Branwell Brontë’s The Politics of Verdopolis

The Politics of Verdopolis is an 1833 manuscript written by Patrick Branwell Brontë, better known as Branwell Brontë. For many decades, Branwell has been seen predominantly as the ne’er do well, lazy, drunken brother of the Brontë sisters who caused his family much pain, sorrow, and embarrassment. Whilst I don’t doubt the latter part of that statement, to doubt Branwell’s creativity and talent is to misunderstand the lone Brontë brother, and to fail to appreciate his role in stimulating his sisters’ own talents from an early age. Branwell is an important and influential figure in the Brontës’ literary legacy, and over recent years his role and own writings have been explored in greater detail. The excellent 2017 “Mansions in the Sky” exhibition curated by Simon Armitage at the Brontë Parsonage Museum is a wonderful example of a more modern re-assessment of Branwell.

Although he was by all accounts a restless spirit, Branwell’s dedication to extending and expanding his childhood fantasy world of Glass Town followed him throughout adulthood until his dying day. Those critics who comment that Branwell’s failures stem from a lack of interest and commitment to his various tasks need to take a closer look at his own literary legacy.  It is common knowledge that Branwell was the first Brontë sibling to see his work in print, and although this was the height of his public literary career, his dedication to his work is evident. Indeed, his literary creations outstrip those of Anne and Emily combined. Only his older sister Charlotte can rival Branwell in terms of quantity, not with her adult novels, but with her own works set in the world of Glass Town, and later Angria, a world she co-created and co-inhabited with her brother for many years. Whilst it is true that much of Anne and Emily’s Gondal saga has been lost over time, I don’t believe that it ever rivalled Branwell and Charlotte’s Glass Town/Angrian saga. Reading the early works of Branwell and Charlotte give one the impression of writers dedicated to storytelling, experimenting with characters and techniques, and honing their skills over the course of a decades long apprenticeship. The works of the younger sisters have never struck me as having the same kind of commitment to and appreciation of the art of writing itself.

The manuscript of The Politics of Verdopolis is a hand-sewn booklet consisting of eighteen pages and is housed in the Brontë Parsonage Museum where it was displayed as part of Branwell’s bicentenary celebrations in 2017. It features one of the more famous images from the Brontë juvenilia, a sketch of a tall building, probably in Verdopolis,  which Branwell’s writing wraps itself around.

The Politics of Verdopolis manuscript on diaplay at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, February 2017.

The Politics of Verdopolis is a tale is narrated by one of Branwell’s preferred pseudonyms from this era (1831-34), Captain John Flower, an eminent scholar, author, and Constitutional political candidate. Unlike, Charlotte Brontë’s best-known and preferred pseudonym, Lord Charles Wellesley (later known as Charles Townshend), Flower is fairly straight laced with his narration; there are no sarcastic comments, digs, or swipes at other characters for example. Despite the title, Branwell manages to strike a balance between politics and society life in Glass Town and parts of the tale reminded me a little of Charlotte’s 1834 narrative, High Life in Verdopolis, perhaps indicating not just a close collaboration between brother and sister, but Branwell’s influence on Charlotte’s style. One similarity is immediately apparent when Flower refers to his audience as “Reader” (Brontë) in the opening lines. It would be fascinating to discover which sibling actually used this phrase first. However, the bulk of the text is concerned with the dissolution of the Glass Town parliament and political elections, and Branwell captures the agitation and unease of the United Kingdom at the time of the 1832 Reform Bill, demonstrating his knowledge and skill at working this into the political landscape of his fantasy world.

This is also the manuscript that introduces one of the most prominent figures in the later Angrian narratives and a favourite heroine of Charlotte’s, Mary Percy. The tale begins with the figure of Alexander Percy visiting the grave of his second wife and mother to Mary Percy, Mary Henrietta Percy. This is a scene recreated by Charlotte in High Life in Verdopolis, indicating close collaboration and quite possibly the influence of Branwell in her own work. Following this, the reader is introduced to Mary herself, a proud, haughty, but beautiful girl of seventeen or eighteen years of age who greets her father and walks back towards the house with him. Mary is at this point in the saga, the only daughter of Percy (who is referred to mainly as Elrington throughout this narrative) and although he certainly dotes on her in comparison to his sons (disowned at birth) there are indications that she, like her eventual half-sister, Caroline Vernon, in Charlotte’s 1839 narrative of the same name, is a half-forgotten child as Percy ceases to think of her when absent.

The two ride into the city together, however, their time together is cut short when they arrive at the home of Lord Caversham who gives Elrington some grim political news regarding the dissolution of the Glass Town parliament. Elrington sends his daughter home and gathers his cronies and allies including, Arthur O’ Connor and Julius Gordon, and they are later joined by Quashia Quamina, a native Ashantee prince. Elrington spends the night writing letters in order to drum up political support for the Democrats in the upcoming election and throwing money around in exchange for votes. It is interesting to note that during these scenes, Branwell refers to Elrington as Rougue (Rogue), perhaps indicating his true nature and intentions of rebellion rather than just revolution. It is then revealed that Elrington’s allies will contest the seats in the election.

Shortly afterwards, Elrington meets with another crony, Sdeath, at Percy Hall, who gives him information on the Englishman, Sir Robert Weever Pelham, a new arrival in Glass Town, who Elrington is keen to recruit for the election. When the two meet, Pelham, a mix of the historical figures Robert Peel and Henry Pelham with a touch of the dandy of silver fork novels thrown in, is convinced to stand in the election by Elrington despite Pelham’s private reservations concerning Elrington’s cause. However, he is flattered at being placed in a position of such esteem by Elrington so soon after his arrival from Lancashire. The candidates are announced; Morley and Flower will battle it out with Pelham and Quashia, and Branwell conjures up the world of English politics and the public hustle and bustle of elections and speeches in the setting of Glass Town. Despite the fact Elrington is not standing for election, every eye is upon him as he takes to the podium to deliver a speech which inspires revolution and rebellion, and this combined with his dirty tactics and attempts to buy votes and trick Quashia in order to gain native support and troops, foreshadows the demagogue he will later become in Angria.

