“Those whose lives lie within the walls of their library little know what has formed the existence of the men who have given them their treasures.” -Branwell Brontë – and the weary are at rest
June 26th marks the 201st birthday of Patrick Branwell Brontë (better known as simply as Branwell), wayward brother of the famous Brontë sisters, footnote in literary history, and disgrace to his family. For many readers, scholars, and historians, Branwell is a shadowy figure, a blight on his sisters’ literary legacy, and somebody better best forgotten. We all know the story of the talented child who scribbled stories of war and bloodshed in tiny books with his sisters, the boy who tried and failed to find a suitable career, the man who was overcome and eventually undone by addictions and unrequited love. But how much do we really know about him? And who has shaped the mythology that surrounds him even to this day? Can we trust this mythology? Or would it be better to take a fresh look at the man himself, and re-examine his successes as well as his failures in order to get a better idea of what exactly formed the existence of the writer responsible for numerous underrated literary treasures?
Although Elizabeth Gaskell’s posthumous biography of Charlotte Brontë, The Life of Charlotte Brontë was responsible for a lot of the half-truths and myths that continue to surround the family and Branwell’s reputation, Charlotte herself is arguably largely responsible for the harsh posthumous view of Branwell. Unfortunately, she did not hesitate to share this view with Gaskell, her own friends, and even her publishers, ensuring the creation of a villain in the story of the Brontës who would make the Earl of Northangerland proud. I do not deny that all of the Brontës were affected by Branwell’s addictions and suffered greatly (I can honestly empathise with them for reasons I won’t disclose). I also do not doubt Charlotte’s sincerity when following Branwell’s premature death on 24th September 1848, aged just 31, she wrote that, “The removal of our brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement … It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent; to hope, expect, wait his return to the right path” (qtd. in The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, Vol 1., pp. xvii, ed Victor Neufeldt). To Charlotte, to finally see the end of the suffering and misery created by Branwell must have been a relief; the family had reached a point where death was the only end to the torment. Branwell was tortured, and in an age where attitudes to mental health and addictions were a world away from our 21st century understanding (another reason I’ll defend Mr. Rochester to the death for keeping Bertha at Thornfield), I doubt Branwell could have gotten help even if he had wanted it, and I doubt his ailing father would have known where to turn to seek the aid his son so desperately needed.
Branwell Brontë had some serious demons; there can be no question of that. But he isn’t the only writer or artist in history to suffer from addictions and probable mental health issues; in fact, Charlotte suffered from bouts of what we would now term depression and feelings of worthlessness throughout her life, writing to her friend Ellen Nussey in late 1836 that, “I abhor myself – I despise myself – if the Doctrine of Calvin be true I am already an outcast,” (qtd. in The Brontës: A Life in Letters, pp.41, ed. Juliet Barker). Why is Charlotte not remembered for this? The short answer is that Jane Eyre and Villette are masterpieces, and so her literary legacy outshines her personal one. Another major difference is that Charlotte didn’t give in to drink and drugs, and so although she could often be unpleasant and rude (just read her descriptions of her pupils in her Roe Head Diary and see The Professor for a thinly veiled fictional representation of her teaching frustrations), drink and drugs are considered far worse vices, and so she is remembered for her work, as authors should be. But if Charlotte can be remembered for her writing, then why can’t Branwell?
Could it be that Branwell’s work is so bad that it is not worth remembering? Or is it simply that Branwell’s literary legacy has been lost to time, stuck in old editions of out of print newspapers which were once a hotbed of literary talent and activity? Terry Eagleton unfairly claimed that “He [Branwell] wrote more than the sum total of his sisters’ output, but without a particle of the talent … he had megalomaniacal ambitions and no practical interest whatsoever in achieving them” (“Angry Un”, Review of London Books, pp. 16) implying that the talentless Branwell wanted the world to share his view that he was a great artist but wasn’t prepared to do anything about it . Whilst it is true that Branwell never managed to reach the dizzying heights of the kind of literary success he had ostensibly craved from childhood and his productions of Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine, he was a success in his own right and it’s time we remembered that. Branwell was the first Brontë to see his work in print when his poem “Heaven and Earth” was published under the pseudonym Northangerland in The Halifax Guardian on 5th June 1841, and he went on to publish eighteen (possibly nineteen) different poems and one prose piece over the next six years in newspapers such as The Yorkshire Gazette, The Bradford Herald, and The Leeds Intelligencer.
