By Darcey Steinke July 6, 2020
Well there are many ways of being held prisoner.
—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
Twenty years ago, the writer Douglas A. Martin was a student in my fiction workshop at the New School. He was in his early twenties then, an extravagantly gifted young man who sometimes wore a white feather boa to class, his face regularly shining with tiny bits of pink glitter. His stories about young gay men struggling for a place in this world, erotically and artistically, were shot through with a raw and supple longing.
Martin often came to my office hours, where we’d talk about books and films. I learned about his childhood in Georgia and his alcoholic father, a man he was estranged from and hadn’t seen since he was little. In one of these discussions we talked about the Brontës. I was doing research for a talk on Wuthering Heights. I’d been surprised, as Martin was, to hear the Brontës had a brother. Branwell was a ginger, with “a mass of red hair, which he wore brushed high off his forehead … to help his height.” He fancied flowing white shirts and was both freckled and bespeckled. “Small but well formed,” he was unable to control his emotions and had spells of what was called then hysteria. His friend, the sculptor Joseph Leyland, said Branwell’s conversation, his “beautiful and flowery language,” he “never saw equaled.”
Like his sisters, Branwell wrote poetry and he sent poems along with long, pleading, naive letters to the literary men of the day—Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Coleridge—asking for feedback, for affirmation, even for love. In one letter to Wordsworth, which the great man kept but did not answer, Branwell wrote: “I most earnestly entreat you to read and pass your judgment upon what I have sent you, because from the day of my birth to this the nineteenth year of my life I have lived among wild and secluded hills where I could neither know what I was or what I could do—I read for the same reason I ate or drank—because it was a real craving of Nature.”
Martin was drawn to Branwell’s feminine qualities. “The idea that being a poet,” Martin tells me, “one could be fem.” He did some research of his own and decided to write Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother. The Brontë siblings’ intense circle fascinated him—the way they bled into one another. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine is Heathcliff, and Branwell, it seems, was his sisters, leaning into their gender and leading their literary aspirations. He was the first to publish poems in the local newspapers, first to cut the path toward a life of letters. The Brontë boy was grandiose, emotionally unstable, and eventually a drug addict, but his model of creative engagement opened up a dream space that Emily, Charlotte, and Anne walked into without him, an imaginary room his sisters eventually made their own.
What are People of the Book but irrepressible embroiderers of fetishized texts?
—Judith Shulevitz, “The Brontës’ Secret”
“I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion,” writes Judith Shulevitz. She calls the thousands of books inspired by the Brontës midrash, “the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narrative.”
Martin’s Branwell dilates one such gap: the “unspeakable acts” Branwell was said to have committed at Thorp Green. In both Daphne du Maurier’s 1962 The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë and Martin’s book, Branwell’s claim of an affair with his employer’s wife, Mrs. Robinson, is seen as a screen for a homosexual liaison. The scholar Richard A. Kaye calls Branwell a queer speculative biography. He suggests that “queering the Brontës often involves an imaginative disregard for the available evidence regarding Brontë’s family secrets in order to take advantage of unresolved biographical cul-de-sacs.”
The less disputed biographical events in Branwell’s life are mostly sad. His mother, Maria, died when he was four. “For seven months,” Martin writes, “she suffered waiting only for Jesus to take her.” His father, the reverend Patrick Brontë, tells his young son that his mother’s holiness has been envied by their enemy, the devil, that this is why his mother yells out, swears, and is often incoherent. Two years later his older sister Maria, who had served as a surrogate mother, also died. Branwell remembered being lifted up so he could see her in the coffin. “Down, down they lowered her, sad and slow,” Branwell will write in a later poem, “Into the narrow home below.”
The Brontë children’s grief was channeled into what Charlotte would later describe as “scribblemania.” Anne, Emily, Charlotte, and Branwell had their own room on the top floor of the parsonage, known as the Children’s Study. There they read the newspaper every day, as well as books about British history and Greek mythology. They perused literary magazines like Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and church newsletters. They also created their own newspaper, The Monthly Intelligencer, and published small books using stray paper. They covered these books with bits from sugar bags, parcel wrappings, and wallpaper, and developed a tiny script that looked like newsprint.
