Brontë, Juvenilia, Literature

“Of one, too, I have heard, A brother … But some dark shadow came…”: The Truth About Branwell Brontë

Over the years, so much has been said about Branwell Brontë. Branwell the black sheep, Branwell the thief, Branwell the drunk, Branwell the failure, Branwell the Brontë to be forgotten. Even in 2020, the Brontë Boy continues to divide opinion, with some criticising his habits and lifestyle, whilst others pity his addictions, troubles, and failures. Branwell’s reputation has been eclipsed by his sisters due to their literary success and published novels, whilst he has remained a shadowy figure in the background of their story. Even in 1855, just 7 short years after his death aged 31, Matthew Arnold was writing poetry about his failures and Elizabeth Gaskell clearly did not think too highly of him in her 1857 biography of Charlotte, describing his “downfall” and death as a result of his affair with Lydia Robinson who, according to Branwell himself was, “DAMNABLY TOO FOND OF ME.” I believe that Gaskell’s depiction had to be toned down in order to avoid legal action by Robinson, who did not appear to care deeply for Branwell, no matter what his feelings for her were. 

27535512_1749933781703829_1837974943_o
Branwell Brontë self-portrait.

In his poem, “Haworth Churchyard” Arnold wrote that:

“Of one, too, I have heard,

A brother – sleeps he here?

Of all that gifted race

Not the least gifted: young,

Unhappy, eloquent – the child

Of many hopes, of many tears.

O boy, if here thou sleep’st, sleep well!

On Thee too did the Muse

Bright in thy cradle smile;

But some dark shadow came

(I know not what) and interposed.”

 

The Branwell of this poem is clearly a failure, and someone who did not live up to expectations. The tinge of pity Arnold displays for the Brontë Boy cannot disguise that by 1855, Branwell was a failure in the eyes of the world, and a blot on the reputation of his family. However, Arnold knew nothing of Branwell’s extraordinary literary output, his numerous Glass Town and Angrian tales, or his published poetry.  

IMG_20170214_152817267
Manuscript of Branwell’s The Politics of Verdopolis

I’ve previously written about Branwell’s life and literature, and how his problems have continued to tarnish his literary legacy two centuries after his birth. 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 Lydia Robinson. Time has not been kind to Branwell, but, ultimately, people have been responsible for shaping his legacy, a legacy that paints him as a good-for-nothing drunk, hopeless drug addict, failure, and homewrecker. People have been responsible for perpetuating this over the years and never bothering to find out the truth about Branwell Brontë.

We can never really know the truth about Branwell. There are differing accounts from friends, family, and those who never even met him of his addictions, bad temper, his charm, his friendliness, his hopelessness, his potential, and his failures. He lived 200 years ago, we have little of his correspondence remaining, as well as differing testimonies of how he lived his life. Like everyone, Branwell was human. He will have experienced and exhibited different moods, he will have laughed, loved, hurt, and been hurt; he will have cried, angered some, and cheered others. He will have reacted differently in different situations, and depending on the company he was keeping. We can’t ever know who he “really” was. Personally, I’m inclined to be fascinated by him; I’m awe of what he wrote, and I’m intrigued by the once close relationship with his sisters (particularly Charlotte), which seems to have turned so frosty in later years. We can’t ever know what the siblings experienced both together, and individually.

Losing a mother and siblings at such a young age will affect anyone, and Branwell will have felt these losses, just as his sisters, however, he may well have processed them very differently. Branwell was also later to lose his beloved Aunt Branwell and his friend William Weightman as a young man. Although these people were known and loved by his sisters, Branwell was present when the deaths occurred and judging by his surviving correspondence, he was devastated. On 25th October 1842, he wrote to his friend Francis Grundy that, “I have had a long attendance at the death-bed of the Rev Mr Weightman, one of my dearest friends, and now I am attending at the death-bed of my aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother.” These are not the words of a monster, but of a human, a friend, and a nephew who was deeply connected to the individuals mentioned. Branwell clearly cared and these deaths may well have traumatised him. 

William Weightman
William Weightman

Branwell’s connections, and the value he places on love and friendship is made clear when a few days later he wrote again to Grundy on 29th October. I’ll copy the letter in full as I think it may help to paint a very different picture of Branwell to that which has been created over the space of two centuries:

“As I don’t want to lose a real friend, I write in deprecation of the tone of your letter. Death only has made me neglectful of your kindness, and I have lately had so much experience with him, that your sister would not now blame me for indulging in gloomy visions either of this world or another. I am incoherent, I fear, but I have been waking two nights witnessing such agonising suffering as I would not wish my worst enemy to endure; and I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.”

Branwell was clearly not born a monster. He loved and lost just like the rest of the population. He also worked and socialised, he sketched, he painted (we have his Pillar Portrait to thank for the only depiction of all 3 Brontë sisters together in life), and he wrote. And he wrote some more. Branwell never stopped writing. Whatever you think of Branwell as a person, he was a talented and published writer, and this is the ultimate truth about him.

cropped-35043526_1892529137444292_4342967781780619264_n-e1529843276576.jpg
Anne, Emily, and Charlotte depicted by Branwell c. 1833

Branwell was 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 GuardianThe Yorkshire GazetteThe 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).

