One of the defining images of the Brontë family, displayed on the cover of Juliet Barker’s epic biography The Brontës, is Patrick Branwell Brontë’s group portrait of his sisters. This is marred by a mysterious white pillar painted between Emily and Charlotte where the artist painted himself out. Long after the deaths of those pictured, the audience can only guess the meaning. Did Branwell erase himself out in a fit of self-hatred, or was it a family member who was ashamed of him? As the painting aged and grew more translucent, and was subjected to more scientific tests, it emerged that Branwell had only sketched in his outline, suggesting he painted himself out early in the process as an artistic decision, not an emotional one.[1] Nevertheless, the image stands as a tidy metaphor Branwell’s posthumous reputation two-hundred years on from his birth – a blank space in the middle of his sisters’ narrative onto which the viewer projects their own impressions.

Patrick Branwell Brontë was born in Thornton, West Yorkshire on 26th June 1817. His mother died when he was four and the Brontë children were raised in Haworth parsonage by their clergyman father, Patrick Brontë, and their aunt. While four of Branwell’s five sisters were sent to Cowan Bridge boarding school – which later formed the model of the brutal Lowood School in Jane Eyre, and where the two eldest, Maria and Elizabeth, died – he was tutored at home. Patrick Brontë was a strict father, but one who sincerely valued knowledge and literature and allowed his bright, precocious children free run of the parsonage library. The siblings developed elaborate fantasy worlds, inspired among other influences by a set of toy soldiers named after figures such as the Duke of Wellington, the work and myth of Lord Byron, and their reading of the literary periodical Blackwood’s Magazine.

Charlotte and Branwell wrote stories set in a fantasy kingdom of their own creation, Angria, whilst Emily and Anne eventually invented another one, Gondal. The siblings were remarkable dedicated to their creative worlds from an early age, producing huge volumes of stories, poetry and imagined history, and Branwell also created his own magazine, Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine, to showcase his writing. Nevertheless, Charlotte wrote most of the longest and completed Angria stories, and as Branwell grew older, the two began challenging each other for literary dominance, with Branwell wanting to focus on the military exploits of their characters and Charlotte writing stories of their romantic travails.

A sketch of a tall building drawn from Branwell Brontë’s imagination, 15 November 1833, ink on paper. Illustration: © The Brontë Society

In November 1835 James Hogg, a writer for Blackwood’s Magazine, died, and Branwell ambitiously wrote to the editor proposing himself as a replacement: “Now, sir, to you I appear writing with conceited assurance: but I am not; for I know myself so far as to believe in my own originality, and on that ground I desire of you admittance into your ranks”.[2] (One wonders whether Hogg, whose novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner features a man haunted by a ghostly and murderous double, would have been amused to see an admirer volunteering to replace him). Branwell continued to send his writing to well-known authors such as William Wordsworth, Thomas De Quincey and Hartley Coleridge (son of Samuel). He received no response, although he once visited Coleridge, who encouraged him in his writing. Anyone who loves literature and has struggled to emulate their heroes and to get their own writing read, admired and published will recognise that yearning in many of Branwell’s letters.

As the only son, Branwell received the bulk of his father’s support – financial and otherwise – towards his career. In a creative family, that meant the hope that he would make his mark as a writer or artist. It was also vital that he secure a prosperous career so that, if his sisters remained unmarried, he could provide for them after their father’s death. He travelled to London to try to gain admittance to the Royal Academy of Arts, but it is not clear whether he was rejected, or was too intimidated to present himself to them and spent his money on drink. In 1838 and 1839 he ran a portrait painting studio in Bradford, but was forced to move back home when it failed. He worked as a tutor and as a clerk for the Manchester and Leeds Railway, where he was dismissed over missing money, although his employers held that he had been careless rather than dishonest, perhaps because of his heavy drinking. During this time, he began publishing poetry and articles in local newspapers.

He worked as a tutor for the Robinsons, who already employed his sister Anne as a governess, from 1843 until 1845, when he was dismissed. According to his letters, it was because of an affair with his employer’s wife, Lydia Robinson. He returned to the parsonage – “utterly shattered in body and broken down in mind”, he wrote to a friend.[3] Today, tour guides in Haworth, made famous by Branwell’s sisters, point out the Black Bull pub as the site of his drinking binges. He was racked by alcoholism, opiate addiction, and debt. He died on 24th September 1848, most likely of tuberculosis aggravated by delirium tremens. Charlotte wrote after his death: “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement… but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise”.[4] In a poem, Emily looked back on Branwell as a “glorious child” who as an adult was undone by “trust in Pleasure’s careless guiding”.[5]

Self-portrait in profile by Branwell Brontë, c. 1840, pencil on paper. Illustration: © The Brontë Society

The life of Branwell, even more than his sisters, is haunted by absences and gaps. It is a poignant testimony to the harrowing effects of addiction and possibly mental illness in a society which lacked the resources to understand or treat them. Key questions – whether his sisters should have been more patient and understanding or less, whether he had the gift to achieve something of as much value as them if he had completed a novel, what exactly occurred during his time in the Robinson household – can never be answered now. The contrast between the life of Branwell and his sisters brings home a fundamental truth about art: raw talent and genius is incomplete without a commitment to hard, continued (and unrewarded) work. His life also acts as a cautionary tale that illustrates that if an artist has personal problems, they have to deal with them if the art is to survive. Branwell, treated as a genius in waiting because of his gender, wasted every opportunity he had. His sisters, with no one to believe in their writing talents but each other, continued writing in the face of dreary work and their own romantic disappointments, and eventually created transcendent, ground-breaking landmarks of English literature.

