Today is the birthday (1817) of Patrick Branwell Brontë, better known as simply Branwell Brontë, an English painter and writer. He was the only son of the Brontë family, and brother of the writers Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Branwell Brontë was the fourth of six children and the only son of Patrick Brontë (1777–1861) and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë (1783–1821). He was born in Thornton, near Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, and moved with his family to Haworth when his father was appointed to the perpetual curacy in 1821.
While four of his five sisters were sent to Cowan Bridge boarding school, Branwell was educated at home by his father, who gave him a classical education. Elizabeth Gaskell, biographer of his sister, Charlotte Brontë, says of Branwell’s schooling “Mr. Brontë’s friends advised him to send his son to school; but, remembering both the strength of will of his own youth and his mode of employing it, he believed that Branwell was better at home, and that he himself could teach him well, as he had told others before.” His two elder sisters died just before his eighth birthday in 1825, and their loss affected him deeply.
Even as a young boy Brontë read extensively, and was especially fond of the “Noctes Ambrosianae”, literary dialogues published in Blackwood’s Magazine. He took leadership role with Charlotte in a series of fantasy role-playing games which they jointly wrote and performed about the “Young Men” — characters based on a set of wooden soldiers. The plays evolved into an intricate saga based in West Africa about the fictitious Glasstown confederacy. From 1834, he both collaborated and competed with his sister Charlotte to describe another imaginary world, Angria. Branwell’s particular interest in these invented worlds were their politics and wars, including the destructive rivalry between their heroes, Charlotte’s Arthur Wellesley, duke of Zamorna, and his Alexander Percy, earl of Northangerland. At age 11 in January 1829 he began producing a magazine, later named Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine which included his poems, plays, criticisms, histories and dialogues.
Unlike his sisters, Branwell was not prepared for a specific career. In his only real attempt to find work, on the death of James Hogg, a Blackwood’s writer, the 18-year-old Branwell wrote to the magazine suggesting himself as a replacement. Between 1835 and 1842, Brontë wrote a total of six times to the magazine, sending poems and offering his services. His letters were left unanswered.
In 1829–30, Patrick Brontë engaged John Bradley, an artist from neighboring Keighley, as drawing-master for the children. Bradley was an artist of some local repute, rather than a professional instructor, but he may well have fostered Branwell’s enthusiasm for art and architecture. Bradley emigrated to America in 1831, and Branwell continued his studies under the portrait painter William Robinson. In 1834 he painted a portrait of his three sisters. He included his own image but became dissatisfied with it and painted it out. This portrait is now one of the best-known images of the sisters and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1835, he wrote a letter to the Royal Academy of Arts seeking to be admitted. Earlier biographers reported a move to London to study painting, which quickly ended following Brontë’s dissolute spending on drink. Other biographers speculated that he was too intimidated to present himself at the Academy. More recent scholarship suggests that Brontë did not send the letter or even make the trip to London. According to Francis Leyland, Brontë’s friend and a future biographer of the family, his first job was as an usher at a Halifax school. More certainly, Brontë worked as a portrait painter in Bradford in 1838 and 1839. Though certain of his paintings, for example that of his landlady Mrs. Kirby and a portrait of Emily show talent for comedic and serious styles, other portraits lack life. He returned to Haworth in debt in 1839.
With his father, Branwell reviewed the classics with a view to future employment as a tutor. At the beginning of January 1840, he started employment with the family of Robert Postlethwaite in Broughton-in-Furness. During this time he wrote letters to his pub friends in Haworth which give “a vivid picture of Branwell’s scabrous humour, his boastfulness, and his need to be accepted in a man’s world”. In his own words he started the job off with a riotous drinking session in Kendal.
During this employment he continued his literary work, including sending poems and translations to Thomas De Quincey and Hartley Coleridge who both lived in the Lake District. At Coleridge’s invitation, he visited him at his cottage and encouraged him to pursue his translations of Horace’s Odes. In June 1840 he sent the translations to Coleridge, despite having been sacked by the Postlethwaites. According to Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontës, he may have fathered an illegitimate child during time in the town, but others suspect that it may be more of his boasting.
Coleridge began an encouraging letter about the quality of the translations in November–December 1840 but never finished it. In October 1840, Branwell moved near to Halifax, where he had many good friends including the sculptor Joseph Bentley Leyland and Francis Grundy. He obtained employment with the Manchester and Leeds Railway, initially as ‘assistant clerk in charge’ at Sowerby Bridge railway station. Later, on 1 April 1841, he was promoted to ‘clerk in charge’ at Luddendenfoot railway station in West Yorkshire. In 1842 he was dismissed due to a deficit in the accounts of £11–1s–7d. This had probably been stolen by Watson, the porter, who was left in charge when Branwell went drinking, but was attributed to incompetence rather than theft and the missing sum was deducted from his salary. A description by Francis Leyland of Branwell at this time described him as “rather below middle height, but of a refined and gentleman-like appearance, and of graceful manners. His complexion was fair and his features handsome; his mouth and chin were well-shaped; his nose was prominent and of the Roman type; his eyes sparkled and danced with delight, and his forehead made up of a face of oval form which gave an irresistible charm to its possessor, and attracted the admiration of those who knew him.” Another described him less flatteringly as “almost insignificantly small” and with “a mass of red hair which he wore brushed off his forehead – to help his height I fancy… small ferrety eyes, deep sunk and still further hidden by the never removed spectacles.”
