Anne, Emily, Branwell, and Charlotte Bronte in a painting by Branwell around 1834. He later painted himself out of the portrait. www. tangledpasta.net
By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli
On March 26, 2017, PBS broadcast the film To Walk Invisible The Bronte Sisters. I found this title curious since the film devoted a great deal of time to Branwell Bronte, the sisters’ only brother. Branwell cast a shadow over the lives of his family for multiple reasons: he was the only male heir; he was as talented as his sisters; and he was an alcoholic and drug addict. That the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were superbly gifted writers goes without saying. However, Branwell remained the unrealized talent.
For my Senior Seminar as an English major at Indiana University Bloomington in the 1970’s, I was fortunate to have been accepted into the seminar, “The Brontes,” spearheaded by Professor Susan Gubar. We read everything, and I do mean everything, poems, novels, and unfinished manuscripts, written by The Brontes, including Branwell. Jane Eyre’s pluck and compassion; Heathcliff’s virility and vulnerability, Helen Graham’s defiance and liberation thrilled me no end. Yet Branwell’s dissolute living seemed to me to stem from a sense of fear and sense of inferiority. He certainly could have applied to study art in London, but he shrunk from what? The competition? His possible lack of great talent? Whatever his demons, Branwell squandered his money on drink, and then returned to his father’s home at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, England. He painted portraits, worked on translations of the classics such as Homer, and composed poetry.
I found Branwell intriguing. I mused about what his life must have been like with the intellect and writing grandeur of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne under the same roof. His sisters elected not to reveal to him the success of their novels, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey because they feared upsetting him. Clearly Branwell turned out to be a disappointment, having thwarted his own considerable talents, and having engaged in a liaison with his employer’s wife, Lydia Robinson, which resulted in another loss of a job. Branwell’s behavior worsens as To Walk Invisible progresses, as it did in reality. The continual havoc he inflicted upon himself and upon his family becomes increasingly hard to watch. His death serves as a relief that put him out of his addictive thrashing and raving, opium as the drug of choice and the alcohol. All I could think of was what I pondered in my Senior Seminar class on The Brontes all those years ago: such tormented talent cast aside. I even wrote my lengthy Seminar paper on Branwell. To Walk Invisible rekindled my interest in Branwell, in spite of his demons.
Ciao for now.