For many years after his death, Branwell was viewed as a shameful footnote to his sisters’ story. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), describes him as a “corrupted, weak young man”.[6] Stella Gibbons’ 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm includes the figure of Mr Meyerburg, an intellectual attempting to prove that Branwell really wrote his sisters’ novels and allowed them to take credit, pretended to be an alcoholic to cover up their drinking, and nursed a tormented love for a great-aunt in Ireland. Gibbons’ humour skewers both Mr Meyerburg – a mansplainer decades before the term was coined – and the intellectual chauvinism he stands for, which by extension includes Branwell. In the 1960s Branwell was the subject of two competing biographies. The 1960 book The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier – a gifted novelist who has herself been marginalised in the world of serious literature – was written with the aim of reinstating Branwell “in his original place”[7] as a key part of the Brontë family. It functions as a novelist’s attempts to analyse his life and psychology. It was followed in 1961 by Winifred Gérin’s Branwell Brontë, which takes a more scholarly and detached attitude to his life.

Self caricature of Branwell (1847) in bed waiting to die.

But this year, Branwell has perhaps received more attention than he ever did in life or since. 2016 was marked by a series of events to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, concluding at Christmas time with the BBC play To Walk Invisible. The play dramatises the lives of the Brontës, giving substantial screentime to the lives of all four siblings. In dream sequences, Branwell hallucinating everyone in his life watching and laughing as he has sex with Lydia Robinson. He sees the flames of inspiration shining over his sisters’ heads but not his own, and the family as children with the flames of inspiration shining above the girls’ heads but not his own – vivid visualisations of his self-hatred. The Brontë Parsonage website currently promises to dedicate each year until 2020 to a different Brontë (2019 is not an anniversary but is being used to commemorate Patrick Brontë). For Branwell’s anniversary, poet Simon Armitage is curating an eleven-month exhibition entitled “Mansions in the Sky” after an 1837 letter from Branwell to Wordsworth. The exhibition will display Branwell’s writings, drawings and possessions, new poems by Armitage and a recreation of his bedroom, described as “a chaotic and frenzied space… [like] the mind of the Branwell himself”.[8] Armitage’s poem, “William, It Was Really Nothing” imagines the painful shortfall between Branwell’s inspiration and Wordsworth’s disinterested response: “what glittered like charmed finches over Haworth Church / drifts as rain across Scafell Pike”.[9]

The latest narratives of Branwell’s life magnify the tragedy of his struggles to secure a place in the cultural pantheon. But in some ways, the sexism that allowed Branwell better opportunities than his sisters is still polishing his legacy 200 years later. If the Brontës’ pseudonyms had been true and Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were three brothers who became great writers while their sister was sacked from a governess job for having an affair with her pupils’ father, descended into alcoholism and opiate addiction and died young, would she have got a year dedicated to her? Would she be regarded as anything other than an embarrassment?

Adam Nagaitis as Branwell Brontë in BBC’s ‘To Walk Invisible’

A contrasting example might be found in the life of Alice James – the intellectually gifted sister of the novelist Henry James and his philosopher brother William, who suffered from mental illness (or “hysteria” as it was then known) for much of her life before dying young. She has never been subject to the same degree of scholarly and creative interest as Branwell. History is littered with sisters of famous men in various branches of the arts who had similar talent to their brothers, wanted to make their mark creatively and have been overlooked. Anna Beer’s recent book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music (2016), for instance, was published last year to cast new light on eight overlooked women composers, including Fanny Mendelssohn, the sister of Felix. It’s no coincidence that Virginia Woolf, exploring how social expectations stifle women’s writings, used the example of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister in A Room of One’s Own (1929). At its darkest, the desire to commemorate Branwell on an equal level with his sisters stems from patriarchy’s insistence that male perspectives are inherently as or more important than women’s.

Branwell has been dismissed, mocked and celebrated in turn, but none of these approaches is entirely satisfactory as a way of viewing his legacy. He never achieved his dreams, but his most lasting cultural impact has already been preserved – in the books he never knew his sisters wrote. They witnessed his decline and used it to inspire such characters as Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Hindley Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (1847). Branwell’s life sprouts connections with the wider culture in unexpected ways – even his relationship with “Mrs Robinson” sparks jokes about parallels with The Graduate (1967), also celebrating its anniversary this year. Branwell did not create the art that was expected of him, but he lives on, a thread in a web of literary culture.

 

[1] Hannah Furness, “National Portrait Gallery to reveal mysteries of shadowy Bronte brother”, 18th December 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/12057053/National-Portrait-Gallery-to-reveal-mysteries-of-shadowy-Bronte-brother.html

[2] Thomas James Wise (ed), The Brontës: Their Lives, Friendships & Correspondence, (Oxford: Blackhead, 1932): 134

[3] Ibid. 65

[4] Ibid. 261

[5] Ibid. 259-260

[6] Elizabeth Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Temple Scott and B. W. Willett. (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1924 [1857]): 258

[7] Daphne du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961): 14

[8] https://www.bronte.org.uk/bronte-shop/new/35/mansions-in-the-sky

[9] Emma Butcher, “It’s time to bring Branwell, the dark Brontë, into the light”, 26th June 2017.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/26/its-time-to-bring-branwell-the-dark-bronte-into-the-light