Anyone who has taken a literature course has likely heard of the Bronte sisters. Three sisters who became some of the most significant figures in the cannon of English writers. But the family had its fair share of skeletons hiding in their closet. Their family home in West Yorkshire. Three of his daughters found fame, but two died as children and their mother followed not long after. But perhaps most striking is the forgotten brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Patrick Branwell Bronte.
Although he was given ‘Patrick’ as a first name he was always known as ‘Branwell’. Which was a tribute to his mother’s maiden name. All of the Bronte children where educated by their father Coming from a farming family in Ireland he wanted to give his children the best start in life. He instilled in them a passion for arts and literature that he’d cultivated during his time studying at Cambridge University. Branwell could write in Greek and Latin from a young age, allegedly with both hands. One writing Greek and the other writing Latin. He developed a love for reading and writing, he also was well read and enjoyed literature and magazines discussing contemporary issues. He had a vibrant personality too, man claimed that he was charismatic and able to entertain with thoughtful conversation and anecdotes. As a brother he was described as very caring and nurturing of the creativity of his younger sisters. Together they designed a fantasy world and wrote short stories. These beginning when Branwell gifted his toy soldiers to them as ‘characters’. Unfortunately the death of his mother and two sisters affected him deeply. Particularly his eldest sister, Maria, who he grieved for well into his adulthood. He immortalized his feelings in a poem called ‘Caroline.”
Naturally by the time he was 21 he was ready to take on the world, moving to Bradford to set up a painting studio. Making a living as a portrait painter. During his time there he gained a number of friends in the artistic community but failed to realize just how competitive and niche a field portraiture was. Unfortunately his career never warranted him enough money to make it a viable profession. He was forced to take a job on the railway as a clerk. However this career also ended after a few months after a discrepancy was found in his accounts. Allegedly his behavior on the job was also a cause for concern as he favored spending his time in local inns and sketching. The tipping point perhaps came with his next job. He was employed as a tutor in the Robinson household in Thorp Green near York. His sister Anne had been a governess for the children and recommended him to the household. He worked for the family from 1843 until 1845 when his employment ended in disgrace. For the duration of his employment he’d been having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the mother of the children he was employed to tutor. Although it appears she continued sending him money for several months. Likely to persuade him to keep quiet on the matter rather than show her care. Even after the death of her husband the year after, she made no attempt to contact him. Branwell meanwhile seemingly continued to grieve his loss, writing poems (‘Thorp Green’ and ‘Linda Gisborne’) that mirror his yearning for Mrs. Robinson.
At this point the Bronte sisters begin to grow frustrated with their older brother. Dealing with the reality of addiction in a person so close to you can be a painful process even in today’s society where we have a greater understanding of these illnesses. But for the 19th century it was a terrible taboo that could reflect badly on the whole family. We can see this resentment in letters written by the sisters to those outside the village. In one letter to a close friend, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte commented that: “While he is at the home I will invite no one to share in our discomfort.” Emily voiced her opinion that he was a “Hopeless being.”
In an effort to control him and spare their reputation he was kept in the family home as much as possible. Alas the sisters where not often present, leaving this duty mainly on their aged father. It was most certainly more than he could handle, Branwell became aggressive and volatile. During one episode he came close to burning down the house as he set his bed on fire, igniting his own clothes in the process. Thankfully Charlotte had been attending him at the time and was able to put out the fire. But this meant that he would spend the rest of his nights sleeping with his father for his own safety and his families. This didn’t sit well with Branwell, whose frustration grew more heated. He regularly got into fights if he left the home, both verbal and physical. At one dark point he threatened to kill his father, much to the disgust of his sisters. His relationship with his sisters fractured further, Branwell becoming so jaded that he took a family portrait he’d created and removed his likeness from it, replacing his figure with a pillar.
The final letter written by Branwell to a friend begging for just “5d (5 pence) worth of Gin. Because I know the good it will do me.” To be exchanged at a location away from his home away from his father’s eye. The letter in its entirety is a desperate and paranoid plea. He was lost to himself, his angered outbursts and despair being symptomatic of his frustration with his own situation and his family’s reactions
Weeks later on the 24th September 1848, Branwell died in the family home from what is assumed to have been tuberculosis. The illness was however likely aggravated by his alcoholism and drug abuse. Some reports from ‘witnesses’ claim that he used all of his will power to stand up in his final moments. This claim comes from a third hand biography of Charlotte Bronte, written by Elizabeth Gaskill years after all the siblings had died, it is probably an exaggeration. What is more probable is that he was more delirious than lucid at the time of his death. Being that he was suffering from alcohol withdrawal and had increased his consumption of Laudanum and opium to cope with the pains. When we consider “chronic bronchitis-marasmus” was originally recorded as his cause of death it gives us a good image of his physical state, breathing issues, coughing, malnutrition and weakness. All symptomatic of his addictions making matters worse to the extent they misunderstood the illness.
Branwell was a deeply troubled individual. For decades he vanished into obscurity only remembered by few as a brutish rouge. However it seems apparent to me that he was one of the many cases of great potential falling into unfortunate circumstances. His legacy may have been sealed in his influence on his sisters and community. Some scholars claim that Emily Bronte’s Wuthering heights took the inspiration for Heathcliff and Hindley from Branwell’s life. Heathcliff shares his temper and wild nature with a touch of magnetism while Hindley descends into alcoholism and gambling with developing abusive tendencies. In more recent years there have been moves towards redemption, people have explored his life in more detail with the mindful understanding we now have towards addiction. This is reflective of our need to re-examine figures from history with new perspectives, removing bias that may have shadowed them in their time. The sheer amount of figures who, like Branwell, slipped through the cracks of history deserve a second glance.