Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Brilliant Brontes: Branwell Bronte: The Lost Son

Anne Bronte (1820-1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 - Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 - Haworth, 1855), English writers, Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), ca 1834. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 19 Dec 2015.

Patrick Branwell Bronte, was the only son in the Bronte family, but he became a tragic disappointment to himself and his relatives. Branwell died at the age of 31 due to alcoholism, opium addiction, and tuberculosis. Branwell, as he was called by his family, was as talented as Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, but lacked focus to such an extent that if he were alive today, he'd likely be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Branwell was the first published poet of the family and also pursued painting and music with the encouragement of his father, Reverend Patrick Bronte.

The Bronte family was constantly pummeled with losses, tragedy, and economic hardships. Their effervescent mother Maria Branwell Bronte died of uterine cancer when the children were very small. Two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis, exacerbated by their time enrolled at the notorious Cowan Bridge School. Their devoted servant, Tabitha Aykroyd, and somber aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, cared for the children after her sister's death and were constant, unselfish caregivers. Aunt Elizabeth remembered her three nieces in her last will and testament, leaving each of them £900, which made it possible for them to pursue writing full-time, after many attempts to provide for their family as teachers and governesses. Branwell was not remembered in her will, because it was assumed that as a man, he would be the most capable of making a living.

The graveyard surrounded the Bronte family parsonage's house and garden, which meant that decaying bodies polluted the water supply, which is about as unsanitary and Gothic as it can get. The villagers suffered even more from epidemics of cholera, typhus, smallpox, and dysentery, because the sewage drained in their direction. The average age of death was 25 years old. After the daughter's experiences at Cowan Bridge School, the world must have seemed to be an ominous place, despite their father's guidance and their spiritual inner resources. Branwell didn't find comfort in religion and even professed atheism, although on the day he died, he had a quick change of heart.

The deaths of their mother and especially their sister Maria impacted the family tremendously; however, Branwell seems to have never recovered from these devastating losses. Branwell's father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte insisted on educating Branwell at home, but his motives for doing so have been a subject of speculation. It could have been a cost saving measure so that the sisters could be educated away from home or Patrick's concerns about Branwell's propensity for tantrums and overall high-strung emotional instability. Regardless, Branwell was spoiled, coddled, severely isolated and unable to cope with reality as an adult. Patrick taught his children literature, geography, history, mathematics, the classics, Latin, French and poetry. Nothing was off limits to his children from his library. His educational contributions and encouragement for walking and enjoying the inspiring Yorkshire moors influenced his brilliant children immeasurably.

As a curate, Patrick Bronte realized that he would be unable to provide his daughters with dowries needed at that time to secure advantageous marriages for them. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were acutely aware of their need to provide for not only their family, but for themselves after their father and aunt passed on. The Bronte children were extraordinarily intelligent, imaginative, and prolific writers, even at a very young age. Their first major literary undertaking came in the form of toy soldiers Patrick gave to twelve-year-old Branwell, which he shared with his sisters.

Branwell named his toy soldier Bonaparte, Charlotte's soldier was the Duke of Wellington, Emily named her soldier Gravey, and Anne dubbed her soldier Waiting Boy. These toy soldiers became vehicles for the poems, plays, and stories of their fantasy worlds of The Glass Town, Verdopolis, Gondal and Angria. The children's sources of inspiration came from The Arabian Nights, Lord Byron, and the political developments they followed in the news. Branwell drew the maps of Angria. Each child developed their writing skills through this creative refuge, producing tiny books in order to preserve their need for secrecy.

In 1831, Charlotte was sent to the Roe Head School in order to prepare herself for gainful employment and started to withdraw from Branwell. Emily and Anne began their own collaboration about the fictitious Gaaldine, an island in the South Pacific. As he grew older, Branwell began to hang out with the other town boys at the local tavern. He constantly borrowed money, incurred debts and tried to be a musician and a painter. There are numerous stories about why Branwell failed to apply to the Royal Academy of Arts, the most famous one being that Branwell was too intimidated and afraid of failure, so he spent the week sight-seeing and drinking the money provided for this important trip.

