branwell peers over his sisters’ shoulders from the shadows.  Although accidental, it captures the Brontë dynamic perfectly.

Branwell was also writing poetry and pursuing his dream of seeing it published in his beloved Blackwood’s Magazine.  In December 1835, following the death of longtime Blackwood’s contributor James Hogg, he wrote one of the most pompous query letters ever penned by an adolescent poet:

I have perhaps spoken too openly respecting the extent of my powers, But I did so because I determined to say what I beleived [sic]; I know that I am not one of the wretched writers of the day… He [Hogg] and others like him gave your Magazine the peculiar character which made it famous: -- As these men die it will decay unless thier [sic] places be supplied by others like them. Now Sir, to you I appear writing with conceited assurance, -- but I am not – for I know myself so far as to beleive in my own originality; and on that ground I desire of you admittance into your ranks… Why, you have lost an able writer in James Hogg and God grant you may gain one in

Patrick Branwell Brontë

There has been much conjecture about Branwell’s plan at the age of eighteen to attend the Royal Academy as a painter.  The apocryphal story has him arriving in London, showing up at that noble institution and being so intimidated by the quality of others’ work that he spent all his available funds on drink and returned to his family in disgrace.  There is no evidence this ever happened, however, as both Patrick and Branwell were aware that he lacked the necessary artistic sophistication.  In order to expand his portfolio, and give him the primo cultural experience of the era, plans were made for Branwell to go on a Grand Tour of Europe.  He joined the Freemasons in Haworth in preparation (the best international network available), but nothing else came of it.  As ever, the Brontë dreams stretched much, much further than their purse strings.

Eschewing further education, Branwell set himself up as a portrait painter in nearby Bradford, where he met other young artists who drank at the George Hotel.  Branwell was always a popular fellow drinker, witty, lively, prepared to discourse on many topics, cutting a distinctive figure with his red hair and the Irish lilt inherited from his father, despite the years immersed in broad Yorkshire.  He did some well-received work, but he was neither committed nor talented enough to earn a living.  He was perhaps too distracted by his parallel dream of becoming a writer.  He certainly doubled down on his writings about Angria in 1836-7.  He explored the idea of an isolated farmhouse on the edge of the moors, Darkwall, a house of secrets with a drunken householder abusing his beautiful wife – an early prototype for Wuthering Heights or Wildfell Hall, perhaps?  For the first time, but not the last, Branwell returned to Haworth with his tail between his legs.

His next adventure in employment began on New Year’s Day, 1840, when he took up a position as tutor to the Postlethwaite family, in Broughton-in-Furness in the Lake District.  This seemed like an ideal situation for an aspiring poet, especially one so in awe of the Lake Poets.  Unlike Charlotte and Anne, who, as live-in governesses, were expected to be on call to their charges 24/7, Branwell was committed to only a couple of hours a day of tutoring, and could devote plenty of time to his own poetry.  He lived in lodgings, away from the Postlethwaite residence, and could come and go as he pleased.  He wrote boastfully to his drinking and Masonic buddy, John Brown, that he managed to present a sober façade to his employers:

“If you saw me now, you would not know me, and you would laugh to hear the character people give me…What do they think I am? most calm, sedate, sober, abstemious, patient, mild-hearted, virtuous, gentlemanly philosopher, -- the picture of good works, and the treasure house of righteous thoughts – Cards are shuffled under the table-cloth, glasses are thrust into the cupboard if I enter the room.  I take neither spirits, wine, nor malt liquors.  Everybody says ‘what a good young Gentleman is Mr. Postlethwaite’s tutor…”

That façade soon crumbled. Branwell lasted less than six months at the Postlethwaites and was summarily dismissed after it was discovered he had fathered a child (which died) with a local servant girl.  He once again returned to Haworth, where it is doubtful he confessed the real reason for his dismissal to his sisters.

Branwell’s next job, beginning in October 1840, was with the Leeds and Manchester Railway, as the ‘assistant clerk-in-charge’ at the new station of Sowerby Bridge, around eleven miles south of Haworth.  Railways were the major start-up of the 1840s, and the Brontës were excited about Branwell’s prospects for promotion.  Sowerby Bridge was close to the cultural bright lights of Halifax, and Branwell had high hopes of establishing himself as a leading figure in literary circles.  However, in April 1841 Branwell was transferred to Luddenden Foot, a rural village further up the line.

