Throughout the nearly 170 years since his death, Patrick Branwell Brontë, the great white hope and later black sheep of Yorkshire’s most famous literary family, has cut a Byronic figure in the popular imagination. The image of the hard-drinking, opium-eating, rebellious and ultimately tragic wastrel-genius has grown to almost mythic proportions, with Branwell often (and erroneously) cited as the inspiration for many of his sisters’ romantic heroes: from brutalised Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and womanising Rochester in Jane Eyre to the alcoholic philanderer Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (in reality the only Brontë hero who may have been loosely based on Branwell). A promising poet, his fall from grace and descent into alcoholism following a doomed affair with the “diabolical seducer” Mrs Robinson – his employer’s wife – could almost be a Victorian morality tract against the dangers of forbidden lust and intemperate vice.
His lingering “bad boy” reputation is one that Branwell would perhaps rather welcome than regret. From the early days of what is misleadingly known as the juvenilia (these writings, set within the Brontës’ imaginary childhood kingdoms of Gondal, Glasstown and Angria, actually continued throughout much of their adult lives), Branwell had delighted in creating the sort of dashing, roistering, charismatic hero that would later find a counterpart in the pages of his sisters’ novels. Inspired by the works of Walter Scott and the Romantic poets, as well as his favourite periodical, Blackwood’s Magazine, Branwell’s writing took him away from sleepy Haworth parsonage and allowed him to live vicariously through his characters in a world of intrigue, seduction, political machinations and military campaigns – a world that was as real to him as everyday life.
In the fantasy world of Angria which he shared with his elder sister Charlotte (with younger siblings Emily and Anne partnering to create Gondal), the character who came to dominate Branwell’s prolific writings was Northangerland, an unprincipled, scheming anti-hero and powerful political orator constantly at war with Charlotte’s favourite character, Zamorna: a paradigm of sexual magnetism who was the predecessor of her Mr Rochester in everything but appearance. That Branwell strongly identified with Northangerland is evidenced by his use of the name as his pseudonym when he published verse in the regional papers. His illustrations for the juvenilia, which tend to portray both Zamorna and Northangerland with a classical Roman profile and elegantly curled hair, also show just how far he identified himself with the romantic heroes of Angria.
Branwell had indeed inherited his father Patrick’s prominent Roman nose and in adulthood wore his shock of red hair artistically curled and combed around his face. Despite his unimposing stature – he was only 5’3” tall – he was a charming, convivial, eccentric and yet oddly naive figure, handsome according to the standards of the day, who was easily able to befriend men and charm women. As the darling of the Brontë household, the brilliant only son who was to provide for the family after their father was gone, Branwell managed to escape the crippling shyness and reserve with which his sisters so often struggled in society. His easy, captivating manners, his obvious intellect and his talent as both writer and artist fully justified the Brontës’ high hopes for their brother.
Branwell had no intention of letting them down. He had a prodigious opinion of himself and was ambitious in the extreme. Like his political and military idols, the young poet intended to do great things and make his mark on the world, fancying for himself a shining future as a great society artist, a noble statesman, a respected man of letters, a brilliant and courted writer and any number of other high-flying vocations.
Unfortunately, however, Branwell’s early career was a series of failures and false starts, needing all his characteristic resilience to dust himself off and move on to the next challenge following each setback. His first foray into the world of work was at the age of 21. Setting up as a portrait painter in Bradford in July 1838, this career was abandoned when he struggled to earn enough to support himself. Next, drawing on the classical education his Cambridge-graduate father had provided at home, he sought a position as a private tutor in a gentleman’s family. This, too, was short-lived: Branwell was dismissed from a comfortable position in the Lake District after only seven months, probably when his employers learned that he had fathered an illegitimate child by a local woman (the child, who died young, may have been the subject of Branwell’s 1846 poem “Epistle from a father on earth to his child in her grave”. Written six years after Branwell’s dismissal, this could imply the little girl died in her sixth or seventh year). His next position, as clerk at the new Luddenden Foot Rail Station, was terminated when a shortfall was discovered in his accounts, although he was not suspected of theft or wrongdoing; merely carelessness. While Charlotte had despised this role as far beneath her brother’s talents, Branwell had himself sought the opportunity to work on that wonder of the modern world, the rapidly expanding railway network, and was apparently happy in the position.