Branwell was apprenticed to a portrait painter named William Robinson. Branwell's famous portrait of his sisters originally included him, but at some point Branwell decided to remove himself by painting over his own figure. Eventually, Branwell decided to give up trying to make a living as a portrait painter, despite his promising talent. Supposedly, William Robinson didn't teach his student how to properly mix his paints. Branwell's paintings do have unpolished, amateurish qualities that testify to his lack of discipline.

In 1839, Branwell tutored two boys in the Lake District, but was fired in 1840. Branwell then tried to work as a clerk for the railroad and wrote poetry that he got published in various literary papers. Branwell was fired by the railroad in 1842 over bookkeeping errors, but probably more for a mixture of incompetence and drunkenness than deliberate theft. The next year, Branwell tutored the oldest son in the Robinson family, where his sister Anne was established as the governess. In July of 1845 he was fired for having had an affair with the mother, Lydia Robinson. He returned to Haworth in disgrace and sank into a consuming depression that was exacerbated by his alcohol and opium abuse. After the death of Mrs. Robinson's husband, she refused to reunite with Branwell and periodically sent him hush money, which he used to feed his addiction.

Branwell's behavior at home deteriorated and his family took the brunt of his self-pity, tantrums, debts, and destructive acts, such as setting his own bed on fire. Patrick took it upon himself to share a bed with Branwell in order to keep him under some semblance of control, even as Branwell exhibited delirium tremens. He died on September 24, 1848 of a combination of the effects of his addiction, which also masked a walloping case of tuberculosis. Branwell summed up his life with the following words: “In all my past life I have done nothing either great or good.”

Branwell's difficult personality and downward spiral of addiction impacted his sisters' novels. Anne Bronte spent considerable time caring for Branwell at his lowest moments, so she did not romanticize difficult men the way Charlotte and Emily did in their novels. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the mistreated wife, Helen Graham, flees her alcoholic husband, Arthur Huntingdon, whose vicious behavior is impacting their son. Anne's depiction of Arthur Huntingdon's demise mirrored Branwell's death and shed a light on how alcoholism affects families.

The character Hindly Earnshaw in Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights, is not only an alcoholic, but cruel, miserable, and loses Wuthering Heights through accruing unmanageabel debt. Near the end of Branwell's life, his debts were considerable and the possibility of jail was imminent, despite his shattered health.

In Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre, John Reed, Jane's loathsome cousin becomes an alcoholic and out of control gambler who commits suicide in order to escape his astronomical gambling debt. The gin-loving servant Grace Poole's naps allow Bertha to escape and set a fire in Mr. Rochester's bedroom and to ultimately set the fire that destroys Thornfield.

Alcoholism and substance abuse was one of the dark sides of the Victorian Era. People could obtain cocaine, laudanum, arsenic, and various kinds of opiates at the local drug store. The temperance movement was on the rise. Ironically, Patrick was the president of his local temperance society and Branwell served as the secretary.  Branwell was a lonely young man who craved male friendship. Alcoholics and drug addicts had a solitary struggle of harrowing abstinence tinged with stigma. The Bronte family was deeply enmeshed and helpless to save Branwell, who died, probably without ever being informed of the publication of his sisters' books.

In the aftermath of Branwell's death, Charlotte wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey:

"He Died after 20 minutes struggle on Sunday Morning 24th Septbr . He was perfectly conscious till the last agony came on - His mind had undergone the peculiar change which frequently precedes death, two days previously - the calm of better feelings filled it - a return of natural affection marked his last moments - he is in God's hands now - and the all - powerful - is likewise the all - merciful - a deep conviction that he rests at last - rests well after his brief, erring, suffering, feverish life fills and quiets my mind now. The final separation - the spectacle of his pale corpse gave more acute, bitter pain than I could have imagined - Till the last hour comes we never know how much we can forgive, pity, regret a near relation - All his vices were and are nothing now - we remember only his woes." - See more of Charlotte's letters at:

For further reading about Branwell and his family check out the following recommendations:

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë

The Brontës : Branwell, Anne, Emily, Charlotte  

*This post is part of our year-long Brilliant Brontës challenge! To see more posts, search for the labels "Brontë, challenge" in the blog sidebar. 

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