“Childhood,” Martin writes, “was Branwell’s kingdom to rule over.” The Brontë children’s sagas revolved around a set of toy soldiers that their father gave his son. In an early text written when Branwell was only eight, he creates an origin story from the point of view of the tiny soldiers. “An immense and terrible monster his head touched the clouds was encircled with a red and fairy halo.” Branwell is the ginger-haired giant carrying the soldiers to his sister’s bedroom.
Martin’s Branwell, as he moves into adolescence, is under pressure to move away from fantasy into the world of adult achievement. He is expected to make a name for himself as an artist or a writer and to eventually support himself as well as his siblings. “They will try to give him a certain status, as their real achievement.” “Branwell was to be the pride and joy of them all.” “They’d have to make something of him.” The weight is constant, even haunting. “He can hear his father in the other room committing another sermon to memory. They are pinning their hopes on Branwell, all of them.”
The narrative encloses Branwell in rising familial expectation while also exploring his vulnerability, grief, and bewilderment. The brother cannot break away from his witchy, powerful sisters. Even his first feelings of sexual attraction are mediated by them: “If Charlotte could see him, staring at the broadness of the chests of other men, she might make fun of him.”
Branwell’s desire for men is in keeping with his sisters’ desire for men, though unlike his sisters he cannot transpose that desire for men onto a story. His passion could not be elevated, transformed, and redeemed, as in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, because for him to love a man physically in the early nineteenth century was to face not just ostracism and ridicule but possible death.
In Queer City, Peter Ackroyd reports that after the 1533 Buggery Act passed in England “you could die for deeds done in the dark.” Between 1806 and 1835, more than eighty men were hanged for sodomy. After one large raid on the back room of the “molly house” The White Swan, a mob gathered outside the building where the men were being held. When the prisoners were moved, “butcher boys threw dead cats, turnip heads and other garbage.” One spectator reported that the men resembled “bears dipped in a stagnant pool … their faces were completely disfigured by blows and mud.”
I had woken in a small pool. Several cattle had wandered into my shelter after me and stood at the far side watching me as I woke and then rose.
—Robert Edric, Sanctuary
Life at the Black Bull bar, a masculine circle of storytelling and lively conversation, finally pulled Branwell from the world of his childhood. “Drinking, he no longer acted like his sisters,” Martin writes. “Branwell, the minister’s son, he’s the wildest boy in town!” His drinking leads to blackouts. “A penniless debauchee rose from the floor of a rather sordid inn and realized this was where he’d spent the night.”
Martin has said that Wuthering Heights had a profound effect on him as a teenager—“I became fixated on the color of my edition, this shade of pink”—but it was Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea that brought the Brontës’ project to life and showed him how to lay his own emotional landscape on top of a fictional character. The novel tells the backstory of Antoinette, the first Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre. Rhys, like Branwell, was an alcoholic; The Blue Hour, by Lilian Pizzichini, describes how she once threw a brick through her landlord’s window because his dog had killed her cat, Dr. Wu. How after a bottle of red wine, she’d pin her husband’s World War I medals on her nightgown and go into the streets shouting, “Wings up! Wings up!” Rhys, Pizzichini explains, found “inner peace” whenever she was in crisis: “at the bottom of the abyss was where she belonged … no one could push her down any further.”
As failures pile up for Branwell—he blows all his money on a trip to London where he was meant to enroll in the Royal Academy of Arts; he gets fired from a job with the railroad for embezzling money, then fired again at Thorp Green—he tries opium. Soon he is addicted. “A wretched black bottle, their sister Charlotte says, has become his means of release.”
Opium was as common in Victorian England as spirits, and cheaper. In 1830, in the years just before Branwell tried the drug, British dependency on opium for medical and recreational use reached an all-time high, as 22,000 pounds were imported from Turkey and India. Still, addiction in Branwell’s time was “cold debauchery” and “a disease of the will.” The bondage was recognized but not the fact that humans are bonding creatures—Branwell could no longer bond with his sisters, so he bonded with drugs and alcohol.
