Monday, July 16, 2012

Branwell Bronte

I wrote last week about John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists, and today I'll share a passage that demonstrates Sutherland's gift for concision. It comes from his group portrait of the Brontes:
At this point, in 1843, Anne's career crossed, fatefully, with that of her brother. Branwell, having failed to get the hoped for place at university, went on to fail as a portrait painter. Even more catastrophic was his being dismissed from a clerical job with the local railway firm under the suspicion of embezzlement. Despite his known dissipations, Anne secured for him a tutor's position with her own employers, the Robinsons. Branwell was dismissed from that post for "proceedings . . . bad beyond expression"--namely misconduct (vaguely specified) with Mrs Robinson. Mr Robinson threatened to shoot him. On his dismissal in 1845 he fell into a "spiral of despair" which he medicated with opium and alcohol.
Is there any figure on the periphery of literature more sadly useless than Branwell Bronte? That's not to say one doesn't have sympathy for him--being an alcoholic is far from easy, an alcoholic Bronte even more difficult--but all the same his chance at being a tragic figure is undone by his uncanny ability to fail at everything, usually in the most disreputable available fashion. A tragic figure must, I think, have some promise left sadly unfulfilled, no?

That said, at this late date what's the worst charge that can be laid at Branwell Bronte's door? The fact that his alcoholism--and, presumably, the hope of his sister that being confronted with its horrors might force him to deal with it--led Anne Bronte to ruin The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a book that opens with a gloriously ominous and intriguing setting of scene and character . . . then rapidly devolves into a dull-as-dirt temperance novel.

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