DESPITE being the product of the same tiny Yorkshire parsonage as his successful sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, Patrick ‘Branwell’ Brontë (1817-1848) will forever be remembered as one of England’s greatest dilettantes.
The story of how a well educated, ambitious young man was left in the shade of his sisters’ literary success remains a knot of mystery biographers and historians have tried to unravel ever since a string of untimely deaths cut the Brontës’ output short in 1855.
The truncation of four literary careers has always drawn the focus from the siblings’ few books to their abundant juvenilia, which reveals great imaginary empires with characters not unlike some of the sisters’ later heroes and heroines. Branwell was an inherent part of the tight-knit creative cluster that created these unique fantasy worlds.
Although harsh realities eventually came to dominate childhood musings. In a parson’s family with multiple mouths to feed, where a mother had died young, and daughters outnumbered sons three to one, expectations weighed heavily on Branwell’s shoulders from a very young age.
No doubt he welcomed the attention, and while his sisters were sent away for their schooling, he was educated by his father at home, with the aim of getting him accepted into Oxford or Cambridge.
“Small early successes may have seemed too much like baby steps for Branwell.”
But the hoped-for pathway to university never materialised, possibly because Branwell had other ideas. Many of his young adult years were spent in the pursuit of success as a visual artist, particularly as a portraitist servicing the pre-photography tradition of upwardly mobile families having their likenesses recorded as an expression of their gentility.
His early enthusiasm and promise seemed to be flooded by his other enthusiasm – alcohol-soaked carousing with friends. After several failures at an array of careers, by his very early twenties, just like his sisters, Branwell ended up tutoring the children of the rich in private homes.
For Charlotte, Emily and Anne, the drudgery of governess work proved great fodder for their adult fiction, and drove them to seek other forms of income; whereas Branwell escaped the high level of responsibility that tutoring required into a surprising occupation for a creative young man – the management of a new railway line, part of the network that was being rolled-out across the north of England in the 1840s.
The income was good, although giving up his prospects as a portraitist, poet, and scholar must have weighed very heavily on this entitled young man. Without critical rewards, Branwell soon neglected his post and took to drinking, got sacked due to missing funds, and backtracked into tutoring.
He lasted two years, a good effort compared with his sisters’ governess work, but the stability didn’t last. Something happened in the home where Branwell tutored, something later described in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte as ‘bad beyond expression’.
It’s long been assumed that Branwell had an affair with the wife of his employer. Letters to his friends and his poetry hints at an unrequited yearning for Lydia Robinson, but to the present day a full-blown affair remains only an assumption.
Whatever the truth, Branwell was sacked in 1845 and he really had only one place to go.
If he expected to return as some missing hero to the literary hotbed his childhood home had become, he certainly was an entitled fool. In his absence, the once invisible door to creative collaboration with his sisters had been firmly closed.
He may have been the one to shut it, when he took a bunch of childhood tales and tried to adapt them into new forms for publication. Whether this disconnect was a direct result of Branwell’s attitude, his addictions, his ambitions, his guilt, or all of the above, he swiftly declined under the same roof as his sisters’ ascent.
There is very little evidence that Branwell was ever capable of applying himself to creativity long term, although it’s routinely overlooked that he was the first of his siblings to have work published, albeit under a false name – ‘Northlangerland’ – in local newspapers.
Having unsuccessfully pestered the editors of Britain’s prestigious Blackwoods magazine for years, these small early successes may have seemed too much like baby steps for Branwell, and without the perspective of sobriety, he probably never saw his own worth.
At the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth there is still a wealth of atmosphere to be experienced, although the closeness of the quarters is striking.
Without a hint to the outside world (or the world within), it was here that Branwell’s sisters wrote their poetry and their first trio of novels, and where the path to publication under pseudonyms began in 1846.
The sisters’ writing sessions must have been executed in espionage-like conditions to keep the truth from Branwell, but there is no way anyone could have hidden a well-developed drinking habit in this intimate setting.
Although their output was immune to whatever fuss they feared from their brother, Charlotte, Anne and Emily could not escape a far more deadly interference.
Branwell’s addictions probably masked consumptive symptoms, and he’s a handy source of blame for giving his sisters one of the 19th century’s deadliest killers – tuberculosis (TB).
This chronic condition is highly contagious, and before the advent of antibiotics almost a century later, it could be a swift killer. Despite his death certificate listing bronchitis and emaciation, Branwell succumbed to TB in September 1848. Emily died of it by December the same year. Anne tried convalescing at Scarborough on Yorkshire’s coast, but died in May 1849.
Charlotte may have thought she’d escaped, but, after ‘coming out’ as a female novelist, tasting London society for a brief time, marrying, and writing more novels, she too died of the disease in 1855.
While it’s clear Branwell frittered-away his life on booze and opium, he may not have been the source of the Brontë family TB. In 1825, two elder sisters – Maria and Elizabeth – contracted it while away at school. All the Brontë siblings may have been infected when both girls were brought home to Haworth to die, and subsequently carried the disease into adulthood.
Despite the extreme sense of failure that surrounds Branwell, we have him to thank for the only known portraits of the elusive Emily Brontë, the woman who wrote Wuthering Heights, one of the most passionate and enduring stories about human relationships; and one of only a few likenesses of Anne Brontë, writer of the first English novel in which a woman slams a door in the face of her husband – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
The power of these womens’ imaginations can only be fully appreciated when we remember that neither is known to have had romantic relationships, and both had witnessed plenty of bad behaviour among the men in their patriarchal world.
Charlotte Brontë’s striking features were captured by a man whose career Branwell would have aspired to – artist George Richmond – in a portrait revealing the essence of an emergent participant in the English literary scene.
Richmond’s skill only highlights Branwell’s shortcomings. In her brother’s earlier work, painted when he was a teenager, Charlotte is merely estimated as a two-dimensional bystander to another’s glory.
Much has been made by writers and historians about the mysterious ‘ghost’ in Branwell’s group portrait of his sisters – was it a self-portrait, painted-over in a fit of pique at his sisters’ success?
It’s a tempting theory, since the figure was once the focus of the composition, surrounded by sisters gathered like acolytes. Unfortunately the painting had access to too many hands after Branwell’s death (many who might have blamed him for the family’s demise) for us to be sure it was him who erased the central figure.
Branwell’s only surviving self portrait (apart from his self-effacing cartoons) is a quick sketch of his profile. It’s as immediate and sinuous as a Matisse sketch, undoubtedly his finest single piece of creative expression, and could only have been executed using two mirrors.
This once-removed quality may have allowed him to see himself, truly, for long enough to create a lively, almost modern likeness.
In the light of his three-decade attempt to express himself through poems, essays, portraits and fiction, Branwell Brontë’s self portrait reveals a flash of genius amidst a wealth of failure. He remains a champion of the fine line between the two.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.