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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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”.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
All letter quotes are taken from Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters (Viking, 1997).
“Haworth Churchyard” is in the public domain and can be found online in its entirety.