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Branwell Brontë – literature’s never-was

GHOST WRITER? Does this portrait of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë include an erased self portrait of their brother Branwell?

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’.

LITERARY HOTBED The Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire.
LITERARY HOTBED The Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire.

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.

WRITER'S FACE Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond.
WRITER’S FACE Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond.

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.

BAD BOY Branwell Brontë's self portrait.
BAD BOY Branwell Brontë’s self portrait.

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.

PLUCK COVER copyThis article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.

Sumner Locke Elliott – loved us but left us

PINK EXPAT Novelist, Screenwriter & Playwright Sumner Locke Elliott (main photograph by Lorrie Graham).
PINK EXPAT Novelist, Screenwriter & Playwright Sumner Locke Elliott (main photograph by Lorrie Graham).

WHEN Australians challenge progressive thinkers to pack up and leave if we don’t love what’s happening politically in our country, it brings to mind the ones who actually depart as a form of protest.

With his intriguing, genderless, triple-barrelled name, novelist, screenwriter and playwright Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991) remained almost unknown in the country of his birth for much of his life, because he left it early and rarely returned.

I am sure many Australians still have never heard of the writer of the iconic Australian novel Careful, He Might Hear You.

Heavily autobiographical, this riveting debut tells the story of a boy who is fought over by a pair of aunts in post-Depression Sydney. Despite being steeped in the matters of Australians between the wars, it was written in New York.

But it was Elliott’s last book – Fairyland – published in 1990 that really bookended his life.

“Expats often get a bad name, especially when they heed the bogan’s call to ‘love’ or ‘leave’ our shores, but Elliott had the courage to do both.”

Having only experienced gay characters in E.M. Forster’s Maurice up to that point, here was something very thrilling for a closeted Australian man in the year he reached his twenty-first birthday. 

Elliott’s swan song gave me a silent credibility as an Australian who found himself in similar circumstances (minus the conscription).

A product of the theatre community in Sydney during and after WWII, Sumner Locke Elliott made his name with his 1948 play Rusty Bugles, the story of a group of army recruits stuck in the outback, produced at Sydney’s Independent Theatre before an extensive national tour.

But Elliott never saw a single performance of what became the first Australian play to be staged simultaneously in two states. He was, by its opening night, in New York.

The great mystery of Elliott’s life remains why, after this dramatic relocation and eventual re-identification (he became an American citizen in 1955), did he turn to writing in such detail, across many novels, about the country he turned his back on?

Long before turning to fiction after the age of forty, Elliott rode the early wave of screenwriting in America. His New York Times obituary credits him with the role of lead writer on more than thirty live television broadcasts during the 1950s.

At least one of these dealt with an Australian subject. Televised in November 1948, (when the Sydney media noted Elliott was ‘visiting’ the USA) his Australian play Wicked is the Vine (also set in the outback) was broadcast on WNBT New York.

But the patriotic fervour ended there, at least for American television audiences. Elliott continued to write for the small screen, including scripts for Kraft Television Theatre, Westinghouse Studio One, and later, Playhouse 90. As the names suggest, these series were heavily advertiser-focussed, and therefore tended to present palatable classics, but the work put Elliott in the pathway of many of America’s producing, directing and acting luminaries.

Most of the scripts required ingenious adaptations of well-known storylines (such as Jane Eyre and Little Women) for the fast-paced live television machine.

The pay for writers was not huge. The secret to success seemed to be sheer prolificacy. Writer and New York denizen Helene Hanff (author of 84, Charing Cross Road) also wrote for the New York television industry.

In her first book Underfoot in Show Business (1961), Hanff describes how the once flourishing East Coast TV behemoth collapsed almost overnight and decamped to Hollywood in the early 1960s, leaving many of its writers behind.

Elliott had as many failed Hollywood and Broadway dreams as Hanff, but the most documented of these was his failure to land the screenwriter’s job for a highly anticipated film – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Elliott took Truman Capote’s characters – the nameless gay protagonist and the prostitute Holly Golightly – and created a screenplay that by all accounts was faithful to the eccentricities of the original.

Lengthy Paramount studio memos, however, reveal grave concerns about the overt effeminacy of the male lead, and anything that got in the way of a conventional love story between he and Holly. On advice, Elliott and his screenplay were quickly dumped from the production.

Like Hanff, Elliott used what might have been a disappointing turn of events into a new writing identity, by turning his typewriter to recording his own experiences.

CUSTODY BATTLE Poster for 1983's 'Careful, He Might Hear You'.
CUSTODY BATTLE Poster for 1983’s ‘Careful, He Might Hear You’.

Careful, He Might Hear You was published to great acclaim in 1963, winning that year’s Miles Franklin Award.

After an intense fifteen-year period adapting the work of other writers for the small screen, this novel unleashed Elliott’s true voice.

He had a lot to say, and until his death, he wrote a novel every two to three years.

