A wasted Life: The story of Patrick Branwell Brontë in his bicentennial year
by Christa Ackroyd
On June 26th two hundred years ago in front of the fire in the little cottage that served as the village parsonage in Thornton on the outskirts of Bradford, Patrick Branwell Brontë came into this world. The fourth child of the Reverend Patrick Brontë and his beloved wife Maria, he was named after his father and also given his mother’s maiden name.
There was much excitement at his arrival. Patrick in particular was overjoyed at the birth. A scholar as well as a vicar, he had high hopes for his only son. He would school him himself in the classics and make a fine man of him.
Three years and two more children later, the whole family left the cobbled streets of Thornton to walk the seven miles over the rough moorland to Haworth, where Patrick had been promoted to perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels with the keys to the imposing house beyond the church that today sees hundreds of thousands of visitors make their own pilgrimage to the small hilltop village that became so synonymous with Yorkshire’s most famous literary family.
On that day as the family set off on their new adventure from Thornton, there was no hint of the tragedies that were to beset them, of the worldwide acclaim the three sisters would achieve in sharp contrast to the wasted talents of the only boy. The tragedy of the story of Patrick Branwell Brontë was that he possessed all the brains, talent and ambition of his famous siblings but sadly lacked their drive and determination, and he was to live much of his later life in self-pity and self-loathing.
“He possessed all the brains, talent and ambition of his famous siblings but sadly lacked their drive”
But on that day when Branwell was but a toddler and later troubles could never have been imagined, the family must have made a fine sight as the village turned out to wave them off; the popular clergyman with his snowy silken wound cravat, his adoring if not exhausted wife and their happy, giggling brood of six children, some walking, some perched high on the cart that carried their belongings, Anne but a babe in arms, all on their way to a new life that promised a happy future.
Now 200 years since his birth it is easy to dismiss Branwell Brontë as the hopeless drunk, the second-rate artist, the spurned lover, whose famous sister Charlotte was forced to pay off his mounting debts in an abundance of local hostelries to avoid him being thrown into prison, bringing shame on the family and yet more grief to his unsuspecting father for whom he was still the apple of his eye.
Indeed, until the magnificent drama from Sally Wainwright To Walk Invisible screened last year and centred on his last wasted years, Branwell has been largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated of Brontë aficionados and certainly dismissed as the black sheep of the family, the bad apple, the total failure.
Yet on the bicentenary of his birth there is so much more to Branwell Brontë. Who wouldn’t have loved to sit alongside him in the Black Bull on Haworth Main Street years later where he was given free drinks as a renowned raconteur for entertaining the passing clientele on what was then a busy bustling thoroughfare for traders and pack horse drivers.
If it were true that among his many party pieces was an ability to write and translate Greek and Latin – one with one hand, the other with his other – we too might have been persuaded to fill his glass again and again until the landlord said no more and sent for one of his long-suffering sisters to see him home to bed.
“Branwell Brontë was a tortured sensitive soul”
Branwell Brontë was a tortured sensitive soul; a man totally bereft of the ‘I can do’ attitude of Charlotte, or the passion of Emily and the sweetness of Anne, who all so often despaired of what he had become.
But we have to remember at four years old he witnessed the long slow painful death of his mother to ovarian cancer and the overwhelming grief of his father who could hardly bear to listen to the “innocent yet distressing prattle” of his six children, so painful a reminder were they of his departed soulmate. And when his two older sisters Maria and Elizabeth aged just 11 and 10 succumbed to the deadly tuberculosis that claimed so many during that era of poor health, meagre diet and even poorer sanitation within weeks of being brought home ill from school, their younger brother who had stayed behind to be taught by his father must have witnessed more suffering than was bearable or imaginable for one so young.
That is not to suggest that Patrick gave up on parenting or was the unkind uncaring widower and grieving insular father he was later portrayed. You have to remember life expectancy in Haworth and his surrounding parishes was just 25 for adults, and 40 per cent of the villagers’ own children would die before the age of six, so the family were well used to the sound of the bell tolling for yet another funeral from the church tower beyond the blackened graveyard so visible from their bedroom windows.
Yet busy, sad and demanding his life was, Patrick continued to teach Branwell and had high hopes for his future, paying for his painting lessons and playing games when his parish duties allowed. He bought Branwell the famous wooden toy soldiers that in turn led to the creation of the children’s imaginary world of Angria for Charlotte and Branwell and Gondall for Emily and Anne, written by hand in the tiny books many of which are now proudly housed in their former home as an example of all their blossoming talents.
“He certainly learned to drink and even worse take opium”
But it was Branwell’s plans to become an artist which began the slow road to destruction. Firstly it was said his visit to London in an attempt to enrol at the Royal Academy ended in him spending his money in a local tavern and coming home in shame. It is more likely this quiet country boy was totally overwhelmed at both the grandeur of the capital city and doubtful of his talent as an artist and ran back as fast as he could to the safety of a life he knew and people who knew him.