Finding himself unemployed and back at the parsonage for the third time in his short working life, having held three jobs in roughly as many years, the young man was also becoming despondent about his literary endeavours. He had written several times to his favourite magazine, Blackwood’s, offering his poetry but had never received a reply, although his work was certainly of a high enough standard for consideration. He also sent his writing to a number of literary heroes, including William Wordsworth, Hartley Coleridge and Robert Southey, without receiving any response. One of the real tragedies of Branwell’s life is that some of these potential patrons, Coleridge for example, actually did value his work but never got around to replying to him – here he came far closer to success than perhaps he ever realised. In other cases Branwell proved himself his own worst enemy, repelling Wordsworth and the editor of Blackwood’s with his flattering, arrogant, bombastic style of address and his poorly checked letters, which were often full of schoolboy errors in spelling and punctuation.
At this point in his career, 25 years old and with a number of different vocations tried and failed, it must have seemed a lifeline to Branwell when his youngest sister Anne, who was then employed as a governess by the wealthy invalid Revd. Edmund Robinson of Thorp Green near York, told him the family needed a tutor for their young son and offered to recommend him.
Branwell began work as Edmund Robinson Jr’s tutor in early 1843. He may well have been determined that this time, with a second chance to succeed as a tutor, he would not make a mess of things, but it seemed that temptation at Thorp Green – in the shape of Revd. Robinson’s wife Lydia – was difficult to resist. Mrs Robinson is often unfairly painted as the corruptor of “poor” Branwell Brontë, largely as a result of references to the affair in Mrs Gaskell’s posthumous biography of Charlotte, but Branwell himself was certainly no angel where women were concerned, as his natural child in the Lakes indicated. According to his own testimony, however, Mrs Robinson was the one to instigate the relationship. Branwell wrote of his dilemma to his friend John Brown after just three months in the job:
“My mistress is DAMNABLY TOO FOND OF ME… Is it worth-while for him [Branwell, referring to himself in the third person] to go to extremities, which she evidently desires?” he asked Brown. “The husband is sick and emaciated – she is always making him presents, talking to his sister (the governess) about him – telling him she does not care a farthing for him – asking him if he loves her & so on.”
Evidently Branwell decided that it was worth “going to extremities” with Mrs Robinson, and the two embarked on an affair. Although her later behaviour would suggest that his mistress never saw Branwell as anything more than the plaything of an idle hour, the young man was well on his way to being very much in love. What he saw in Mrs Robinson, a vain society woman of no especial beauty who was 17 years his senior, is hard to conjecture. Perhaps Branwell, who had lost his own mother at the age of four, was drawn to an older woman who gave him all the affection he craved. Certainly his adopted mother, the Brontës’ aunt Elizabeth Branwell, had died just two months before he went to Thorp Green, a loss which had apparently hit him hard. “I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood,” he wrote sadly to his friend Francis Grundy on the day of Aunt Branwell’s death.
Branwell’s happiness with Lydia Robinson was to be short-lived. It was only a matter of time before her husband discovered what was going on right under his nose. After two years at Thorp Green, Branwell was found out and instantly dismissed, returning to Haworth Parsonage in deep disgrace and with his future career forever blighted by the stigma of having had an affair with a married woman. Although the Robinsons did their best to hush up the business – long after Branwell’s death, Mrs Robinson was still claiming he was a deluded fantasist and threatening libel action against those who suggested otherwise – it was nevertheless widely known among his circle. Young Brontë himself certainly saw no reason to keep quiet about it, sharing the tale of his woes with anyone who would lend him a friendly ear.
That Branwell, always with one foot in the daring and dramatic land of Angria, relished his new character as a star-crossed lover is obvious. Now firmly established back at Haworth, he bored his drinking companions and irritated his family with sentimental poems dedicated to “Lydia Gisborne” (Mrs Robinson’s maiden name) and grandiose references to his lost love as “one whom I may never see again”. But nor can his very real depression and love for Mrs Robinson be doubted, as they rapidly turned him from a heavy social drinker to an incurable alcoholic.
At this stage, however, hope was not entirely lost. Revd. Robinson had been ill for some time, and there was always the prospect that on his death the two lovers could be reunited, legally, as man and wife. Branwell still believed that Mrs Robinson was as deeply in love with him as he with her, and although she refused to see him, using trusted emissaries – her medical man and lady’s maid – to plead ill health brought on by the dramatic events, he was confident that Robinson’s death would remove all impediments to their union.