Subsequent biographers have blamed this shift for Branwell’s descent into alcoholism.  One of his co-workers, engineer Francis Grundy, painted a grim picture of Branwell’s life in the village:

"Had a position been chosen for this strange creature for the express purpose of driving him several steps to the bad, this must have been it.  Alone in the wilds of Yorkshire, with few books, little to do, no prospects, and wretched pay, with no society congenial to his better tastes, but plenty of wild, rollicking, hard-headed, half-educated manufacturers, who would welcome him to their houses, and drink with him as often as he chose to come, -- what was this morbid man, who couldn’t bear to be alone, to do?”

However, Grundy was writing forty years after the fact, and playing into Gaskell’s definitive view of Branwell as the black sheep. In fact, it seemed that Branwell had a lot of cultural stimulation and spent his time communing with men of a sophisticated nature.  He enjoyed free rail travel in and out of Halifax, Bradford, Manchester and Leeds, where he met with other artists and writers.  He began to have his poetry published in the Halifax Guardian newspaper, which prided itself on representing the best poetry of the day.  These poems often drew on Angrian themes and were credited to his teenage nom de plume – ‘Northangerland’.

And yet, Branwell still blew it. He was dismissed at the end of March 1842, over a discrepancy of £11 1s. 7d in the Luddenden Foot ledgers.  There was never any suggestion that he had stolen the money himself, more that he had failed to supervise both the books and his underlings properly.  It was back to Haworth for the not-so prodigal son.

Branwell’s final foray into the outside world was his most melodramatic.  In January 1843 he joined Anne at Thorp Green Hall, where she had already spent three years as governess to the Robinson family. Anne thought Branwell could do well as tutor to the eldest boy and recommended him for the job — a course of action she would later come to regret.  Initially, Branwell was sickly and miserable at Thorp Green, chafing at the loss of independence and status from his railway job, but after a few months he settled in and even became enthusiastic about his position.

Foolishly, Branwell began a flirtation with the lady of the house, the vivacious (and fifteen years older) Mrs. Robinson.  Debate has raged about who initiated the affair and how far it went.  Many (including Gaskell and the most recent Brontë biographer of note, Juliet Barker) believe Branwell was the seduced, not the seducer.  Lydia Robinson was so much older, his employer, and of considerably higher social status, so it seems unlikely that even Branwell, his head stuffed full of Angrian fantasy, would take the initial risk.  Her husband, Edward, was in failing health, and it’s entirely plausible that she sought comfort in the attentions of the witty young tutor and perhaps even played him off against her crotchety, aged spouse.  Branwell, writing to his railway pal Francis Grundy, gave this account of his downfall:

"This lady (though her husband detested me) showed me a degree of kindness which, when I was deeply grieved one day at her husband’s conduct, ripened into declarations of more than ordinary feeling.  My admiration of her mental and personal attractions… all combined to an attachment on my part, and led to reciprocations which I had little looked for.  During nearly three years I had daily ‘troubled pleasure, soon chastised by fear’.”

The affair, and Branwell’s employment, came to an abrupt end in July 1845. Anne must have had some inkling of what was about to go down because she resigned in June. She and Branwell were on summer vacation in Haworth when a furious letter arrived from the Reverend Robinson, who had clearly discovered the illicit entanglement occurring under his own roof.  Charlotte reported on events to her friend Ellen Nussey thus:

"I found Branwell ill – he is so very often owing to his own fault – I was not therefore shocked at first – but when Anne informed me of the immediate cause of his present illness I was greatly shocked, he had last Thursday received a note from Mr. Robinson sternly dismissing him, intimating that he had discovered his proceedings as bad beyond expression and charging him on pain of exposure to break off instantly and for ever all communication with every member of his family."

Some biographers have suggested that “bad beyond expression” implies Branwell was guilty of some actual criminal act, such as forgery, or child molestation.  He was never prosecuted for anything, however, and, later, when Gaskell pointed the finger at Lydia as “a depraved woman” in her Life of Charlotte Bronte, the Robinson family remained silent, suggesting that the affair was real, and mutual.