Despite Eagleton’s claim, Branwell’s writing is well worth reading; his juvenilia are often fascinating and complex narratives concerning politics, war, and power battles which rather surprisingly sometimes feature stronger women than Charlotte’s own juvenilia. Just compare and contrast his depiction of the character of Mary Percy in The Politics of Verdopolis with Charlotte’s later depictions of what would become her favourite heroine. The newspapers which published Branwell’s poetry were extremely proud of the writings they published, and they would never dream of accepting poems for publication just to fill up space. Branwell’s poetry had to be a cut above the rest to feature; it was and it is. There is a haunting beauty to much of Branwell’s work, and whilst I confess that poetry is not my strong point analytically speaking, Eagleton is wrong to claim that Branwell did not have talent. Contrary to popular belief, Branwell also had ambition and direction regarding his own literary career, even sorting his work into notebooks and revising their contents.
It is also important to stress that despite his early prose narratives set in Glass Town and Angria, Branwell thought of himself as a poet, and in his adult life he had no interest in writing novels unlike his sisters. One of his earliest characters/pseudonyms was the poet Young Soult the Rhymer, and even his fictional characters expressed their disdain for novels with his favourite character/pseudonym and accomplished poet Alexander Percy (Northangerland) discussing the “worthless pages of sentimental Novels with their amazing ignorance” (The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, Vol 3. pp. 182, ed. Victor Neufeldt). Branwell was happiest composing poetry, and this is what he concentrated on during the last decade of his life. The one attempt Branwell made to compose a novel ended prematurely in 1845; he informed his friend Joseph Leyland that he had begun to pen and the weary are at rest (a reworking of an older Angrian narrative), simply because “in the present state of the publishing and reading world a Novel is the most salelable article” (qtd. in The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, Vol 3. pp. xix, ed. Victor Neufeldt). Dismissed from his position at Thorp Green, Branwell needed an income and he saw novel writing as a possible solution. However, as previously stated, the novel was left unfinished which is truly a shame as it does have a lot of potential, and reveals a lot about his state of mind at the time of its commencement.
and the weary are at rest was Branwell’s attempt to blend Angria with the real world, and to reconcile (if only fictionally) with his lost love, Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer at Thorp Green. Lydia (the original Mrs. Robinson) arguably appears in the text in the form of neglected wife Maria Thurston, a woman in love with a man other than her husband, and one who just so happens to be Branwell’s favourite character and pseudonym, Alexander Percy a.k.a. Northangerland. Rather than solely writing for financial gain, could it be possible the lonely and rejected Branwell was writing to ease the pangs of separation from a woman he believed truly loved him in return? Could the true reason the novel was abandoned be the ultimate rejection by Lydia after her husband’s death when Branwell was warned to stay away from Thorp Green? The depiction of Maria Thurston is remarkably different from what one would expect from what is essentially an incomplete piece of wish fulfilment by Branwell; yes, she is beautiful, delicate, and gentle, but she is also witty, strong, and unafraid to put Percy in his place by demonstrating her advantages as a female in society, stating that, “Fits of temper among those of our sex seem rational compared with those among yours – If we feel aggrieved past endurance we can at least leave the room whereas you seem disposed to stay and covertly vex persons whom the rules of society forbid you to openly insult,” (The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, Vol 3. pp.433, ed. Victor Neufeldt). You go, girl.
The piece ends with Maria on the verge of abandoning herself to Percy, but his hasty departure from her home leaves their union hanging tantalisingly in the air. We can only wonder at how the remainder of the narrative would have unfolded before the news of Lydia’s rejection and re-marriage pushed Branwell to breaking point. Although he published two more poems and wrote around ten more in 1846 alone, by 1847 he was beginning to fail; his literary output slowed, his addictions increased, and he died the following year leaving Charlotte to lament that, “There is such a bitterness of pity for his life and death – such a yearning for the emptiness of his whole existence” (qtd. in The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, Vol, 1, pp. xvii, ed. Victor Neufeldt). Charlotte’s statement strongly suggests that despite their closeness and literary collaborations in their youth, the gulf between brother and sister was so great that she knew nothing of Branwell’s literary success, challenging our assumptions about Branwell’s supposed inflated ego and sense of his own literary greatness. The fact that he never had the courage to publish under his own name even after his initial success also indicates that he was not the megalomaniac he is made out to be.
