Branwell was much more than just the drunken brother to his talented sisters, says Robert Edric. The writer tells us about bringing the lesser known, somewhat tragic Brontë to life in his new fictional work Sanctuary
Researching a character like Branwell Brontë seems a lot easier than it is. There is so much written about his sisters and he lurks in the shadows of each of their biographies, but there are only a few on Branwell himself (of note, those by Daphne du Maurier and Winifred Gerin).
What interested me about Branwell, apart from being attracted to his type, a man on the edge of things, in the shadows, who never quite lives up to the expectations thrust upon him, are that all of the biographies repeat the same scant details. As a child, he was the great motivating force in the Brontë household but he lost his two closest – younger – sisters at an early age and suddenly went from being leader of the pack to the youngest of the family.
As each year passes and new readers come to the Brontës from new perspectives and angles, Branwell gets pushed further and further into the background. He was a strange and awful figure, an underachiever amongst overachievers. The greatest metaphor for this was the painting he did of the four siblings. He painted himself out. And the more that people deified his sisters the more they wanted the counterpoint of Branwell – a manic depressive drug abuser, an agitating spirit. The biographers love that. I never set out to defend Branwell but I did seek to rescue him from the shadows.
He was a strange and awful figure, an underachiever amongst overachievers
Except in so far as the facts of his life I took a great deal of creative licence with the character. There exists a sketch of him, birth, death and some letters he wrote, some remarks recorded by others in relation to others, but there was precious little to go on. I have done this before (with John Franklin, Alistair Crowley and Ivor Gurney – men about whom something was known but who disappeared into a void) but here the great advantage is that people know the Brontës. The very name conjures up images: the moors, the parsonage, Jane Eyre and her burning building. But the fact is that, like Shakespeare, they disappeared in history and only later people began to build the myth around them, the sisters in the foreground, Branwell offstage. Therein lies the beauty here. I don’t have to impersonate Branwell. When you write a book about a well-known person, the readers have expectations but not so with Branwell. He was just the drunken brother.
Branwell lived his life in the shadows. He even died there. His name wasn’t actually mentioned in the announcement of his death in the local paper. But he had a much fuller life than his sisters; they lived at home, shared the same bedrooms and ate at the same dining table but Branwell, as a man, was free to roam. That is the great tension in Sanctuary: his sisters were publishing these great works in secret and he was supposed to pretend not to know. Branwell asks at one point, ‘is there anything more corrosive than a public secret?’ A psychiatrist would have a field day!
Branwell was an unwelcome guest in his own family and a tragic figure is a nice figure for a writer to breathe a bit of life into. I never intended to revisit him entirely but if anyone else ever thinks ‘Oh, I’d never thought of Branwell’, Sanctuary is for them.
Haworth, West Yorkshire, 1848.
Branwell Brontë - unexhibited artist, unacknowledged writer, sacked railwayman, disgraced tutor and spurned lover - finds himself unhappily back in Haworth Parsonage, to face the disappointment of his father and his three sisters, the scale of whose own pseudonymous successes is only just becoming apparent.
With his health failing rapidly, his aspirations abandoned and his once loyal circle of friends shrinking fast, Branwell resorts to a world of secrets, conspiracies and endlessly imagined betrayals. But his spiral of self-destruction only accelerates the sense of his destiny to be a bystander looking across at greatness, and the madness which that realisation will bring…