Among this crop of titles, Eden’s Lost (1969) and Water Under the Bridge (1977) stand out as explorations of the Australian identity, from the perspective of an expat looking objectively back at his homeland during the morally repressed inter-war years.

Expats often get a bad name, perhaps because they heed the bogan’s call to ‘love’ or ‘leave’ our shores, but Elliott had the courage to do both. He wrote about this country with an objective explorer’s courage, and a deep understanding.

Eventually, middle Australia caught-up with Sumner Locke Elliott, when Water Under the Bridge was adapted for television in 1980; followed by the sumptuous big screen version of Careful, He Might Hear You in 1983; and capped-off by an ABC mini-series of Eden’s Lost in 1991.

Elliott’s coming-of-age dramas landed like a surprise in the thick of Australian popular culture, taking a swag of Australian Film Institute awards and finding him a new home-grown audience.

However, he eschewed complex family drama for his next, and last, novel, Fairyland. A smattering of reviews explained that the author was ostensibly coming out with this piece, written from the perspective of a boy who grew to become a successful writer and moved to New York.

Protagonist Seaton Daly explores the homosexual underclass of the Sydney amateur dramatic scene, the army, and, after coming to dubious terms with his sexuality, ultimately encounters the most devastating form of prejudice a gay man can face, far from home.

Fairyland was an extremely courageous move for a writer who’d hidden his sexuality for so long, was well known for plundering his own life story for fictional source material, yet lived long enough to reach a time when homosexuality was no longer illegal in his homeland.

It placed Elliott’s legacy way out in front of gay Australian writers like Patrick White, whose literary award Elliott had been awarded in 1977. The cranky established modernist and the cautious emerging popular writer met, late in both lives, but found little in common.


They moved in different worlds, and in Fairyland, the boy who bore his mother’s middle name had, in a sense, finally come home in a way that Patrick White never managed to despite returning decades earlier, and I like to think that the success of Sumner Locke Elliott’s books on home turf encouraged the man to finally come out.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.

The wilderness years of Meryl Streep

STREEP’S AHEAD Meryl Streep in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (Photo: Josh Weiner).

AT the age when society would have preferred I formed a teen crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger, I developed an addiction to the work of Meryl Streep.

It started with a video night for my mother and one of her nursing friends. The film was Sophie’s Choice (1982). I plonked myself down in a bean bag, thinking it would be a bit of a distraction. Then the magic began …

As the layers of grief were stripped away in this story, Streep took her flaying knife and removed the last of my outer shell, piece by piece, as she led me through the guilt of Holocaust survival.

In many ways, the experience opened my heart, and my willingness to allow this idea of pain to be planted in my consciousness came with the stark realisation that I was quite different to other boys.

But Streep’s work was always a great solace for that realisation, and I devoured it all, willingly.

By the time she played Sophie Zawitowski’s devastating journey, she’d already portrayed a few ‘difficult women’ – a terrible pop-culture term to describe complex female characters. Female protagonists, basically.

Think Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), the mother who does the unthinkable and leaves not only her husband, but her child. Think Sarah Woodruff in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), the governess who entraps a society gentleman in her web of melancholia.

Sophie Zawitowski was every bit as elusive, with her escapist surrender to the sensations of sex and play in the wake of her years in Auschwitz.

Soon after, Streep took on the role of Susan Traherne in the screen version of David Hare’s Plenty (1985) – perhaps one of the most ‘difficult woman’ characters in postmodern theatre. Perpetually dissatisfied, Susan tries to make herself happy through work, motherhood and relationships, but none of it matches the adrenalin rush of her years as a WWII resistance fighter in France.

This role was eclipsed by Streep’s turn as the more romantic Karen Blixen in Out of Africa (1985). Although Blixen was just a less abrasive ‘difficult woman’, with her corrupt marriage, her refusal to bend to colonial rules, and her devotion to a man who expressed little more than a transitory connection to her.

VILIFIED MOTHER Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (Photo: Vivian Zink).

Streep’s portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain, accused of fabricating the abduction of her baby by a dingo in the Australian desert in A Cry in the Dark (1988) was her most stunning transformation to that point. A woman of strong faith who disdained the role of victim, Chamberlain was vilified, tried, jailed and exonerated for the murder of her daughter Azaria.

By the end of the 1980s, Streep went on to play the intriguing role of sex queen Mary Fisher in She-Devil (1988), based on Fay Weldon’s novel about a ‘difficult woman’s’ revenge; and was the ultimate female control freak in her portrayal of President’s wife Eva Peron in Oliver Stone’s political musical masterpiece Evita (1989).

This unstoppable run continued with Streep’s turns as Miss Kenton, the housemaid who niggles at the heartstrings of the head butler in Mike Nichols’ production of Remains of the Day (1991); and as formidable poet Joy Gresham, who opens C.S Lewis’ heart in Shadowlands (1993).

