For years now I’ve been drawn to the Brontë family. Not just their fascinating childhood writings and elaborate fantasy worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, but their lives, relationships, and every day interactions. The two figures that draw me in repeatedly are my favourite writer of all time, the smart, strong, determined figure of Charlotte Brontë, and her talented but misdirected and somewhat distracted brother, Branwell Brontë. Their relationship is especially complex and the dynamics between the two fascinate me; in childhood they created, shared, and maintained the paracosmic world of Glass Town, later developing it into Angria, co-authoring some texts (as UT or Us Two), and reading and responding to each other’s stories. In later years they were forever divided by differing lifestyles despite still sharing the same dream, the one they’d cherished since the creation of the The Twelves so many years earlier. They both wanted to be authors, having practised for so long with their Glass Town and Angrian narratives, and played the part through their author characters and pseudonyms including Lord Charles Wellesley and Captain John Flower. As the oldest surviving child and only boy respectively, these strong personalities must have clashed for power frequently, with some of this being played out between their characters on the page such as the exploits of and battles between Zamorna and Alexander Percy, as well as in reality.
Even with Charlotte physically separated from Branwell at school in the 1830s, the pair continued to communicate and collaborate (although Charlotte had quite a task on her hands when he famously killed off her heroine, Mary Percy, and she was forced to retcon their saga to revive her). However, shortly afterwards there was a split that the siblings never patched up despite their closeness in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. For years I’ve retraced Charlotte’s footsteps, words, and the workings of her mind as she shunned the brother who had gone from talented and precocious boy wonder to an alcoholic, drug-addicted mess. Could she see the turning point? The dividing line between the Branwell she’d known and the Branwell she’d lost? By all accounts, Charlotte disowned her brother as she began to pin her hopes on starting a professional writing career on those she’d abandoned in favour of Branwell so long ago: her sisters Emily and Anne who shared their siblings’ talent and had created and collaborated on their own world of Gondal. But did Charlotte ever really give up on Branwell or was the disdain a mask designed to blind the world to the fact that she still cared deeply for him? I do not have the answer to this question, but sometimes, when you make connections and see parallels between your life and that of another, in trying to understand what made them tick, you’ll find you might be hoping that this will enable you to better understand your own circumstances and relationships.
It is true that Branwell was the first Brontë sibling to see his work in print, 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. However, it is also true that his personal vices were a huge problem for both himself and his family. It is no secret that Branwell had problems with love, drink, and drugs despite his early artistic promise and the high hopes his family had once had for him. Due to his addictions, Branwell must have been incredibly unpredictable and difficult to live with. The bad feeling would not have all been one-sided either; Branwell must have felt frustration, anger, and even hatred towards his family. Charlotte herself confirms this, writing that on his deathbed, “in his feelings towards his relatives – all bitterness seemed gone”. Branwell must have felt that his life was being disrupted by his family just as they felt their lives were being controlled by his habits and antics.
This may be why Charlotte decided she fared a better chance with her more reliable sisters despite Emily’s initial reluctance to publish her work. The pain and embarrassment at Branwell’s actions may also have made Charlotte think twice about collaborating with her brother again. Sometimes even if you can forgive, you can’t forget, and sometimes you can do neither to someone who has caused so much pain not just to yourself, but to others around you. In the past some of my posts have come under fire for defending Branwell too much. I’m not defending his actions; he must have caused so much misery and suffering to himself and to his family, and that must have been so hard for them all to experience.
Following Branwell’s death in 1848, Charlotte wrote, “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement – there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost – but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light”. This suggests that Charlotte’s bond with Branwell had long since disappeared due to the consequences of his lifestyle choices. Rather than mourning for Branwell himself did Charlotte actually mourn for who he had once been and what she thought was “the emptiness of his whole existence” after he did not live up to her expectations? If Charlotte had known about his published works, would she have still thought this way? If she thought the brother who had so much promise in his youth had actually achieved their shared dream of being published authors? Tragically, Branwell’s death appears to have been a relief for all; when addictions take control and there is no end to the misery in sight other than death, it is looked upon as a beginning for those left behind rather than an end for the deceased. Charlotte wrote, “the removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement”, confirming that it was a complex and bittersweet end which mixed relief with grief, and which followed a complex and bittersweet relationship between Charlotte and Branwell, Zamorna and Percy, and Genius Tallii and Genius Brannii.
Whether it was the death of Branwell or that of his talent, his passing shattered Charlotte. Anne’s words confirm this when she wrote 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”. Charlotte certainly grieved for the death of Branwell’s talent just as she had mourned the death of his potential years earlier. I don’t doubt that following his death she also mourned for what he had once meant to her. But did she grieve for the Branwell she watched depart from this world at all, the alcoholic, drug-addicted, unlucky in love stranger to her?
All quotes are taken from The Brontës: A Life in Letters, ed. Juliet Barker (Viking, 1997).
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
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