He was wrong, of course. Revd. Robinson died less than a year after Branwell’s dismissal from Thorp Green, sending him almost manic with excitement. Not only could he now be with his beloved Lydia, but the thorny problem of his career would also be settled: with money enough at his disposal to be a gentleman of leisure, he could finally pursue his literary bent as a poet and man of letters.
The news which then came from Thorp Green, again delivered by Mrs Robinson’s physician Dr Crosby, drove Branwell half-mad and marked the beginning of his rapid decline. The two could not be married, claimed Branwell’s informant: Revd. Robinson’s will expressly forbade it (this was demonstrably untrue), and his widow would forfeit her inheritance if she made a match with her son’s erstwhile tutor. Mrs Robinson, the doctor claimed, was driven almost insane by grief, regret and guilt and had fallen dangerously ill (this, too, was almost certainly untrue). She could never see Branwell again.
All was up for the young man who had once held such a high opinion of his genius and prospects. His ambition and his love thwarted, over the next two years he gave himself up entirely to drink, famously also using opium purchased over the counter from the Haworth apothecary to deaden the pain and nightmares brought on by the onset of delirium tremens. Opiates would also have helped with the worsening pain in his side and chest and his constant, wheezing cough – symptoms too easily masked by his other problems, but which signified the beginning of the consumption that would kill him.
Mrs Robinson would not see or correspond directly with her former lover but was liberal-handed enough in making him gifts of money. If she didn’t send Branwell the cash with the express intention of helping him to drink himself to death, nor did she care what use he did make of it, and he became dependent on her bounty to feed his habit and pay his debts. Like many addicts, Branwell grew devious as he grew desperate, cajoling, demanding and stealing money from his father to subsidise his drinking habit and making frequent requests to Dr Crosby for further funds from Mrs Robinson’s coffers. By 1847 that lady herself was living with her distant relatives Sir Edward and Lady Scott, marrying Sir Edward herself on 8 November 1848 just three months after the passing of his ailing wife – and only six weeks after Branwell’s pitiful end.
Branwell died at Haworth parsonage on 24 September 1848, aged 31, and was laid to rest in the family vault inside the village church. He was to be joined by his sister Emily just three months later, and Anne was also to die within seven months of her brother, all three succumbing to the same fate: the dreaded consumption (tuberculosis).
Perhaps there would, after all, be little triumph for Branwell in the fact that he is now almost as well-known as his high-achieving sisters, remembered as the sort of man he had always fantasised about being: brooding, mysterious and morally dubious, yet fascinating and, somehow, irresistible. Often seen as inferior in genius to his siblings, Branwell in fact possessed a fine artistic mind, showing both talent and taste, and should have been capable of great works. Nor was he entirely unsuccessful in his life, publishing poetry in newspapers which included the discriminating Halifax Guardian. But the real end to all his talent and promise was ignominious, his last written composition a pathetic scrawl to his old friend John Brown begging him for fivepenny-worth of gin – a drink that in happier times he had despised as unworthy of a gentleman. “In all my past life I have done nothing either great or good,” he is said to have wailed to Brown as he lay dying, all the hopes and dreams he had once cherished evaporated. For all his shortcomings, Branwell Brontë deserved a better fate.
His friend Francis Grundy perhaps best eulogised Branwell and the tragedy of his short life: “Poor, brilliant, gay, moody, moping, wildly excitable, miserable Brontë! No history records your many struggles after the good – your wit, brilliance, attractiveness, eagerness for excitement – all the qualities which made you such ‘good company’, and dragged you down to an untimely grave.”
- Barker, Juliet. “The Brontës”, 2010
- The British Newspaper Archive
- Brontë, Patrick Branwell (ed. Neufeldt, VA). “The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: 1837-1848”, 1999
- Orel, Harold. “The Brontës: Interviews and Recollections”, 1997
- The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
On Ouse’s grassy banks – last Whitsuntide,
I sat, with fears and pleasures, in my soul
Commingled, as ‘it roamed without control,’
O’er present hours and through a future wide
Where love, me thought, should keep, my heart beside
Her, whose own prison home I looked upon:
But, as I looked, descended summer’s sun,
And did not its descent my hopes deride?
The sky though blue was soon to change to grey -
I, on that day, next year must own no smile -
And as those waves, to Humber far away,
Were gliding – so, though that hour might beguile
My Hopes, they too, to woe’s far deeper sea,
Rolled past the shores of Joy’s now dim and distant isle.
Branwell Brontë, 1st June 1846