Brontë, Patrick Branwell
Patrick Branwell Brontë 1817-1848
English writer of poetry, narrative prose, and juvenilia.
The only brother of the famed Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—Patrick Branwell Brontë has often been viewed in stark contrast to these gifted and successful writers. Having died at the age of thirty-one, Branwell is regarded as the black sheep of the family—a drunkard and opium addict whose artistic and literary talents were never realized. Although he was extremely prolific from the time of his young manhood, producing scores of pieces of prose narrative and poetry, he was published only a handful of times in local newspapers during his lifetime and is hardly considered in light of his own literary endeavors. Instead, he is more often described in terms of his influence on the remaining Brontës. According to several scholars, Branwell's presence in the household contributed to a certain “peculiarity” in his sisters' writings. His shocking and decadent lifestyle provided fodder for the coarseness of a novel like Charlotte's Jane Eyre, the wildness of Emily's highly imaginative Wuthering Heights, and the degradation and ruin detailed in Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Though in total Branwell's writings outnumber the entire literary output of his sisters, reviewers have generally dismissed his work with scorn. A small number of modern Brontë critics blame this reaction on the fact that only fragments of Branwell's work are in print and believe that a full and accurate assessment can occur only when all of his scattered writings have been made accessible to readers.
Branwell, the fourth of six children, was born on June 26, 1817, at Thornton, Yorkshire, to the Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria. His family called him Branwell to avoid confusion with his father. In 1820 the family moved to a small stone parsonage in the desolate and remote village of Haworth, Yorkshire, where the reverend was named the perpetual curate. Soon thereafter, Maria died of cancer, leaving her six children in the care of her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, who spent the next twenty years as the Brontës' surrogate mother. The reverend, a Cambridge man and a poet and novelist of some repute, favored his only son, referring to him as the pride of his heart and encouraging him repeatedly that he was to become successful and make a name for himself. As a result, Branwell was treated differently from his sisters: he had a room to himself, overlooking the Yorkshire moorlands, while his five sisters slept in a tiny room on cots. He was schooled by his father, while his older sisters were sent to a charity school for daughters of poor clergy. The girls' stay at the school ended quickly, and within a year the two oldest daughters—Maria and Elizabeth—died, due in part to the school's unhealthy conditions. Thereafter, the remaining daughters were schooled by their aunt.
Having little contact with other villagers, the Brontë children were constant companions for each other, engaging in ardent discussions about politics and current events and sharing an intense love of reading. Branwell especially favored Jacobean and Elizabethan revenge drama and was well read in Latin and Greek authors and European history. Milton's Paradise Lost was an essential text for the imaginative children. The figure of Lucifer would prove to be particularly influential for Branwell, who held an idealistic view of the dark angel. Brontë legend has it that the heroic adventure writings of the Brontë children were sparked by Branwell's toy soldiers, a gift from his father when Branwell was nine. Branwell, along with each sister, picked out one soldier and named it. These soldiers became key players in elaborate adventure stories invented by the children to amuse themselves. While Anne and Emily wrote tales about the world of Gondal, Branwell and Charlotte began writing the Glasstown and Angria sagas together. The history of Angria became one of Branwell's first literary endeavors. For the next twelve years Branwell was an extremely prolific writer, composing roughly thirty volumes of stories, journals, histories, literary criticism, poems, and plays (excluding writings that have been lost). During the 1840s he saw the printing of about nineteen poems in local publications, including the Halifax Guardian, the Yorkshire Gazette, and the Leeds Intelligencer, most signed under the pseudonym “Northangerland.”
