I took a break from social media recently due to the fallout from just about everything going on in the world at the minute. Sometimes it all gets a little overwhelming and the toxic nature of many of the posts that were being shared just made me walk away. From conversations with friends, I’m not the only one doing so. I’m determined not to be driven off there permanently because I do believe social media does a lot of good in the world. It’s true that more can and should be done by the bigwigs who run these platforms to stem the tide of bile that builds up on there. I’m all for freedom of speech, but I’m also for the freedom to live your life free of abuse. However, the people I follow on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook generally post nice, inspiring things and I value them so much in dark times. However, I’ve made the decision to unfollow/unfriend certain people who seem to post things just to stir up the kind of hatred that divides people. So thanks to all my lovely social media pals with your Brontë posts, book blogs, animal photos/videos, and snapshots of nature; you make the internet and the world a nicer place to be, especially in 2020.
I said I’d be back with another post this week and I am. My mind is healthier for avoiding social media this past week and when I’ve not been working or reading Agatha Christie books, I’ve been pondering exactly what my next post should be. Where did my thoughts stray to? The Brontës (obviously), but not to the obvious ones. If anything, I probably should be writing about Anne. She is the Brontë whose work speaks about the power of kindness, respect, equality, and love more than her siblings. She was the quiet trailblazer and she is rightly being celebrated in her bicentenary year. I love Anne and her sense of injustice and quiet determination, and I enjoyed re-tracing her footsteps in Scarborough in February this year, but this post is not about her.
I’ve previously written about the Brontë patriarch, Patrick, and his generous and kind spirit. However, it was Branwell that occupied my thoughts this week. Perhaps this is because quite a lot of people have viewed my posts about him over the past few days, and perhaps it’s because 2020 is supposed to be the year of #bekind and I’ve always thought that time has not been especially kind to the Brontë boy. I’ve previously written about Branwell’s life and literature, and how his problems have continued to tarnish his literary legacy even 200 years 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 Mrs Lydia Robinson. I said above that time had 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 who Branwell Brontë really was.
In 1855, Matthew Arnold penned his poem “Haworth Churchyard”. In it, he wrote a stanza on Branwell.
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.
Arnold only knew the bad and nothing of Branwell’s literary success during his lifetime. Branwell died on 24th September 1848, aged just 31 and in just 7 years he’d become nothing but a blight on his family’s reputation. It is sad that even in 2020, this shadow is all most people continue to think of when thinking of Branwell. Elizabeth Gaskell’s posthumous biography of Charlotte Brontë, The Life of Charlotte Brontë has been responsible for a lot of the myths that continue to surround Branwell’s reputation, however, Charlotte herself is arguably also responsible for the harsh posthumous view of her brother. Following their respective deaths, Charlotte worked hard to shape the reputation of her sisters, and to shield them from criticism. However, she did not do the same for Branwell and shared all of her brother’s faults and weaknesses with Gaskell, her friends, and even her publishers, ensuring the creation of a villain in the story of the Brontë family. It is important to remember that Branwell was addicted to drink and drugs and as anyone who has ever lived with an addict can tell you, he will have made his family’s life a misery on plenty of occasions. It’s hard to think kindly of someone who has caused so much pain to others. Charlotte’s reaction may have a knee-jerk reaction to his poor treatment of a sister he was once so close with and the dissolution of a bond that had once seemed unbreakable. It may have been disappointment that her talented brother had (as far as she knew) wasted his early promise and his life, and failed to live up to his genius. It may also have been to help her hide her sorrow not only at his premature death, but at the loss of Branwell himself.
Despite Charlotte’s assertion following Branwell’s premature death (written on 2nd October 1848) 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, to William Smith Williams when she wrote 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.
However, despite this and the information she shared with Gaskell, Charlotte did recognise Branwell’s demons and sufferings, some of which were brought on by himself, but also others such as heartache and disappointment in love, and shared sorrows of losing loved ones in their childhood. Charlotte and Branwell had a complex relationship, and this complexity took more twists and turns even after his death. On the one hand, he was the brother she had adored and shared so much with, and on the other he was a complete stranger to her. She both loved him for what he had once been to her and hated him for what he had become and the terrible things he had done. In the same letter where she lamented Branwell’s failures (2nd October 1848), she also 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 which affected himself and others 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 a 21st century understanding, 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. I believe, in this moment, at their final parting on earth, Charlotte saw her brother for what he really was; someone in desperate need of help, and she pitied him.
Discussions of Branwell are often tricky as people can have very extreme reactions to him. Sadly, many people are aware of Branwell’s faults, but not his successes. Before his so-called fall from grace Branwell seemed to have been a talented and promising published writer. He liked to socialise with his friends, he held down various jobs, he fell in love; in short, he seemed to enjoy life. Something went badly wrong at some point and his fondness for drink became a habit. Drugs followed, then his love life, and his employment. We can never be sure of what caused his downward spiral. It was not his literary failures though; he was actually the first Brontë 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 at least 17 followed in various other newspapers). We will never know the answer to this but 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, who had 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? Why, even in 2020 can we not be kinder to Branwell Brontë now that we can finally see him for what he truly was? A mixture of light and dark, someone with flaws and strengths, good points and bad, a human.
I feel like I should end this post with Branwell’s own words. In his unfinished novel, and the weary are at rest, Branwell 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). There is more to Branwell Brontë than at first meets the eye. Dig a little deeper; you’ll be surprised.
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.
Thanks for reading. I’d 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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