In January 1843, after nine months at Haworth, Branwell took up another tutoring position in Thorp Green, where he was to tutor the Reverend Edmund Robinson’s young son. His sister Anne had been the governess there since May 1840. As usual, at first things went well, with Charlotte reporting in January 1843 that her siblings were “both wonderously valued in their situations.” During his 30 months service Branwell corresponded with several old friends about his increasing infatuation with Robinson’s wife Lydia. He wrote, perhaps unreliably, to one of his friends that “my mistress is DAMNABLY TOO FOND OF ME” and sent him a “lock of her hair, wch has lain at night on his breast – wd to God it could do so legally !” In July 1845, he was dismissed from his position. According to Gaskell, he received a letter “sternly dismissing him, intimating that his proceedings were discovered, characterizing them as bad beyond expression and charging him, on pain of exposure, to break off immediately, and for ever, all communication with every member of the family.” For several months after his dismissal, he regularly received small amounts of money from Thorp Green, sent by Lydia Robinson herself, probably to dissuade him from blackmailing her husband (or herself).
Branwell returned home to his family at the Haworth parsonage, where he looked for another job, wrote poetry and attempted to adapt Angrian material into a book called And the Weary are at Rest. During the 1840s, several of his poems were published in local newspapers under the name of Northangerland, making him the first of the Brontës to be a published poet. Soon however, after Rev. Robinson’s death, Lydia Robinson made clear that she was not going to marry Branwell, who then “declined into chronic alcoholism, opiates and debt”. Charlotte’s letters from this time demonstrate that she was angered by his behavior. In January 1847, he wrote to his friend Leyland about the easy existence he hoped for: “to try and make myself a name in the world of posterity, without being pestered by the small but countless botherments.” His behavior became increasingly impossible and embarrassing to the family. He managed to set fire to his bed, after which his father had to sleep with him for the safety of the family. Towards the end of his life he was sending notes to a friend asking of “Five pence worth of Gin”. It is not known whether he was even informed of the 1847 debut novels of his three sisters.
On 24 September 1848, Branwell Brontë died at Haworth parsonage, most likely due to tuberculosis aggravated by delirium tremens, alcoholism, and laudanum and opium addiction, despite the fact that his death certificate notes “chronic bronchitis-marasmus” as the cause. Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte reports an eye-witness account that Brontë, wanting to show the power of the human will, decided to die standing up, “and when the last agony began, he insisted on assuming the position just mentioned.” On 28 September 1848, he was interred in the family vault.
Some of Branwell’s art is reproduced in this post, and if you care to you can examine his poetry here https://allpoetry.com/Patrick-Branwell-Bronte I am not going to excerpt any of it here because it is mediocre – at best. That may well sum up his life. His sisters showed much more imagination, creativity, and sheer effort in their literary productions. I do not believe that Branwell had less potential, but he certainly lacked dedication and application. A cautionary tale.
I have mentioned some of the dining habits of the Brontë household at Haworth here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/emily-bronte/ which includes a recipe for a pie that Emily enjoyed making. On 24th November 1834, Emily writes, “we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips, potato’s and applepudding the kitchin is in a very untidy state.” Boiled beef with turnips and potatoes would seem to me to be a hearty but basic recipe which you could make in celebration. Or you might try this richer version from Mrs Beeton. The “ketchup” she is referring to is mushroom ketchup, not the tomato version that is common these days. You can find it in some supermarkets, or order it online.
STEWED BEEF or RUMP STEAK (an Entree).
INGREDIENTS.—About 2 lbs. of beef or rump steak, 3 onions, 2 turnips, 3 carrots, 2 or 3 oz. of butter, 1/2 pint of water, 1 teaspoonful of salt, 1/2 do. of pepper, 1 tablespoonful of ketchup, 1 tablespoonful of flour.
Mode.—Have the steaks cut tolerably thick and rather lean; divide them into convenient-sized pieces, and fry them in the butter a nice brown on both sides. Cleanse and pare the vegetables, cut the onions and carrots into thin slices, and the turnips into dice, and fry these in the same fat that the steaks were done in. Put all into a saucepan, add 1/2 pint of water, or rather more should it be necessary, and simmer very gently for 2-1/2 or 3 hours; when nearly done, skim well, add salt, pepper, and ketchup in the above proportions, and thicken with a tablespoonful of flour mixed with 2 of cold water. Let it boil up for a minute or two after the thickening is added, and serve. When a vegetable-scoop is at hand, use it to cut the vegetables in fanciful shapes, and tomato, Harvey’s sauce, or walnut-liquor may be used to flavour the gravy. It is less rich if stewed the previous day, so that the fat may be taken off when cold; when wanted for table, it will merely require warming through.
Time.—3 hours. Average cost, 1s. per lb.
Sufficient for 4 or 5 persons.
Seasonable at any time.