Charlotte had not spoken to Branwell for two years at the time of his death. Only Emily continued to care for her brother, helping him up the stairs when he came home drunk and sitting by his bed as he slept. Carolyne Van Der Meer suggests in her essay on the roots of Wuthering Heights that Heathcliff may have also been an opium addict. She points to his “tremors, loss of appetite, obsession with Catherine.” Emily continued to care for Branwell even as paranoia set in—he thinks a wolf trails him and is so convinced someone wants to kill him that he carries a knife in his sleeve. According to Van Der Meer, Emily “recreated Branwell in the body of Heathcliff to give her brother, though a fictional portrayal, the dignity he lacked in life.”
In Branwell’s last months, Charlotte wrote in a letter to a friend that “he leads papa a wretched life.” Both the addict and their loved ones suffer. In the margins of Modern Domestic Medicine by Thomas J. Graham, the Dr. Spock of the Victorian age, Branwell’s father, Patrick, adds to the section on Insanity or Mental Derangement: “delirium tremens brought on sometimes by intoxication—the patient thinks himself haunted: by demons, sees luminous substances in his imagination, has frequent tremors of the limbs.”
Some of Martin’s most beautiful passages describe Branwell’s drug use. Victorians did not get high or stoned but elevated. “Now things were more vivid, the presence of objects near more exaggerated, the outlines of people, places, things more distinct, as if lost a bit in golden mist, as he tried to pin the sun of a summer shining down … alone in his room, a world of wild roses opening up under the yellow.” And: “The opium helps him feel his own suffering. It courses through him in dreams the opium helps bring, dreams that turn the tender look of Emily’s face a bit softer … a bit more toward the motherly, like the skin of a peach.”
I know only that it was time for me to be something when I was nothing.
—from Branwell Brontë’s letters
In the last pages of Martin’s book, as Branwell falls deeper into nothingness, he imagines a liaison between himself and his young charge at Thorp Green, Edmund. I have taught Branwell for ten years in my literature seminar at the New School. Every year one of my students will take the Brontë son’s reverie as reality and call him a pervert and a child molester. Martin addresses the readers’ deep unease. “Dear Reader, you want to be told now that you’ve understood. That he might be doing just what you think he might be, and in just what way, you want to be sure.”
“It makes a man a beggar,” Martin writes, “not having the right words for his feelings.” Branwell saw no reparative way forward. He could not, with his illicit inchoate desire, sublimate, as his sisters did, his life into art.
Instead, Branwell served as muse. Not the traditional female muse who inspired the male artist with her beauty, her ethereal angelic soul as well as her sexual favors, but a dark and raging spirit, a drug addict in an endless struggle. A struggle that included scenes of raw need, bloody disappointment, a struggle that frustrated and even horrified his sisters, but one that also gave life to their most compelling characters: Emily’s Heathcliff and also her Hindley, and the alcoholic husband Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, even Charlotte’s wild women in the attic. In Jane Eyre, Jane sees the fire in Mr. Rochester’s bedroom but not the arsonist. “Tongues of flame darted around the bed: the curtains were on fire.” In Wide Sargasso Sea, we get to see Mrs. Rochester moving down from the attic, carrying her candle. She’s made a life inside of loss. There are no more acts of self-love, only ones of desperation and violence. “Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.” In Martin’s book, Branwell also starts fires.
I used to think, if I could have for a week the free range of the British Museum—the Library included—I could feel as though I were placed for seven days in paradise but now really Dear Sir, my eyes would roam over the Elgin marbles, the Egyptian Salon and the most treasured volumes like the eyes of a dead codfish.
—from Branwell Brontë’s letters
Even as a boy, Martin told me, he understood his father drank because of the pressures on him. The weight. “He drank because he couldn’t take care of us.” Branwell could not take care of himself or his sisters, so in the Brontë parsonage the father Patrick cares for his dying son, taking him into his bed where he can watch over him and keep him safe. Branwell shows Martin, the son, extending empathy to the alcoholic father. Failure is not to be judged and ridiculed but rather serves as a conduit to grace.
“They were only happy with Branwell when he’d tried to please them,” Martin writes. “The only feelings they’d keep were the ones they wanted him to feel. He didn’t dare hope for forgiveness, as fate became an increasingly darkening thing, didn’t dare ask.”
Darcey Steinke is the author of Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, the memoir Easter Everywhere, and five novels: Sister Golden Hair, Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, and Up through the Water. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared widely. She has taught at the New School, Columbia University School of the Arts, New York University, Princeton, and the American University of Paris. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2020 from the introduction to Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press.