All along, however, his father intended Branwell to achieve his success as a painter, encouraged by his early talent in drawing. At the age of eighteen, he was sent to London to seek admission to the Royal Academy of Arts, though biographers report that he never bothered to apply. Amid speculations that Branwell feared rejection or that he simply had no desire to pursue the vocation are conjectures that he was already an alcoholic. Biographers and critics also point to personality traits that impeded him: Branwell simply did not have the stamina or the self-discipline to become successful, preferring to live in a world of fantasy rather than reality. By the age of twenty he could not support himself, and his boyhood education proved insufficient to meet his needs. Too old to attend a university, he allegedly worked for a short time as an usher at a boys' school. By 1840 he had obtained a position as a tutor at the Postlethwaite home, but Branwell was soon dismissed from his post for drunkenness. A short time thereafter he was hired as a railway clerk on the Leeds and Manchester Railway but was dismissed in 1842. The following year he joined his sister Anne as a tutor in the Robinson household at Thorp Green Hall. A man of rank and fashion, Mr. Robinson fired Branwell in 1845 after the young tutor, then twenty-eight, allegedly fell in love with the forty-three-year-old Mrs. Robinson. It is conjectured that this devastating situation drove Branwell to the depths of alcoholism and opium abuse. For the last three years of his life Branwell sunk into further despair, drunkenness, debt, and drugs, and began threatening suicide. Branwell died on September 24, 1848, officially as a result of chronic bronchitis, although his death was also attributed to marasmus.
Scholars suggest that after Branwell's death, a large portion of his writings may have been burned by family members who were distressed by the moral indifference and religious skepticism expressed in the works. Other manuscripts may have been lost after the elder Brontë died in 1861, when many personal items in the household were misplaced or destroyed. Experts believe that only one-tenth of Branwell's writings have survived. Of those writings known to exist, most were privately printed up to the early 1930s. The first full-length work to appear in print was Branwell's translation of the first book of Horace's Odes (1923), a work highly praised. The following year saw the publication of the prose fragment And the Weary Are at Rest, which Branwell composed circa 1845, reflecting his sorrowful involvement at the Robinson household.
This emphasis on the self and on his emotions, particularly the dark side of human emotions, is typical of Branwell's subject matter. Above all, he was introspective, dwelling on the affections of his childhood and his sorrow over the deaths of his sisters. He wrote of painful subjects, including the futility of human beings to experience joy amidst all of life's suffering. In his poem “Misery I,” written in 1835 after returning home from his unsuccessful London trip, he gave words to the memory of his grief over Maria's death some twelve years earlier. He also described his immense despair over having been ignored by Blackwood's magazine, which failed to respond to three letters he had sent in the hopes of joining their staff. In his poem “Misery II,” written in 1836, Branwell brought up the issues of judgment and damnation and explored his religious doubts and cynicism, strong ideas for a young man who had been brought up in an exceptionally religious household. The theme of guilt also figures prominently in the poems written after his failed trip to London.
Branwell's most important work is his continuous biography of Alexander Percy, a larger-than-life sinner who searches for liberty and freedom. Percy is a character in Branwell's Angrian writings, a body of tales set in a vast, colonial English society undergoing the establishment of a monarchy. Revolving around the basic conflict between order and anarchy, the tales involve wars and uprisings, political manipulations and powerful greed, wild carousing, and sorrowful romantic liaisons. Containing several long stories including the fictional chronicles The Life of … Northangerland (written in 1835) and Real Life in Verdopolis (written in 1833), as well as some poems, the Angrian writings feature the dramatic and extraordinary character of Percy, also known as the Earl of Northangerland, Lord Elrington, or the Rogue. A ruthless man without virtue, Percy has his roots in Milton's Lucifer, an indomitable anti-hero with an unrestrained appetite. Branwell was fascinated with Percy, as he was with the entire Angrian kingdom, and eventually described the melodramatic character as his alterego.
