Branwell "The Forgotten" Brontë (1817-1848)

Patrick Branwell Brontë was born 26 June 1817, fourth child and only son of Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë1. He and his sisters grew up in the town of Haworth, a relatively isolated place, though not so bad as you may have heard. Maria died of cancer in 1821, and the two oldest daughters died of consumption in 18252, which made the four surviving kids (Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne) really stick together. Together they created the worlds of Gondal and Angria, epic sorts of kingdoms populated partly by Branwell's toy soldiers. Branwell and Charlotte worked together on poems and stories about Angria (leaving Anne and Emily to work together on Gondal), and though he was very fond of writing, it was decided early on that Branwell would be a painter3. He was apprenticed to a portrait painter named William Robinson, who passed all of his bad habits along to Branwell. William's most notable failure as a teacher was in neglecting to show Branwell the proper way to mix paint. His portrait of his sisters, which now hangs in the National Gallery and is quite popular, shows the problem with this: Branwell had originally put himself in the painting, then decided to remove his likeness by painting over it. This paint is now fading, revealing Branwell's ghostly image. Neat!

In any case, Branwell quickly gave up the idea of making a living as a portrait painter. In late 1839, he went to tutor two boys in the Lake District4. By the summer of 1840, he had been dismissed, probably for fathering a child by one of the maidservants5. He quickly got another job in the railroad, and though Charlotte was horrified that he wasn't devoting his life to some form of art, he still kept up his poetry on the side, getting quite a bit of it published in some of the more respected literary papers of the time. He was fired by the railroad in 1842 over a discrepancy in his bookkeeping, and was very depressed about it. The next year, he went to act as tutor to the oldest boy in the family where his sister Anne was governess. This job lasted about as long as his others; in July of 1845 he was abruptly dismissed, probably for having had an affair with the lady of the house, an older woman who is often labelled as a wicked temptress6, though there's really no way of telling who seduced who.

Whoever started the affair, Branwell fell into a deep depression when it ended. He started drinking heavily and generally worrying himself into illness. Charlotte was merciless in expressing her disapproval over Branwell's behavior, especially his apparent reluctance to find another job7. Around this time, the sisters published their book of poetry, and Branwell's exclusion from this literary endeavour only depressed him further. When his mistress' husband died in May 1846, Branwell was convinced he would now marry Mrs. Robinson, though she had no intention of marrying a penniless man seventeen years her junior8. She kept Branwell away by telling him that Mr. Robinson's will required her to stay away from him, never mind marrying him. She sent him money every so often, which he promptly spent on drink and possibly opiates.

His health, never great, was terrible by this time. He was plagued by delirium tremens (the D.T.'s), at one point even setting his own bed on fire, which probably would have killed him if Anne and Emily hadn't managed to put the fire out. His debts were out of control, and legal action was threatened. His last few days were marked by a strange calm on Branwell's part, during which time his father persuaded him to repent. He died fairly peacefully on 24 September 1848. Among his last words: "All my life I have done nothing either great or good9." I don't know about great, but some of his poems are pretty good, in my opinion.

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

  1. He was always called Branwell to avoid confusion with his father.

  2. Feel free to refer to Charlotte's biography if you'd like more detail on some of these things.

  3. Charlotte wanted to be a painter as well. She might have done a lot better at it than Branwell did.

  4. It wasn't a very exciting job, but he had to earn money somehow.

  5. Okay, so he found a way to make it an exciting job.

  6. Her name was Mrs. Robinson. No, really, it was. [If you don't get this joke, rent "The Graduate", starring Dustin Hoffman.]

  7. Of course, Charlotte herself had been unemployed for about two years at this point.

  8. She was in hot pursuit of the wealthy Sir Edward Scott, whose wife was not expected to live. She succeeded in her ambition just six weeks after Branwell's death.

  9. If you think that's depressing, try this quote from a letter written by a friend of his, Francis Grundy: "Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon...More sinned against, mayhap, than sinning, at least he proved the reality of his sorrows. They killed him."

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