Our book today is Branwell by Douglas Martin (the author of the weirdly original Outline of My Lover), a historical novel about Patrick Branwell Bronte, the so-called 'lost Bronte,' brother to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. It's an quick, affecting novel, about one of literature's most poignant losers.
Young Branwell was handsome and raucously imaginative, but yeesh, talk about the deck of life's cards being stacked against you. Not only was his father a cramped, carping hypochondriac, but all three of his sisters there in the family parsonage at Haworth were prodigiously talented writers - exactly what Branwell always considered himself to be. Indelible masterpieces of English literature were germinated at that parsonage - Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, etc. - mainly because the three sisters made the crucial decision to take the incredibly elaborate day-dreaming all four of them had always indulged in and match it with work, with the actual generating of written pages. Branwell never took that step; he seemed always to want the day-dreaming to count alone.
In addition to which he's about as strong an argument as I know of for the idea that substance-addiction is a medical condition, something that strikes an individual like polio or consumption, rather than a consistently self-destructive choice. I don't cotton to that idea - what we do is always a choice - but reading the sad tale of Branwell's life is almost enough to give pause. From his early teens on, he always manages to find a congenial ale-house, and even after he can see as plainly as anybody that it's piling him under debt and ruining his life, he still doesn't stop.
Martin's book is told in a semi-dreamlike staccato present tense, and it's thickly overhung with a sense of pre-destined tragedy worth of the ancient Greeks:
His conduct, he feels, is marked by a cold debauchery, cutting its way down into his soul. There's the Lord Nelson to drink at, which stood in a square about a mile or so uphill from the station, beside the church.
He's chipping away at what he once dreamed of being.
For just these nights, they exchange their lives, from the distance over drink. He likes the places where the rough types and cultivated gentlemen meet. He's lost there everything familiar, but drink, his constant companion.
Just how far could he push this body.
In July of 1845, Branwell was abruptly dismissed from his position as tutor to young Edmund Robinson. The boy's father wrote an angry letter firing Branwell, alluding darkly to behavior "bad beyond expression." Branwell returned home and promptly lost himself in drinking, and speculation has been rife ever since as to what exactly happened. Daphne du Maurier, in her richly atmospheric, thoroughly absorbing 1960 biography of Branwell, treats the matter with her customary psychological delicacy:
If Branwell had been writing love letters to Mrs. Robinson, the husband would not have threatened him with exposure, for to expose Branwell would also expose the lady who received the letters. Did the Robinsons keep silent for the sake of Anne, and to spare Mr. Bronte, having learned something about Branwell which, in his father's near-blindness and uncertain state of health, might have proved a deathblow? It is possible that, left at Thorp Green with Edmund, and free from the constraining presence of his employer, he had attempted in some way to lead Edmund astray: no other "proceedings ... bad beyond expression" would quite seem to warrant "pain of exposure," and a charge "to break off instantly and forever all communication with every member of the family."
Martin's book came out in 2005, so its sensibilities aren't quite so doubting. Although historians of a more romantic or prudish turn of mind have always stuck to the story that reckless Branwell fell passionately in love with his employer's wife, Martin's novel has him setting his sights elsewhere, and even provides a semi-dreaming Anne as witness:
She heard something. Who was outside, there on the landing. Anne would have to go see, her heart beating in her ears.
The shadows of trees thrown over the walls painted in a picture, of limbs, and arms, around a body; a boy, in shadows, only waiting to be uncovered, gain with the wind a bit more stature, to rise up beside what appears to be another body. Two bodies were surely out there together. One of them is not quite as tall as the other.
Limbs only cradle other limbs.
We'll never know what happened that summer at Thorp Green, and Branwell himself died only a few years later, an utterly broken failure despite having been an equal partner in the unbelievably rich imaginings of his sisters while they were all growing up. Martin's very good book captures the surrealistic feel of that shared dream-world, and it leaves us wondering what we always wonder about people like Branwell Bronte: what things might he have done, if he'd had control over his own life?