On the whole, Branwell's critical reputation was cemented by Charlotte's exceedingly unfavorable judgment of him, revealed in a number of bitter letters sent to her publisher just after Branwell's death. According to Brontë scholar Robert G. Collins, Charlotte's assessment “was the sentence of death upon Branwell's reputation.” Charlotte had not spoken to Branwell for about two years before his death, and days after his funeral wrote: “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement … but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light. … There is such a bitterness of pity for his life and death, such a yearning for the emptiness of his whole existence as I cannot describe.” Elizabeth Gaskell, whose 1857 biography became the basis for subsequent Brontë studies, received most of her information about the family from Charlotte, who described the sad but welcome death of her brother. In 1886 Francis A. Leyland, a friend of Branwell's, attempted to restore Branwell's character with the publication of The Brontë Family, with Special Reference to Patrick Branwell Brontë. Claiming that Branwell had been unfairly characterized, Leyland attempted not to clear Branwell of his wrongs but to depict him as a man to be admired in spite of his flaws. Many critics found the book to be dull, however, and continued to maintain their earlier perception of Branwell.
The practice of condemning Branwell continued into the 1940s and 50s, with critics generally claiming that his work showed very little, if any, signs of genius. In 1960, the critical tide turned somewhat when Daphne Du Maurier, in her study The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, argued that Branwell's reputation had been maligned. A year later Brontë scholar and biographer Winifred Gerin made a case for the need to study Branwell's works as a whole in order to understand his tortured and disappointing life and to comprehend the emotional outlook of the writer. The most recent scholarship echoes Gerin's argument, acknowledging the futility of trying to assess Branwell's overall purpose and qualifications when most editions of his works either include outdated or unreliable information, contain inaccuracies due to difficulties in dating or assigning authorship, or simply bring together fragments of his work. For a proper critical assessment of Branwell's merits as a writer, recent critics contend that a complete and accurate source of all of Branwell's known writings is needed.
Brontë Poems: Selections from the Poetry of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë (poetry) 1915
The Orphans, and Other Poems [with Charlotte and Emily Brontë] (poetry) 1917
The Odes of Horace. First Book [translator] (poetry) 1923
*And the Weary Are at Rest (prose fragment) 1924
†The Poems of Charlotte Brontë and Patrick Branwell Brontë [with Charlotte Brontë] (poetry) 1934
†The Miscellaneous and Unpublished Writings of Charlotte and Patrick Branwell Brontë [with Charlotte Brontë] 2 vols. (prose narratives and poetry) 1936, 1938
The Poems of Patrick Branwell Brontë: A New Annotated and Enlarged Edition of the Shakespeare Head Brontë (poetry) 1983
Brother in the Shadow: Stories and Sketches by Branwell Brontë (stories and sketches) 1988
The Poems of Patrick Branwell Brontë: A New Text and Commentary (poetry) 1990
‡The Hand of the Arch-Sinner: Two Angrian Chronicles of Branwell Brontë (fictional chronicles) 1993
The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: An Edition 2 vols. (poetry and prose) 1997,1999
*Several examples of Branwell's poetry appeared as early as 1886 in Francis A. Leyland's two-volume biography The Brontë Family, with Special Reference to Patrick...
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SOURCE: Leyland, Francis A. “Branwell's Character.” In The Brontë Family, with Special Reference to Patrick Branwell Brontë, Vol. II, pp. 287-302. New York: Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1971.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1886, Brontë's friend Francis A. Leyland avers that Brontë's writings grew out of his intense personal emotion and passionate spirit.]
It has often been observed that the life of a poet may best be learned from the works he has left behind him. We may fall into error in dealing with the circumstances of his external life, and may make mistakes as to chronology or facts, and, in this way, may be led often to form a false estimate of his character; but, if we discover the personality concealed in his writings, if we can grasp the hidden spirit by which they are informed, we shall be enabled to follow his heart in its cherished affections, to understand the characteristic tendency of his thoughts, and to comprehend even the very psychology of his soul. This enquiry, it is true, is often difficult in the extreme; one cannot always unravel the tangled mysteries in which natural expression is wrapped up, nor fully pierce the cloudy medium of conventionality or affectation through which it may be dimly revealed; it is especially difficult, also, to follow it in the works of a writer of a school like that of the Euphuists, or of Pope, where the medium is one of...
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SOURCE: Law, Alice. “Wuthering Heights—by Branwell?” In Patrick Branwell Brontë, pp. 141-84. London: A. M. Philpot, Ltd., 1923.
[In the following excerpt, Law argues that Branwell, not Emily, wrote Wuthering Heights, citing the masculine tone of the novel among other evidence to support her claim.]
We must now examine the evidences of Branwell's actual known literary power and achievements, and the particular reasons for believing that he was the author of Wuthering Heights.
It will be necessary to turn back again to the year 1845, and to the close of the month of July, when Branwell, summarily dismissed from his tutorship, had returned home, because it was during the months immediately following his return that his literary activities, already alluded to, have a special significance in connection with our enquiry.
During the time when so many of Branwell's critics suppose that he was giving his entire leisure to drink and dissipation, we have his own evidence, taken from a letter he wrote to his friend Leyland in September, 1845, less than two months after he left Thorp Green, that he had long been turning over a great literary project in his mind. This was the preparation of a novel in three volumes. His own words are as follows:
I have, since I saw you at Halifax, devoted my hours of time, snatched...
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SOURCE: Drinkwater, John. “Patrick Branwell Brontë and His ‘Horace.’” In A Book for Bookmen: Being Edited Manuscripts and Marginalia with Essays on Several Occasions, pp. 43-59. London: Dulau & Company, Ltd., 1926.
[In the following essay, privately printed in 1924, Drinkwater considers Brontë's poetic merits in light of the constant criticism that his was a talent unrealized and misused. Drinkwater finds Brontë's translations of the first book of Horace's Odes his finest poetic accomplishment.]
Patrick Branwell Brontë died in 1848, at the age of thirty-one. Little celebrated for any achievement of his own, he is a not unfamiliar figure to students of the ever-increasing volume of Brontë literature. Through the life-story of his more famous sisters, already sufficiently tragic in itself, his failure of character sounds, perhaps, the most unhappy note of all. The scourge of disease that destroyed the family, and the incessant problem of ways and means, could be faced with a greater fortitude than the constant betrayal of the hopes that were centered in a brother at once highly gifted, beloved, and incurably weak in fibre. Most of the biographers and critics have been agreed upon the matter, and the evidence is plain enough. Branwell made a mess of his life, and he was a cause of great suffering to three brave and devoted women. When drink and opium made...
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SOURCE: Du Maurier, Daphne. “Chapter Six.” In The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, pp. 60-74. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1960.
[In the following excerpt, Du Maurier focuses on Brontë's immense literary activity during the years 1836 to 1838.]
Branwell's literary output, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one, was fantastic. The complete history of the kingdom of Angria in nine parts, including several long stories and many poems, covers sheet after sheet of manuscript, all in microscopic handwriting. These manuscripts, scattered as they are today, and housed in various collections throughout the country, might—after years of study—give the patient reader some idea of this extraordinary conception.
Here was this imaginary colony, situated where we should find Ghana and Nigeria today, founded by the original soldier adventurers when Branwell was eleven or twelve years old; then split into kingdoms, united into an empire, given a written constitution and an army, its geography and population noted in minute particular, relief maps drawn, military and political history recorded, the life stories of the individual leaders, with their personal appearance, qualities, failings, and emotions, all described in detail; the whole a gigantic fantasy conjured up in the imagination of a brother and sister who were constantly separated by the sister's school term, and neither of...
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SOURCE: Collins, Robert G. “The Fourth Brontë: Branwell as Poet.” Victorian Poetry 23, no. 2 (summer 1985): 202-19.
[In the following essay, Collins undertakes a close examination of Brontë as a poet, considering his publishing history, relationships with his sisters (particularly Emily), poetic influences, and primary themes and characters.]
Many men write their own epitaph, but few have damned themselves as effectively in doing so as did Branwell Brontë. Consider one of his last surviving notes, written to his life-long friend and sometime custodian, John Brown:
I shall feel very much obliged to you if you can contrive to give me Five pence worth of Gin in a proper measure.
Should it be speedily got I could perhaps take it from you or Billy [William Brown] at the lane top, or, what would be quite as well, sent out for, to you.
I anxiously ask the favour because I know the good it will do me.
Punctually at Half-past Nine in the morning you will be paid the 5d out of a shilling given me then.
Yours, P. B. B.1
When put into words, one man's agony quickly becomes his...
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SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “Patrick Branwell Brontë: Eternal Adolescent.” In The Brontës: Branwell, Anne, Emily, Charlotte, pp. 57-72. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Knapp characterizes Brontë as a young man forever mourning the loss of his childhood, unable to achieve any measure of self-discipline, maturity, or strength of character and hiding himself in a fantasy world rather than facing reality.]
There was a light—but it is gone. There was a Hope—but all is o'er, And friendless, sightless, left alone, I go where thou hast gone before, And yet I shall not see thee more. Ha! say not that the dying man Can only think of present pain, Oh no! Oh no! it is not so, For where, Maria, where art thou!(1)
Branwell, like Romantics such as Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge, cultivated his imagination and emotions rather than his reason, thereby yielding to the continuous lure and excitement of the adventuresome, supernatural, morbid, and melancholy in life. His poetry, prose, and life-style reveal a painful egocentricity and overwhelming tendency toward self-indulgence. Unlike his highly disciplined sisters, who were continually attempting to deal with problems at hand, Branwell spent his time looking back, mournfully, toward his childhood. He set out to recapture and integrate into his present those happy years, through the medium of writing. Because...
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SOURCE: Collins, Robert G. Introduction to The Hand of the Arch-Sinner: Two Angrian Chronicles of Branwell Brontë, edited by Robert G. Collins, pp. ix-xliii. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Collins offers a comprehensive introduction to two of Brontë's Angrian chronicles, The Life of … Northangerland and Real Life in Verdopolis, describing their inception among the tales of the Brontë children's “Great Glasstown Confederacy” and noting their emphasis on the figure of the Luciferian anti-hero.]
I only feel that every power— And Thou hadst given much to me— Was spent upon the present hour, Was never turned, my God, to Thee;
That what I did to make me blest Sooner or later changed to pain; That still I laughed at peace and rest, So neither must behold again.
8 August 1841.1
To reduce a man's life to a chronology is, paradoxically, to leave everything—or nothing—to the imagination. For a century and a half, Patrick Branwell Brontë has been defined as absolutely as anyone associated with literature could conceivably be. However, his image to even the cultivated mind is certainly that of a literary character, a Dickensian grotesque, rather than of a complex personality who produced a body of creative work which might conceivably be interesting in itself. Branwell's influence on literature is,...
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Gerin, Winifred. “Misery.” In Branwell Brontë, pp. 111-29. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1961.
Focuses on the events immediately following Brontë's failed trip to London when he began writing his “Misery” poems and examining his own desolation and despair.
———. “The Authorship of Wuthering Heights.” In Branwell Brontë, pp. 307-14. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1961.
Refutes all arguments that Branwell authored Wuthering Heights.
Hanson, Lawrence, and E. M. Hanson. The Four Brontës: The Lives and Works of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë. London: Oxford University Press, 1949, 414 p.
Offers a comprehensive biographical account of all four of the Brontë siblings, with special emphasis paid to the influence each one had on the others.
Kinsley, Edith Ellsworth. Pattern for Genius: A Story of Branwell Brontë and His Three Sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, Largely Told in Their Own Words. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1939, 384 p.
Intermixes passages from the Brontës' novels, poems, and juvenilia with chronologically arranged biographical information in order to reconstruct the lives of the famous siblings.
Leyland, Francis A. The Brontë Family, with...
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