The Haunted Brontë

January 12, 2012

A painting by Branwell Brontë that originally depicted he and his sisters. He later painted himself out.

Most people are familiar with the Brontës, if only through osmosis. Their novels—which include “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre”—have left an indelible mark on English literature. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were extraordinary women, writing at a time (the Victorian era) in which proper women did not indulge in such intellectual pursuits.

Lurking in the background of the sisters’ lives was their black sheep brother, Branwell. A painter and poet of some promise who never truly developed his skills, Branwell was a hedonist who paid dearly for his pleasures. He achieved some small measure of success when a number of his sonnets were published in prestigious papers of the day, but his literary ambitions were thwarted by his own fecklessness and failure to follow through. His business pursuits were marked by rash and reckless decisions, and he left a trail of debt that would never be repaid.

Branwell’s final shame occurred when he was dismissed from a tutoring position due to the discovery of an affair he was having with the married mother of one of his pupils. He returned to the Brontë home in disgrace. Here he lapsed into inconsolable despair and surrendered his tormented soul to alcohol and laudanum. His verse, when he attempted it, was invariably self-pitying. No one wanted to read poems called “When all our cheerful hours seem gone for ever”, especially in the rural Yorkshire village of Haworth, the Brontë family home. 

Haworth: Home of the Bronte family

Branwell Brontë died of tuberculosis in 1848 at the age of 31. We now know as much about the anguish that drove him to an early grave as we are ever likely to know. In history, as in life, Branwell was a minor character in a much larger drama. Branwell Bronte exists today as a result of his sisters’ success. Whether or not he consciously compared himself to them is not known, and is really not important. Having developed over a period of time a fascination with human folly, my own hypothesis is that Branwell was a victim of his own mediocrity in every endeavour that he pursued. And it was his awareness of that mediocrity that led to his demise. He could not live up to his own ideal.

Back in the early ’90s, a friend and I visited Haworth as part of a larger literary tour of England. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of Branwell’s old haunts, the Black Bull pub, was (and remains) a thriving business. There was nothing in the place to suggest that Branwell had ever stepped foot in it. My friend and I raised several glasses in his honour. We drank until closing time.

I do not recall leaving the Black Bull, and that missing time remains my tribute to the memory of Branwell Brontë.

Thanks for reading.