Tuesday 11 April 2017

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About Branwell Brontë by Katherine Clements

Branwell Brontë, self portrait

This year marks the bicentenary of Branwell Brontë's birth. The Brontë Parsonage Museum is celebrating with a fantastic new exhibition dedicated to ‘the forgotten Brontë’, curated by Simon Armitage. With this, the recent BBC biopic To Walk Invisible, which focuses heavily on Branwell (read my review here), it seems much is being done to rehabilitate Haworth’s failed literary bad boy. While his reputation as dissolute alcoholic, opium addict and failed artist might hold truth, his place in the Brontë legacy remains fascinating and crucial. Here are ten nuggets I’ve recently learned about him:

1. He was ambidextrous. It’s said that Branwell could write equally well with either hand and could even write two different letters at the same time.

2. He was a Freemason. Championed by family friend John Brown, Branwell was inducted into the Three Graces Lodge on 29th February 1836. He was young – not yet nineteen – but with John Brown’s recommendation he thrived, rising to Master Mason and becoming Secretary in 1837.

3. He was a member of the Haworth Temperance Society. His father, Patrick, was key in establishing the Haworth branch and acted as president from 1834. Branwell became secretary for a time and would have signed the pledge, ‘We agree to abstain from Distilled Spirits, except for Medicinal Purposes and to discountenance the Causes and Practice of Intemperance.’

4. As a child, he collaborated with all three sisters on their writing, spending many hours in the creation of the Angrian and Gondal sagas. Some have argued that Branwell was the key creative force in the household. Scholars have identified clear threads in the Brontë novels that link back to their childhood stories (in fact, they never really stopped inhabiting the fantasy worlds that they created as children), leaving us to wonder if the sisters would have become the writers they did if it hadn’t been for their brilliant, imaginative brother.

5. Branwell hoped to become a painter and planned to study at The Royal Academy. A note, found among his papers, reads: ‘Sir, Having an earnest desire to enter as a probationary student in the Royal Academy, but not being possessed of information as to the means of obtaining my desire, I presume to request from you, As Secretary to the Institution, an answer to the questions – Where am I to present my drawing? At what time? And especially, Can I do it in August or September.’ We don’t know if a final draft of this letter was ever sent, though both Charlotte and Patrick mentioned the plan in other correspondence. It’s not clear whether Branwell ever made the trip to ‘present his drawings’ – there are no letters on the subject in the archives of The Royal Academy.

6. He did, however, give us the only surviving portrait of his sisters – the now famous image that hangs in The National Portrait Gallery, as well as the fragment (usually said to be Emily) that hangs beside it. Originally a portrait of all four siblings, painted sometime around 1834, Branwell subsequently replaced himself with a pillar. No one knows why.

Branwell's portrait, with his own image painted out © National Portrait Gallery

7. In 1837 he wrote to the poet, William Wordsworth. After an unsuccessful stint as a professional portraitist in Bradford, Branwell transferred his ambitions to poetry. Wordsworth never replied to the lengthy epistle, though he did mention it to fellow poet Southey (to whom Charlotte had similarly written for advice), expressing disgust at Branwell’s audacity and saying that the letter contained ‘gross flattery and plenty of abuse of other poets.’ The letter survived and is currently on display at the Parsonage, on loan from the Wordsworth Trust.

8. Branwell is said to have read part of an embryonic draft of Wuthering Heights aloud, as his own work, in a pub near Haworth. Local poet, William Dearden, recalled the event many years later and the story was corroborated by a mutual acquaintance. Both claimed that Branwell’s tale was so similar that when Wuthering Heights was published they recognised it immediately. There are several theories as to how this could have happened but, as Daphne Du Maurier points out in her biography of Branwell, the seeds of Heathcliff can be traced back to the Angrian stories and the siblings often borrowed from each other’s work. As Charlotte put it, Wuthering Heights was ‘hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials.’ Could it have been based on Emily’s collaborations with Branwell?

9. He couldn’t hold down a job. He left a position as tutor for the Postlethwaithe family of Broughton House under a cloud, was dismissed from his post as station master at Luddenden Foot over discrepancies in the accounts and was sacked from a position as tutor for the Robinsons at Thorpe Green where, it's often claimed, he had an affair with the mistress. Branwell’s mental downfall is often attributed to this last doomed romantic entanglement, but whether it really happened, or was a figment of his imagination, has never been proven.

10. He probably never knew of his sisters' publishing success. By the time his three sisters had their first novels published in 1847, Branwell was already seriously ill, suffering from alcohol and opium addiction, and increasingly mentally unstable. The sisters famously kept their identities secret, even within their close circle, and may have decided that it was best to keep Branwell in the dark, for fear of a volatile reaction. Though hard to believe, there is no evidence that he ever knew. It is a sad demonstration of the chasm that had opened between Branwell and his sisters as their stars ascended and his health declined.

A drawing by Branwell, of death at his bedside.

The cause of death on Branwell’s death certificate is ‘chronic bronchitis and marasmus’ (wasting of the body). It’s likely he was suffering from tuberculosis – the same illness that was soon to take both Emily and Anne. Branwell last left the Parsonage on 22nd September 1848. He was found in the lane between the church and the Parsonage, unable to walk home. He was put into the bed he shared with his father and died two days later. 

Charlotte said of her brother 'I seemed to receive an oppressive revelation of the feebleness of humanity; of the inadequacy of even genius to lead to true greatness if unaided by religion and principle. When the struggle was over … all his errors, all his vices, seemed nothing to me in that moment … he is at rest, and that comforts us all. Long before he quitted this world, life had no happiness for him.'

Mansions in the Sky is on at the Bronte Parsonage Museum until 1st January 2018.



Julia Ergane said...

It is the bicentennial (200 years) of his birth, not his centennial (100 years). The Bronte's were definitely a very strange family with a real proclivity towards mental illness. Emily and Charlotte are especially shown to be that way through their literature. In some ways I almost think that Charlotte committed suicide by marrying late (late pregnancy was a very dangerous thing to attempt, especially in the area where they lived).

Katherine Clements said...

You are right of course, Julia - a slip of the keyboard!

Anonymous said...

I think Branwell Brontë shared the fate of many only sons in families: Great, too great expectations were heaved on this boy, who turned out to be unsuited to a 'normal' everyday live. No wonder given the admiration he earned from the whole family. Leaving the comfort of this isolated nest, his ambition soon crashed with reality. Maybe he was highly gifted, but he wasn't unwilling or unable to proof this. Besides he was indeed a really poor painter.