Initial Thoughts: Jane Eyre by: Charlotte Brontë is my favorite novel of all-time. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is also very high upon my list of favorite novels. Ever since I discovered the Brontës, I have been astounded by the legends and the myths associated with them. There truly is no end. But, out of all the Brontës, Patrick Branwell Brontë has often been vilified and slandered by the biographers of his famous sisters. Branwell Brontë, unlike the names of Charlotte and Emily, is not a household name. He has been labelled the family failure, or the source of misery to his sisters. Even Daphne du Maurier’s biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (which I reviewed about a year ago), hardly salvages his reputation. I was curious to read Alice Law’s biography of Branwell (a largely forgotten biography) to compare it to my image of Branwell.
Who was Patrick Branwell Brontë?
Patrick Branwell Brontë (otherwise called Branwell by his family) was the only brother of the famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. He was born in 1816 and died at the age of 31 from tuberculosis due to an overconsumption of alcohol and opium. Like his sisters, Branwell had literary aspirations, and from a young age, his father believed him to be the genius of the family. But, Branwell never lived up to his family’s expectations. His sister Charlotte Brontë is the author of the acclaimed novels, Jane Eyre, The Professor, Villette, and Shirley. His sister Emily wrote the famous novel Wuthering Heights. Finally, his sister Anne wrote Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In a family of literary geniuses, what went wrong with Branwell?
Alice Law’s biography of Branwell begins with the story of his short life and short-lived (mostly unproductive career). Unfortunately, my skepticism on Law’s research arose when she produced the wrong date of birth and location of Branwell’s birth:
Patrick Branwell Bronte was born in the Parsonage House, Haworth, near Keighley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1818″ – Patrick Branwell Brontë , Alice Law
These are just small details. Branwell was born in Thornton, near Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1817. Mentally, I chided myself for pouring over these small details. But, when you begin reading a biography, and it gives you wrong information in the introduction, the reader will automatically grow skeptical no matter the importance of the details.
As I read onward, I discovered a few anecdotes and facts about Branwell that I had not come across while reading Daphne du Maurier’s biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë . I liked reading about Branwell’s love of music and his love of nature. These traits helped me to form a better picture of what he had been like as a person.
I really liked that she did not try to antagonize Branwell. Law says that other biographers in the past did
[…] strive to give their readers an impression that Branwell’s whole life was a trial and disgrace to his family; whereas we know that only during the last three years, when he was suffering abnormal strain of physical and mental anguish, did he become the source of acute anxiety and distress to his father and sisters. For at least twenty-seven years he was the object of pride and dear affection” – Patrick Branwell Brontë , Alice Law
Imagine if your entire life was judged on a meager three years of your life while the other more productive years of your life would be ignored. It is not that I want to condone Branwell’s behaviour. His alcoholism and cycle of addiction was very hard on his family. But that is not all Branwell was during his lifetime.
Out of all of his siblings, it was Branwell who was first accepted for publication. He had written some poetry for a prominent magazine. But, this is hardly known by fans of the Brontes. In fact, there is a running myth that Branwell just wasn’t a very good poet. I do not consider myself to be a good judge of poetry, but I do like Branwell’s paintings. So, he certainly wasn’t an entire failure throughout his life.
Instead of turning Branwell as the one to blame for his health problems, Law places a lot of the blame on Branwell’s elder sister, Charlotte Brontë. She shapes Charlotte into a person who only cared about her literary ambitions instead of the failing mental and physical health of her brother. She writes:
Something could still have been done for him had the personality of his elder sister [Charlotte] been other than what it was, but her patience was exhausted, her pride outraged, and she made it clear on all sides, both in the family and out of it, that she took no further interest in him […]
She was moreover possessed of a hard vein of biting sarcasm which, combined with an explosive temper when crossed, must have made her, for the inmates of the Parsonage ‘gei ill to live wi'” It may be said that her attitude towards Branwell was natural enough, that is, for those whose standard is measured by her criterion […]
The honor of the family name and the pursuit of her own personal ambition were dearer to her than the saving of her own brother – if indeed he could be saved” – Patrick Branwell Brontë , Alice Law
It sounds very unfair that Charlotte should be responsible for Branwell’s fall into alcoholism. So little is known what went on in the Bronte’s household. All we know of the years of Branwell’s decline is through the letters of the family and testimonies of those who knew the family.
The second half of the biography is devoted to proving that it was Branwell who wrote Wuthering Heights instead of his sister Emily Brontë . Automatically, I sighed. Law’s argument took up half of the book, and it was hardly convincing. Her arguments are as followed:
Men and women are not stirred up to write passionate works unless they have experienced something of such passions themselves”
“There hangs an unmistakable air of masculinity that cannot be evaded.”
“[…]this saturnine humour is not a woman’s, least of all Emily’s.”
– Patrick Branwell Bronte, Alice Law
Law’s arguments are archaic and quite sexist. Basically, a woman couldn’t have written Wuthering Heights because it seems way too masculine. Also, she writes that Emily was not as familiar or educated with the classics, and Wuthering Heights draws upon the classics in its construction. But, Emily was educated, and it could be argued she had a better education than her brother as she attended a girls’ school and she went to Belgium to be educated. Luckily, today, all disputes regarding the authorship of Wuthering Heights have been put to rest.
All in all, this was an interesting biography to read of Branwell even though the facts were questionable, and Law’s opinions often clouded her judgement. I would recommend this short biography to fans of the Brontës as it presents another (albeit unpopular) interpretation of who the Brontës were.
Even though I enjoyed this biography, there are way too many flaws to grade it higher than a D.
About the Book
Title: Patrick Branwell Brontë Author: Alice Law Year Published: 1923 Genres & Subjects: Non fiction, Biography, Patrick Branwell Brontë Recommended: Yes Received: Ebook copy (Public Domain)
Where to Buy…
Alice Law’s biography Patrick Branwell Brontë is available in the public domain as an ebook, and it can be accessed here.
Amazon (United States)
Until Next Time,