Branwell was devastated and, under the disapproving eyes of his sisters, sought solace in alcohol and opiates and occupied himself with writing moody, lovelorn sonnets.  He also became the first sibling to work on a novel, And the Weary Are At Rest, part Angrian epic, part fictionalized version of his affair. More misery was to come, however.  A year later, Branwell heard the happy news that Edward Robinson was dead.  His reaction was ecstatic, not only because of the potential rekindling of romance:

"I had reason to hope that ere long I should be the husband of a Lady I loved best in the world... I might live at leisure to try to make myself a name in the world of posterity, without being pestered by the small but countless botherments, which like mosquitoes sting us in the world of work-day toil”.

Branwell’s glee at the prospect of finally achieving wealth and status – albeit by marriage – was short-lived. Mrs. Robinson sent her coachman to Haworth to inform her erstwhile lover that a clause in her husband’s will prevented her from having any contact with him again – on pain of total disinheritance.  It was a lie.  There was no such stipulation – she simply wanted rid of him.  She had no further use for the impoverished son of a curate and would go on to marry again two years later, a wealthy widower twenty-seven years her senior, Sir Edward Dolman Scott.

This was the beginning of the end for Branwell.  From boyhood, he had dreamed of a magnificent future, a life lived not quite as large as his alter-ego, Arthur Percy, perhaps, but not far off.  Lydia’s rejection slammed the door shut on all his dreams, and he sank into a deep, abiding depression.  Alcoholism and consumption did the rest.  He died, surrounded by friends and family, after a long night spent contemplating his wasted life.  Charlotte wrote:

"When the struggle was over – and a marble calm began to succeed the last dread agony – I felt as I had never felt before that there was peace and forgiveness for him in Heaven.  All his errors – to speak plainly – all his vices seemed nothing to me in that moment; every wrong he had done, every pain he had cause, vanished… He is at rest – and that comforts us all long before he quitted this world – Life had no happiness for him.”

After Emily, Branwell is by far my favorite Brontë.  I’ve never truly appreciated angsty Anne, who tied children to a table, nor can I ever (EVER!) forgive Charlotte for destroying Emily’s second novel. He is the patron saint of wannabe literary greats.  To waste opportunity, squander talent, fail to deliver, to quite literally piss it all up the wall of the pub within easiest stumbling distance is to be quintessentially Branwellian.  He could have been a major cultural contender, the fourth Bronte, the brother as celebrated as his sisters, yet he just could not.  His sisters faced the exact same obstacles of obscurity and poverty – and were, additionally, women – but they huddled round the parsonage dining room table and wrote their way through adversity to triumph.  Rather than joining them, Branwell drank himself to death in the Black Bull, just down the lane.  His death at thirty-one was a tragedy.  Had he lived longer, and recovered from the Robinson debacle, buoyed by the success of his sisters, who knows what he could have become?  Perhaps it wasn’t talent that Branwell was short of, but time.

You have to hand it to him, however, for busting the gender stereotype wide open. Throughout history it’s usually the sisters who have remained in the shadows, their talent unrealized – just ask Nannerl Mozart.  In pressuring his only son to achieve great things, Patrick Brontë set the seal on Branwell’s self destruction, and, paradoxically paved the way for his sisters to shine their literary lights. Then they all died young. Patriarchy breaks everyone.

So, raise a glass for Branwell Brontë, this weekend on his death date, and in future, every time you fuck it up, or realize you’re further from achieving your goals than you used to be or find yourself boasting to your bar buddies about ambitions you’ll never actually achieve.  Think of his shadowy figure leering over the shoulders of your own family portrait, and lament.

Image of The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family
Author: Juliet Barker
Price: $14.58
Publisher: Pegasus (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 1184 pages
Image of The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte (Virago Modern Classics)
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Price: $15.95
Publisher: Virago (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 320 pages
Image of Branwell: A Novel of the Bronte Brother
Author: Douglas A. Martin
Price: $13.95
Publisher: Soft Skull Press (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages
Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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