Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

The Bronte brother eclipsed by his sisters and haunted by family tragedy and addiction

By Mary Kenny

Published 25/04/2016

Literary family: Laurence Olivier in the 1939 film of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
Literary family: Laurence Olivier in the 1939 film of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

There are many accounts of sons being favoured over daughters, and daughters' lives being obscured by the brilliance of their brothers - Mozart's sister is thought to have been as musically gifted as he, but she did not get the same chances, perhaps, to develop. Fred Astaire's sister, Adele, was once the more celebrated dancer - but Fred is the Astaire who is remembered.

But there are examples, too, where sisters shine famously and 'the brother' is merely a shadowy footnote.

The lives of Charlotte Bronte, author of the immortal Jane Eyre (and other novels), and her dazzling literary sisters, Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (Agnes Grey) are being currently marked for the bi-centennial of Charlotte's birth. But faded into the background - and painted out of the famous group portrait of the three Yorkshire sisters - is their brother, Branwell, who died of drink, dissolution and opium addiction, probably accelerated by tuberculosis, at the age of 30.

It is the Bronte women who are celebrated as a trio of literary geniuses; Branwell, their brother, only exists in relation to them. Yet some biographers have suggested that Branwell had more than a hand in the inspiration and writing of Wuthering Heights and as young children, the Bronte siblings wrote, painted and played music together, creating their own fantasy world, in which Branwell, their only brother, had a dominant role.

Like the girls, Patrick Branwell Bronte - their father, the Rev Patrick Bronte came originally from Co Down, where the family name had been Prunty - was a creative child; by the time he was 18, he had filled up 30 volumes of stories, poetry and plays, imagining an entire world of fiction and fantasy.

But the Bronte childhoods were full of tragic loss - Branwell lost his mother when he was four (she died, probably of a form of sepsis, after giving birth in quick succession to six children).

The elder sister he adored, Maria, died of tuberculosis when she was 12 and he was nine - she's described as an exceptional child who showed all the literary and artistic gifts that marked the whole family. His second sister, Eliza, soon died too. His widowed father tried to remarry, but few women would take on an impoverished parson with four children to raise and so an older aunt came to be the family housekeeper. She meant well, but was steeped in a particularly gloomy form of Calvinism and gave Branwell a dark obsession with hell and hellfire.

What went especially wrong with Branwell's life? His sisters had the same grievous early losses and yet they overcame them sufficiently to live and work as happily as they could. Charlotte and Anne both felt that their brother had been too leniently treated - the girls were sent away to a harsh boarding school, but Branwell was tutored at home. He was well educated in the classics, spoke Latin, Greek and French fluently and could write with both hands, sometimes simultaneously. But he was always small for his age, was bullied for being a 'carrot-top', and was super-sensitive. His sisters came to feel that if he had been toughened up a little more, he might have coped better with the world.

But Branwell never could cope with the world. He tried to become a painter - he was a more than adequate portraitist and some of his works can be see at Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth - but his failure to get enrolled at the Royal Academy in London was a blow.

He was disheartened by rejections of his stories and poems sent to a literary magazine. He was, perhaps, easily led astray into the taverns and inns where drink could be had. He was always poverty-stricken, but because he was an entertaining conversationalist, drinking pals would indulge him and he began to cadge. Under the influence of Coleridge, he started to take opium - which was easily available from corner shops as laudanum - for pennies, in the 1830s and 40s.

He worked as a railway clerk - and was dismissed when the till was found to be short (he probably didn't steal from it, but he was drunk when someone else did). He worked as a tutor to a well-to-do family, the Robinsons, where, the Victorian biographer Mrs Gaskell claimed, he was cruelly rebutted by his pupil's mother, Lydia, when he fell in love with her.

A more recent biographer, Joan Rees, has suggested that, in fact, Branwell may have had a homosexual relationship with the boy he was teaching - but we do not really know.

We only know that every enterprise Branwell undertook ended in failure and often in humiliation. Like many a profligate son, he broke his father's heart - "Branwell leads Papa a wretched life," wrote Charlotte. Although she had been close to her brother in childhood, she was exasperated by his faults and failings. His emotions were too strong and too easily aroused, she thought, his ambitions too grandiose and his character, alas, too weak. And yet others who met him also discerned his essential gentleness. When Branwell died, Charlotte wrote that their father: "Cried out for his loss like David for that of Absalom - my son! - my son!"

Branwell's poetry has survived in archives and is cited at length in Winifred Gerin's biography, written more than 55 years ago. Much of it is marked by mourning for his sister Maria, who had been a "little mother" to him. Sometimes the wounds of childhood are irreparable and for Branwell, the lost Bronte, it seems to have been the case.

Belfast Telegraph

Read More

From Belfast Telegraph