Despite Branwell’s failure to find a permanent and suitable position his father could be proud of, and one which would potentially allow him to help out his unmarried and ageing sisters (we’re in the 19th century here, let’s remember that before anybody jumps down my throat for my very unflattering portrayal of three literary geniuses), he had found his calling as a poet, had privately enjoyed his success and shared it not with his family, who viewed him only as a disappointment, but with his friends and supporters such as Francis Grundy, and Joseph and Francis Leyland, who attempted to right Gaskell’s negative portrayal of their friend after his death. Branwell was safe in the knowledge of his own success, suggesting that literary failure did not drive him to drink and drugs, but perhaps the heavy weight of expectation placed upon him as the only boy in the family and his desire, unlike his sisters, to be social and enjoy the company of his friends, even if unfortunately it did contribute to his addictions. Although Charlotte had two close friends (Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor), Emily and Anne had none outside the family, but Branwell had many friends and associates, including the Haworth sexton John Brown. Unlike his family, Branwell’s friends valued him for who he was rather than who he should have been. Unlike his sisters, Branwell mixed with wider society, and he succeeded at living in and functioning in the real world away from Haworth. If Jane Eyre was no bird, neither was Branwell, and no net could ensnare him.
It seems remarkable that his family knew nothing of his success when his friends did, and he seems not to have known of the success of his sisters, but then again, the dedicated poet Branwell probably would not have concerned himself with the publications of new novels. It may seem hard to believe that families can know so little of one another’s activities, but I understand entirely, and firmly believe that the siblings were so distant and different that their literary successes never ran the risk of crossing paths. Despite Charlotte’s assertion that “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement – there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost” (The Brontës: A Life in Letters, pp.209, ed. Juliet Barker), it is clear that the loss of her brother affected her greatly and that she mourned not for “the emptiness of his whole existence” (The Brontës: A Life in Letters, pp.209, ed. Juliet Barker) but for Branwell himself, and everything he had ever been to her, after his death.
The ostensibly delicate Anne conveyed the extent of Charlotte’s grief when she wrote to William Smith Williams about “a season of severe domestic affliction, which has so wrought upon her too delicate constitution as to induce a rather serious indisposition that renders her unfit for the slightest exertion” (The Brontës: A Life in Letters, pp.210, ed. Juliet Barker). It seems that Charlotte did her best to disguise her grief for her brother as disappointment at his failure to achieve all that he was capable of. If Charlotte had known of Branwell’s achievements, I am certain she would have shouted it from the rooftops as despite their literary rivalry they were close collaborators, even using joint signatures in their collaborations, and two sides of the same coin. It would have been fascinating to see Charlotte weave the literary legacy of her brother into that of Emily and Anne after their deaths (or vice versa as Branwell died first), but Charlotte did not have the information to do so.
Branwell was correct when he wrote that, “Those whose lives lie within the walls of their library little know what has formed the existence of the men who have given them their treasures” (The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, pp.424 ed. Victor Neufeldt). What do we as readers really know about the lives of our favourite authors? And should this have an impact on their literary legacy? Even 200 years after their respective births, we still do not truly know the Brontës, a family who gave us so many literary gems. Although I can never truly know what lay in the mind of the man who has given me so many treasures to enjoy, I can attempt to correct one aspect of his troubled legacy: Branwell Brontë was not a talentless wreck whose literary failures drove him to addiction and death. He was accomplished and successful in his own right, and in spite of his troubles he was mourned by those who had loved and lost their friend, brother, and son. If Charlotte, a woman who suffered first hand watching the decline of her beloved brother and one time collaborator, could forgive his vices and remember his sufferings, why can we not do the same in order to move forward and appreciate the writings he left behind for what they are?
Happy birthday, Branwell. Have a good one and rest easy in the knowledge that there are some of us who enjoy, appreciate, and champion your work.
By Nicola F. a.k.a The Brontë Babe.
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