June 26th 2020 marks the 203rd birthday of Branwell Brontë. Born in 1817 to Patrick and Maria Brontë in Thornton, he was the fourth of six children, and the only boy in an intelligent, creative, yet poor family. After moving from Thornton to Haworth where the family took up residency in the now iconic Brontë Parsonage, tragedy struck in his early life when he lost his mother in 1821, and then his two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, in 1825. Despite these early sorrows and losses, there is evidence that Patrick provided a loving home for his family with the assistance of his Cornish sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, who left life in the south to venture north to Haworth. Branwell, along with his sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne may well have led something of a reclusive life, but they had one another, and they had their imagination.
In June 1826, Branwell was famously given a set of wooden toy soldiers by Patrick who cannot have known how his gift would become a catalyst that would fire up his children’s imagination and creativity. We don’t know whether Branwell chose to share these soldiers with his sisters, or whether they had more say in the matter, however, they each picked one, naming them, and creating the characters that would become an integral part of their childhood games, and the later expansion of this world on paper over the next decade (or two decades in Branwell’s case). Charlotte chose her political hero, the Duke of Wellington; Branwell chose a character who was the antagonist of Charlotte’s hero both on and off the page, Naopoleon Bonaparte; Emily and Anne chose Gravey and Waiting Boy, who would eventually evolve into the famous explorers, Parry and Ross.
These soldiers, known as The Twelves, made their way into the Brontës’ earliest writings and eventually became the centre of their imaginary world of Glass Town. As the siblings grew older, tensions emerged, with Anne and Emily breaking away to form their own world of Gondal in around 1831. The tensions and battles for power between Branwell and Charlotte continued to be played out on the page in the newly developed Kingdom of Angria with the antics of Charlotte’s Duke of Zamorna and his rival, Branwell’s Northangerland, saturating the narratives. Gradually though, the siblings grew apart as Charlotte went off to school and Branwell attempted to take control of their world (killing off Charlotte’s favourite heroine, Mary Percy). Schooling along with Branwell’s stint as a painter, then the siblings’ respective employments, and then the difference in their personalities and life choices probably thrust them further apart. They did not abandon Angria though, nor did they abandon their dreams to become published authors.
Branwell was a talented writer and poet, but he made some misguided attempts to gain recognition and possibly patronage such as his letters to Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh, and to poet William Wordsworth in 1837. See the fragment below which is taken from The Brontës Life and Letters (ed. Clement K. Shorter, 2013):
“Sir, – I most earnestly entreat you to read and pass your judgment upon what I have sent you, because from the day of my birth, to this the nineteenth year of my life, I have lived among secluded hills, where I could neither know what I was, or what I could do. I read for the same reason that I ate or drank – because it was a real craving of nature. I wrote on the same principle as I spoke – out of the impulse and feelings of the mind; nor could I help it, for what came, came out, and there was the end of it. For as to self-conceit, that could not receive food from flattery, since to this hour not half-a-dozen people in the world know that I have ever penned a line.
But a change has taken place now, sir; and I am arrived at an age wherein I must do something for myself: the powers I possess must be exercised to a definite end, and as I don’t know them myself I must ask of others what they are worth. Yet there is not one here to tell me; and still, if they are worthless, time will henceforth be too precious to be wasted on them.”
Wordsworth did not reply. However, strangely, he did keep the letter. An example of Wordsworth’s own conceit perhaps? Perhaps he liked the flattery and the desperation of an aspiring poet who clearly looked up to him. Branwell did realise his dream though.
Branwell was actually the first Brontë sibling to see his work in print when his poem “Heaven and Earth” was published under his Angrian pseudonym Northangerland in The Halifax Guardian on 5th June 1841. 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. There is also a possibility that Branwell was 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).
It certainly would be interesting if in the year of 2020 and #bekind, “Speak Kindly” was actually the work of Branwell. Victor Neufeldt includes it in his anthology of Branwell’s works (Vol 3, 1837 – 1848, Routledge) but he remains unconvinced as although the style is similar to Branwell’s, the poems’s sentiments are not. Additionally, he wrote hundreds of pieces set in Glass Town and Angria, and also translated Horace’s Odes at the encouragement of his friend and fellow writer, Hartley Colderidge, son of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, friend to Wordsworth. Interestingly, Hartley had also had a childhood fantasy world, or paracosm named Ejuxria which, like Branwell’s had also unusually been set on paper and followed him into adulthood.
After tough times with addiction and unemployment, a shattered and disillusioned Branwell finally bowed out of this life on 24th September 1848. He must have disappointed in what life and love had had to offer him. It must be said that he was not a saint; he had his flaws, setbacks, and weaknesses. In short, he was human. He continued to dwell on his childhood creations until his death, even leaving behind an unfinished novel, and the weary are at rest, which owes a great debt to Angria. Unbeknown to his family (and many Brontë fans today) he left behind literary legacy of his own. His writings are a fascinating glimpse into a complex and talented author and I would urge you to track some of them down.
Let’s end with a word from Branwell himself. Here’s the final stanza of “Heaven and Earth” which is taken from Neufeldt’s anthology:
There’s many a grief to shade this scene
And hide those starry skies,
But all such clouds that intervene
From this world will arise;
And, may I smile, O God! to see
Their storms of sorrow beat on me,
When I so surely know
That Thou the while art shining on;
That I, at last, when they are gone,
Shall I see the glories of my throne
Beam brighter far than now.
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.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
I’d also love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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