Branwell Brontë self portrait (c.1840)

Following the election, Mary awaits news of the result at Percy Hall, and although she is restricted to the domestic sphere and forced to perform the “female” duties of tea-making, her intelligence, desire for knowledge, and active mind is perhaps a nod to the females most familiar to Branwell, his sisters. Indeed, Branwell’s initial depiction of Mary is a far cry from the pathetic and passive character she becomes in Charlotte’s hands over the course of the Angrian narratives. The results of the election are announced and each party has secured a victory with Pelham winning for the Democrats, and Morley for the Constitutionals. Following his defeat, Quashia is furious and demands Mary’s hand in marriage to pacify him and secure the future support of the native forces. Although Elrington agrees, once Quashia has departed on an errand for him, Elrington reveals he does not intend to keep his promise. Interestingly, this scene foreshadows Quashia’s later attempt to secure the hand of Elrington’s younger daughter Caroline in Charlotte’s Caroline Vernon.

The arrival of Pelham at Percy Hall and his subsequent stay is intended to suggest a growing attachment between Pelham and Mary, however, there is something forced and unnatural about this pairing which may be why the blossoming relationship ultimately dissolves into nothing in later narratives. Pelham asks for Mary’s hand in marriage, and once she has consent from her father, she agrees to his proposal. Quashia is once again furious when he arrives back, having completed his errand and “attained a seat in parliament by causing to be assassinated the representative of a certain town” (Brontë), and is presented with the union of Mary and Pelham. Elrington once again manipulates him by suggesting the arrangement with Pelham is to keep him on their side and also Pelham by revealing the circumstances of his promise to Quashia. Interestingly, Branwell once again refers to Elrington as Rougue in this scene.

Following this, the scene and tone of the narrative shifts dramatically, leaving the politics behind. The reader is introduced to Elrington’s wife, Lady Zenobia Elrington at Elrington Hall who is awaiting the arrival of her husband. Her companion is the Marquis of Douro who desires to speak with Elrington. Upon their arrival, Mary is introduced to them both, and Douro is clearly enchanted by her, foreshadowing their later union. However, this is still a fairly young and noble Douro rather than the debauched libertine that he later evolves into. His relationship with Elrington in the text does however hint at the direction he will take in the narratives of the siblings. Douro is no longer as white as snow, something which is apparent from Charlotte’s 1833 narrative, Something About Arthur, a turning point in the depiction of Douro, soon followed by Branwell’s presentation of him in this text, demonstrating the close collaboration and creative sympathies between them. Douro invites them all to a ball at Wellesley House where the high life and high society of Verdopolis is presented in a manner which rivals Charlotte’s descriptions of such scenes.

Branwell was also a talented artist, responsible for this famous image of his sisters (c. 1833)

The topic of conversation is Robert Pelham and Mary Percy, who are both coming out to society. The ball is full of aristocrats, nobility, gossip, and dancing, with all political allegiances forgotten. Mary is much admired for her beauty, and even proud Pelham manages to win people over. The ball also features the first meeting between Mary Percy and a young Lord Charles Wellesley, a precocious eight year old who is somehow a celebrated Glass Town author. Their affection for one another is immediately apparent, and this affection carries over into the later Angrian tales, with the older and evolved figure of Charles Townshend always speaking highly of his sister in law.

The narrative ends the following day with the meeting of the Duke of Wellington, Douro, and Edward Sydney discussing the ball, Pelham, and Mary Percy. The Duke of Wellington comments that “in our country I am glad to say, however our ladies take a wholesome and healthful interest in politics” (Brontë), which may be a nod to Charlotte in particular, whose interest in politics and the historical Duke of Wellington is well documented. It is curious that in this narrative at least, Branwell’s women and his characters’ attitudes towards women are so much more radical and complimentary than Charlotte’s. Elrington arrives with Sdeath to turn in Quashia for the murder of the MP for Northtown, Col. Ashton. Wellington is surprised but agrees to capture Quashia for the murder. Douro suspects Elrington of an ulterior motive and steps out to question him. Elrington reveals that Quashia is attempting to bribe him; more native forces in return for Mary’s hand, which has already been promised to Pelham.

The tale concludes rather abruptly with the promised marriage of Pelham and Mary, with Douro set to give the bride away. However, this union never takes place and by February 1834, Mary is an established character in Charlotte’s own tales who is married to Douro after the death of his wife, Marian Hume. This is foreshadowed during the ball scene in The Politics of Verdopolis when it is stated that “he’s quite a lover of Miss Percy” (Brontë), and an alarmed Marian believes the man in question is her husband, Douro, not Pelham. The final lines of the narrative are “NB highly important. Lord Charles Wellesley has condescended to say: ‘She is one whom I can say I am pleased.'” On the one hand, as Lord Charles is Charlotte’s character and favourite pseudonym, this may be Branwell’s attempt at forcing his sister to accept the character of Mary Percy by stating Lord Charles’ approval, or it could perhaps be confirmation of Charlotte’s approval of the character, and her own voice tacked on to the end of Branwell’s work.

The Politics of Verdopolis is featured in The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: Volume 1, 1827-1833, edited by Victor Neufeldt, or in the more affordable Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, edited by Christine Alexander. Give it a read!

The image of The Politics of Verdopolis manuscript is my own photograph and appears courtesy of the Brontë Parsonage Museum which allows photography for personal and non-commercial use. Please do not copy or share this image.


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