Hang on … is that right? This writer’s got it wrong, hasn’t he? Check your facts, Mike! Meryl did chase the dingo from her tent, but you’re treading on the careers of Emma Thompson, Debra Winger and Madonna!

Okay, rewind …

To date there has been no comprehensive biography of Meryl Streep. If there ever is, to be complete, it must explore her ‘wilderness years’, where critics and film buffs rather generously describe her as experimenting with comedy and the action genre.

British film critic Barry Norman interviewed Streep in 1993 and asked her outright why she agreed to be part of She-Devil at all. Drawing him with one of her sharp stares, she put on a slightly comic voice and said: “Because I liked the one they did over here …”, referring to the BBC’s 1986 adaptation of Weldon’s novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

What might have attracted Streep was the original atmosphere, and climax, of the book and the TV series, which required the actress playing Mary Fisher to also play the very She-Devil herself. It was a plot twist like no other, and to have seen it in Streep’s hands would have been a real cinematic treat, but it was left out of the schlocky Hollywood version.

Streep’s preparation for the role of Eva Peron – singing and dancing rehearsals, and the recording of some of the musical’s tracks for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s approval – are well documented. A 1989 New York Times article cited security concerns about planned location work in Argentina, and an escalating budget complicated by Streep’s salary demands during delays in the doomed Oliver Stone production.

Mike Nichols was to direct Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Booker Prize winning novel Remains of the Day, and screen tested Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep for the leads. In an incident which has had only cursory exposure, Nichols did not believe this casting would work. Why that might have been the case (especially since both appeared to widespread acclaim in The French Lieutenant’s Woman a decade before), is unknown. A 1994 New York Times interview with Streep outlined how nobody had the guts to inform her, and confirmed that she sacked her longtime agent as a result. The Nichols-Pinter version was shelved until Merchant Ivory picked up the material, with new leads.

So why did Meryl Streep – a two-time Oscar winner at this point – find it difficult to land the roles she wanted? Had demanding a ‘pay or play’ clause during production delays on Evita labelled Streep as ‘difficult’ as her characters?

In the absence of any objective analysis, we’ll have to wait until Streep opens up.

MERYL'S CHOICE Streep as Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County.
MERYL’S CHOICE Streep as Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County.

By the time Clint Eastwood was on board to direct and star in The Bridges of Madison County (1994), plenty of other actresses had been talked-up for the female lead, but Eastwood got Streep’s number from Carrie Fisher (screenwriter of Postcards from the Edge), circumvented any Hollywood agent protocols, and asked the actress if she was remotely interested?

Streep reportedly upped-sticks and arrived in Iowa for filming at the drop of a hat.

The role of farm wife Francesca Johnson does not seem like a ‘difficult woman’. At first glance, she appears anaesthetised by her circumstances, but she’s a kind of dormant volcano, much like I imagine Streep was at the time.

The movie gave her another chance at a slow flaying of the viewer’s hide, in the role of another European woman, seemingly exiled in America.

By the time she’s removing the last layers, the similarities between Sophie Zawitowski and Francesca Johnson are obvious. The emphasis on significant life choices for both characters was a reminder for audiences of Streep’s other great characterisation of a decade earlier.

The Bridges of Madison County was also a return to relatively low production budget for Streep, and she remarked on Eastwood’s relaxed shooting style, which relied less on rehearsals and post production and more on the ability to come prepared and turn on the skill for the cameras.

Over the next five years she worked her way through a series of more veiled ‘difficult women’ like Francesca – Kate Mundy in Dancing at Lughnasa (1998) stands out as the strongest of these.

DIFFICULT DEVIL Meryl Streep as magazine editor Miranda Priestly in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (Photo: Barry Wetcher).

But she broke through into her old territory as Roberta Guaspari in Music of the Heart (1999), another ‘won’t take no for an answer’ protagonist.

By The Devil Wears Prada (2006), audiences were responding in a way they hadn’t at the box office since Out of Africa two decades before. Streep recalls reaching a new male audience with this movie, playing magazine editor Miranda Priestly as a serenely powerful figure, who maintains control even when everything is crumbling around her.

The takings of this movie and the smash-hit Mamma Mia paved the way for Streep’s masterstroke as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011).

At last we got to see her claim a third Oscar for making us come to terms with the human being behind a Baroness who once ruled a nation.

As usual, not everyone was happy to see Streep shine – she’s always had her detractors. But despite not getting votes from film critic Pauline Kael (who always reserved a special kind of venom for Streep), and Katharine Hepburn (who claimed to hear the mechanics of technique ‘clicking’ with a Streep performance), legions of fans voted Streep’s role as Sophie Zawitowski into third place (and highest position for an actress) in Premiere Magazine’s poll ‘100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time’.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

PLUCK COVER copyThis article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded