Patrick Branwell Brontë Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.