June 26th 2019 marks the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817-1848), ostensibly nothing but a failure and disappointment to his family. The only son of Patrick and Maria Brontë, Patrick Branwell (better known as Branwell) had lofty ambitions, great creativity, and ultimately fatal demons. He also had three incredibly talented and famous sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and continues to exist in their shadows. In the years since his death, Branwell’s reputation has suffered through stories of his alcoholism, drug addiction, failed bouts of employment, and a doomed love affair with the original Mrs. Robinson. In the midst of this, his literature has been unfairly neglected. As I have argued in previous posts, there is much more to Branwell’s legacy than demons and addictions. It is wrong to think of him simply as a failure and to continue to brush his own literary legacy under the carpet. How much do the stories of someone’s personal life influence our enjoyment of their work? And should they? I believe that Branwell’s addictions have caused readers to shun his literature for far too long.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s posthumous biography of Charlotte Brontë, The Life of Charlotte Brontë was responsible for a lot of the myths that continue to surround the family and Branwell’s reputation, however, Charlotte herself is arguably largely responsible for the harsh posthumous view of Branwell. Charlotte worked hard to shape the reputation of her sisters following their deaths, and to shield them and their work from criticism. However, she did not hesitate to share her harsh views of Branwell with Gaskell, her friends, and even her publishers, ensuring the creation of a villain in the story of the Brontës. Despite Charlotte’s assertion following Branwell’s death that “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement – there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost” (The Brontës: A Life in Letters, pp.209, ed.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 everything Branwell had ever been to her.
Anne conveyed the extent of Charlotte’s grief, writing to William Smith Williams about “a season of severe domestic affliction, which has so wrought upon her [Charlotte] 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 she believed and hoped he was capable of. Despite their closeness in childhood and her grief at his passing, it seems that by the time Branwell died, Charlotte had given up on her brother entirely. I do wonder whether she would have done so if she had known about the publication of her brother’s poetry, however, just as she did not share the information regarding her literary success with Branwell, he in turn did not appear to share his with her.
Although there will be a lot of truth in reports of Branwell’s behaviour and habits, and the whole family must have suffered greatly because of his actions, Branwell was incredibly talented and it is tragic that his family were not able to champion his writing after his death. Far from being a literary failure, Branwell was actually 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. Northangerland was a favourite character of Branwell’s from the Glass Town/Angrian saga he created and developed in childhood with Charlotte. However, this was not the height of Branwell’s literary success; over the next six years, he published eighteen different poems and one prose piece in newspapers such as The Halifax Guardian, The Yorkshire Gazette, The Bradford Herald, and The Leeds Intelligencer. Branwell may also have been responsible for a nineteenth poem; the eminent Brontë scholar, Juilet Barker argues that Branwell is the author of “Speak Kindly” which appeared in The Halifax Guardian on 19th September 1846, however, the poem is unsigned (for further details see The Brontës by Juliet Barker; Abacus, 2010) so the authorship remains a mystery.
Discussions of Branwell can be tricky as people often have very extreme reactions to the Brontë boy, but it is important to remember that good people can do terrible things and bad people are sometimes capable of performing acts of kindness. I’m not lumping Branwell into the category of good or bad here; it is evident that he had a mix of light and dark inside of him, that he had his talents and strengths in addition to his flaws and weaknesses. In short, Branwell was simply human. This humanity, the good and the bad, can be found in his work for those who care to look for it. Every Brontëite knows of the trouble and heartache that Branwell brought to his family, but many remain unaware of the trouble and heartache suffered by Branwell (in fairness, some of which was brought on by himself), in addition to his literary success in life. However, Branwell’s tortured mind may date back to his childhood and the loss of his mother and oldest sisters. I believe that his trouble and heartache can be found reflected in his poetry, demonstrating that for all the grief he caused his sisters and ageing father, Branwell was equally tormented.
“Look up and view the midnight heaven,
Where, mass oer mass continual driven
The wild black storm clouds fleet and change
Like formless phantom’s black and strange,
That bend their gloomy brows from high,
And pass in midnight darkness by” – Branwell Brontë, “Misery”
Whilst not all of his poems are full-blown masterpieces, Branwell’s poetry has a depth which may surprise people, and they are remarkably accessible pieces. I’ve been revisiting one poem quite a lot recently, as I’ve felt that it’s really tapped into my own stated of mind. “Misery” is an undated poem which I believe is currently housed in the National Library of Scotland. Brontë scholar Victor Neufeldt writes in The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: Volume 2, 1834-1836 that the poem was sent by Branwell to Blackwood’s with a letter that is dated April 8th 1836, so it is possible that the two parts of the poem also date from around this time. There are two parts to “Misery”, the first of which seems to revisit Branwell’s anguish at the death of his sister, Maria, and the second of which explores his religious views, doubts, and ideas of damnation and judgement. Although readers and critics can never pinpoint an artist’s motives or intentions, their influences can certainly be found within the work. It is clear that the death of Maria was a major influence that haunted Branwell’s mind, soul, and work for his entire life (Maria is a name frequently used in his writing). His experience of growing up in a devoutly Christian household is also evident throughout his work. What is most striking about “Misery” though is the anguish and the beauty that the poem simultaneously contains. It’s an epic and outstanding poem that deserves to be more widely read and celebrated. Although it’s far too long to reproduce here, you can probably find it online in its entirety. It features in the edition of Branwell’s work edited by Victor Neufeldt that I discussed above.
It is undeniable that Branwell was addicted to both drink and drugs, a source of much family conflict, but crippled with the expectations placed upon him as the only male child of the family and lacking help or treatment for his addictions in nineteenth century Britain, Branwell sought company and friendships in alehouses, places he could shake the cares from his shoulders. Ultimately, Branwell had too many problems, and the more he tried to shake them off with drink and drugs, the more demons he created for himself. His failed love affair with the married Lydia Robinson of Thorp Green may well have been the final nail in the coffin for Branwell, and just a few years later, on 24th September 1848, death finally relieved him of his never-ending misery, and prematurely robbed the world of someone who could have become a literary giant. Following Branwell’s premature death aged just 31, Charlotte 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 torment created by Branwell must have been a relief, however, it also must have been a relief to see the end of his own troubles and misery, a misery which nobody could save him from and which is so beautifully and heartbreakingly depicted in his poetry.
Branwell never found the peace of mind in adulthood that he must have ached for, and tragically his misery has been transformed into a narrative focused on failure and addictions. Sure, his story is partly a cautionary tale on the dangers of certain substances, but why can’t it also be one of creativity and literary success? Branwell’s story, like his life, is a mix of light and dark, good and bad, success and failure, and misery and joy. Happy birthday, Branwell. Thanks for the poetry.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon.
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
Quote from “Misery” by Patrick Branwell Brontë is taken from Victor Neufeldt’s edition of The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: Volume 2, 1834-1836 (Routledge, 2015).