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12 February 2015

The phantom menace: in search of the real Branwell Brontë

Sanctuary: a Novel dramatises the lives of the writerly sisters - and their forgotten artist brother.

By Frances Wilson

Vanishing act: Branwell's portrait of the Brontës

Vanishing act: Branwell’s portrait of the Brontës

At the heart of the myth that surrounds the Brontës is Branwell’s painting of his three porcelain-skinned sisters, their unflinching gazes locked on another world. Branwell – the failed artist, poet and scholar of Greek; the sacked railwayman, dismissed tutor, disgraced debtor and local drunk – initially included his own likeness and then painted himself out with a pillar.

His outline, standing between the figures of Emily and Charlotte, glimmers on the canvas like a ghost, turning the image into a striking self-portrait. The Brontës’ feckless brother, with his childlike frame and carrot-coloured hair, started fading away in his own lifetime and has remained spectral ever since. “I know only,” Branwell wrote the year before he died, “that it is time for me to be something when I am nothing.” There was, recorded Charlotte, an “emptiness” to his “whole existence”.

Sanctuary is a noble if not altogether successful attempt to bring Branwell back into focus, to imagine what it is for a vivid imagination to lose its power. Set in 1848, when he was 31 and in the last year of his life, the novel falls into 50 brief chapters in which, speaking in the first person, Branwell gives us minutely observed scenes. He discusses social “progress” with packmen on the hills (“People like you and me, we are the men pushed aside”); he drinks with his friends; he is ticked-off by his family (“Father blames your drinking”); he debates European politics with Emily (“The French never settle. One thing always leads to another”); he dodges his creditors; beds down in inns and fields and on the kitchen floor; he dreams of the time he visited Hartley Coleridge; he fantasises about his (unconfirmed) affair with Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer; and he sets alight the bed he shares with his father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë.

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Biographies are assumed to be drier than fiction. While the biographer only looks through the window, the novelist and his subject occupy the same room, the same consciousness. But in trying to see Branwell as he saw himself, Robert Edric has created a more distant figure than the one caught by Elizabeth Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Brontë (Patrick Brontë described Gaskell’s portrait of his “brilliant and unhappy” son as “a masterpiece”), or by Daphne du Maurier in The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë. For du Maurier, the cause of Branwell’s unhappiness was not his failed love affair with Robinson but his “inability to distinguish truth from fiction”.

The Brontës’ lives have long been confused with their novels; it has always been difficult to tell truth from fiction. But while Brontë biographies read with the gusto of novels, Sanctuary feels constrained by its novelistic freedoms and sticks closely to the facts. Rather than revealing Branwell’s infernal world through the tones and textures of his narrative, Edric simply tells us how he comes across. “You are weak and without resolve,” Charlotte informs her brother. “And you veer from self-pity to hysteria and back again.” His family, meanwhile, rages around as Brontës should.

While the biographical Branwell staggers and crawls his way through his last months, Edric’s figure plods steadily along, his voice remaining flat and affectless. With or without opium, happy or in the pits of despair, the temperature of his thoughts stays the same. We know he is a nuisance only because Charlotte complains: “Wherever you go on in this house – in this whole place – there is want of harmony.” We know that he has become a disappointed pariah because he tells us so: “Sometimes I feel as if I’m an intruder in my own home. I go out into the world and then seem forever to return with my tail between my legs and licking my wounds.” Without these reminders, Branwell might well come across as a perfectly decent young man.

“I have become a far greater loss in my own life,” Branwell muses, “than I have become in the life of others.” What is he so afraid of? Why is he so intent on self-destruction? Why is Branwell Brontë still so hard to see? Only occasionally does Edric relax into his novelistic freedom and allow the shadowy form to emerge from the pillar.

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