Branwell is in a strange and arguably unique position. We know how many different people do remember him and speak of him, but how should we remember him and speak of him? As an alcoholic? As a failure? A spurned lover? A creator? As the brother of 3 incredibly talented sisters? As a painter? As an author? As a success? Is Branwell an author, or just the brother of three? There may be many truths about who Branwell Brontë really was; I’m sure there were different sides to him and he was a fully rounded person, and not just a character, or a caricature. Personally, I’m inclined to remember and praise him for his literary output and I’d encourage you to seek out some of his works. His poetry is widely available online and there are some excellent editions of his juvenilia available. Check out my page on different editions of the juvenilia for further information. 

9 thoughts on ““Of one, too, I have heard, A brother … But some dark shadow came…”: The Truth About Branwell Brontë”

  1. Hiee BB- yes Bran deserves much affection and sympathy, The loss of WW to whom he aspired, an worse, ‘mum’ of 20 yrs ‘gone’- worse yet. Being a ‘man’, encouraged and admired as such by aunt Elizabeth, meant; his sisters (and cousins) each were bequeathed a small fortune (c.£300) enough to buy 5 houses- because they were women. He got a box and some books, because he is a ‘man’. That, must have been.. hard to swallow (check William Henry Hunt’s pencil portrait Tate- Jan 1843, it’s him.). Bran was admired for an ambidextrous trick, writing simultaneously Latin with left hand and Greek with right. In all modern history there was only one other who could do such a thing, Landseer. Bran sold a painting to a posh collector and friend of Landseer, Alfred Harris. Donated to BPM 1904, Harris’ daughter thought it was made by Bran, and thought is was a ‘Lonely Shepherd’, but is an affluent angler and bemused companion, confronted by the desperate pleas of a handsome face drowning in the lonely void of madness. lovely work you doin- Keep groovin BB xjam

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if I can pick your brain, Nicola. The fact if the matter is that I haven’t yet — even if it actually discussed — noted any examination of why Branwell chose the sobriquet Northangerland for himself. The word is so close to the title of Austen’s novel that I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a connection, despite Charlotte’s lukewarm comments about Jane’s writing. (Maybe Christine Alexander says something about it, but I’m not familiar with most of her studies.)

    ‘Northangerland’ appears out of the blue, apparently coined by Branwell ex nihilo, but I find that hard to believe. Surely he must at least have been aware of Austen’s novel? The word itself seems a conflation of Northumberland and Northanger, with Angria (an actual district in Germany) possibly related to Anglia.

    Anyway, if you have any thoughts on this I’d be grateful for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve read anything definitive on the origins of the name. I remember reading somewhere (can’t remember where!) a theory that it was a conflation of Northumberland and something else. I’m inclined to agree with you and think it’s a mesh of Northumberland and Angria somehow. Northangerland was a province in Angria within the works and the character became Earl of Northangerland.
      I’ve never read anything about Branwell’s opinion of Jane Austen (he was born the year she died and NA was published) so I don’t know whether there’s any connection. From what I’ve read of Branwell’s works though, he’s not as fond of the Gothic as his sisters were so I can’t imagine him ever reading NA. He liked battle, politics, and conflict from an early age. Charlotte was not a huge fan of Austen but she later admitted a respect for Emma in an 1850 letter to WS Williams after earlier complaining about her style to GH Lewes. I must investigate further into he origins of Northangerland.

      Like

      1. A little snooping online on ‘hanger’ or ‘hangar’ came up with the East Hampshire Hangers, a series of scarped hills stretching from Petersfield in the south to Alton in the north, the latter of course where Chawton House, the last Austen residence, is located. I’m almost certain that’s where the last element of Northanger was derived though JA placed Northanger Abbey in the West Country.

        I thought at first that ‘hanger’ might be related to ‘hangar’, which I St first thought was a Scandinavian word. Now associated with planes, it originally meant a warehouse and before that the garth around a home. It’s possible there are place-names with this element in W Yorkshire but I’ve not found any yet, if Branwell’s epithet wasn’t borrowed from Austen.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. A little more information because I couldn’t let it lie. According to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës, Alexander Percy (later Northangerland) and his family were based on the Percys of Northumberland. So Northangerland seems to be a conflation of Northumberland and something else according to Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith. I just wish we knew what the something else was!

        Like

      3. All I seem to remember of the Percy family — a long-lived dynasty — is that they skirted close to danger by remaining Catholic for a long time. But I’m surprised Alexander and Smith didn’t speculate on or surmise what Northangerland might have been conflated with, or why: it seems such an obvious thing to wonder about.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Have you come across a book called:-
    THE BRONTE FAMILY With Special Reference to PATRICK BRANWELL BRONTE, in Two Volumes, published in 1886. By FRANCIS A. LEYLAND.
    Mr. Leyland’s brother Joseph (a sculptor) was a close friend of Branwell’s, and he met him while Branwell was working as a railway clerk. Through the book we hear from Branwell, his friends and acquaintances, who give a different viewpoint than the rather jaundiced one given by Elizabeth Gaskell via the PRIVATE letters of his somewhat vindictive sister. His poetry and art is also there and Branwell may well have been the most talented of all the Brontes.
    It’s strange that today we accept the addictions and afflictions of the talented and brilliant as the price sadly sometimes paid for those attributes, yet Branwell has no such concession made for him, he’s known as the talentless, drunken brother, with no further investigation, rather unfair and hypocritical isn’t it? Branwell Bronte has been kept in the shadows for far too long and he deserves to take his place in the sun, I hope someone will soon help him take that place.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s