However, rather than brand him a failure as an artist whose subsequent studio in Bradford was also doomed, let us not forget it is his painting of his three famous sisters – with himself painted out in a fit of disgust – that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery among the best paintings in the world. And it was his poems which were published long before his sisters sent their collection of verse for consideration. And that Hartley Coleridge, the son of the renowned poet whom Branwell visited and subsequently sent some of his translations of the classics in Latin, deemed him a man of ‘masterly’ talent, of ‘sound scholarship…the only young poet in whom I could find merit enough to comment without flattery.’ Sadly Coleridge never did send Branwell’s translation to his publishers or we may have been writing a very different story.
Instead Branwell found himself a station master firstly at Sowerby Bridge and subsequently at Luddenden Foot. If it was far from his artistic ambitions it was still a respected post in a burgeoning industry and his family must have breathed a collective sigh of relief that is until he was dismissed for a clerical discrepancy of eleven pounds and sent home in disgrace. There has never been a question that Branwell stole the money, merely that he neglected his
accountancy duties, preferring instead to seek the company of artists and scholars who met regularly at the Lord Nelson in Luddenden and in the taverns of nearby Halifax. That being said he wasn’t entirely blameless. He certainly learned to drink and even worse take opium, often considered the drug of the thinkers. Indeed his friend Francis H Grundy wrote sympathetically of the man he described as: “A strange creature. Alone in the wilds of Yorkshire with few books, little to do, no prospects and wretched pay. Plenty of wild rollicking hard-headed half-educated manufacturers would welcome him to their houses and drink with him as often as he chose to come. What was this morbid mad who couldn’t bear to be alone, to do?”
But: “He was ever in extremes gloriously great or ingloriously small. He would discourse with wondrous knowledge upon subjects moral, intellectual and philosophical and afterwards accompany his audience to the nearest public house and recruit his exhausted powers by copious libations.” The downhill slide into infamy had begun.
But even then there was hope. As Grundy said, Branwell remained “proud of his name his strength, his abilities.” Though in a rage he also saw him drive his fist through a door. So home he was sent, only to be offered the job of tutor to the son of a wealthy family at Thorpe Green Hall on the outskirts of York, where Anne was governess. And there the final disaster struck. If Branwell’s letters are to be believed – and above all he was used to pouring out his emotions honestly – he began an affair with the mistress of the house, the love of his life and the eventual destruction of it, the original Mrs Robinson, the older woman whom Branwell said “My master is generous but my mistress is damnably too fond of me.” She was 17 years his senior and Branwell claimed she seduced him.
The affair began according to Branwell with an “unexpected declaration of more than ordinary feelings.”
Whether it did or lived within Branwell’s imagination has often been debated. What is true is he believed Lydia Robinson was “the one whom I must til’ death call my wife.”
Inevitably gossip within the household led to their discovery and to her husband threatening to come after him with a shotgun if he returned from his vacation, and he had what today would be deemed a total breakdown.
“I have lain during nine long weeks utterly shattered in body and broken down in mental despair,” he wrote. Even when old Mr Robinson died and Branwell dreamed of being reunited with his beloved Lydia, she instead married a titled gentleman and the depression and drinking worsened.
“He dragged himself from his death bed and died standing up”
What Patrick thought of his failing son is not recorded but Charlotte was livid. “Papa is harassed day and night …we have little peace,” she wrote. “He is always sick …two or three times has fallen down in fits. What will be the ultimate end God knows.”
“Writing in a letter to her friend she was even blunter: “The more I know of him I wish I could say to you one word in his favour but I cannot.”
Days before he died, one of his last acts was to beg a friend to bring him five shillings of gin. He would he said pay him later. And when the sorry end did come, with true Branwell drama, it was reported he dragged himself from his death bed and died standing up. He was aged 31, and in his own words had achieved “nothing either great or good.”
What a sad ending to a brother for whom Charlotte had such aspirations and ambitions. “Now,” she wrote, “there is such a bitterness of pity for his life and death, such a yearning for the emptiness of his whole existence.”
But if in death she expressed her disappointment at what her brother could have been it was because she knew he could have been so much more. The brother who shared her vivid imagination in childhood had been just as clever, just as strong and carefree as all the children were. Life it would seem simply got in the way.
And so she wrote more kindly: “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 shining light. Til the last hour comes we never know how much we can forgive, pity, regret. All his vices were and are nothing now.”
It is thought Branwell died never knowing of his sisters’ growing fame and success as talented authors, that they never told him because they knew he could not bear it.
But one thing is certain. They loved him. And they forgave him.