Who was Branwell Brontë?

Everything you need to know about the brother of the writing sisters, as seen in Sally Wainwright’s new BBC1 drama To Walk Invisible

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Sally Wainwright’s one-off two-hour drama To Walk Invisible tells the story of famous authors the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) and their struggle to deal with their violent, drunken brother Branwell (played by Adam Nagaitis).

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But who was the real Branwell, and how accurate is the new film’s depiction of him? Read on to find out…


Birth and early years

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A silhouette of Branwell from the Brontë museum

Born the fourth of six Brontë children (the two eldest died) in 1817 in Thornton, Yorkshire, Branwell was christened Patrick Branwell Brontë. His mother Maria Branwell Brontë died four years later in 1821. 

In his early years he received no formal education, instead engaging in lessons with his father (who may have been trying to save money) but emerging a capable scholar with an enthusiasm for learning.

“Mr. Brontë’s friends advised him to send his son to school,” Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in her biography of his sister Charlotte “but, remembering both the strength of will of his own youth and his mode of employing it, he believed that Patrick was better at home, and that he himself could teach him well, as he had told others before.”


Writing with his sisters

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Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë, played by Chloe Pirrie, Charlie Murphy and Finn Atkins

As depicted in the new drama, the young Branwell took a lead role (with his sister Charlotte) in imagining complex fantasy role-playing games with his siblings, writing and performing stories about toy wooden soldiers they dubbed the “Young Men” and eventually evolving the tales into a complex saga based in a fictional West African nation called Angria (Anne and Emily later created their own rival country named Gondal, mentioned in To Walk Invisible).

As he grew older Branwell continued to try his hand at writing, penning his own magazine called Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine (filled with his poems, plays and criticisms) and repeatedly writing to the real Blackwood’s magazine to seek employment. His six letters went unanswered. Around this time, Branwell also started making friends in the local pub, and developing the drinking problem that would continue throughout his life.


Painting career

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As a youth Branwell received instruction from portrait painter William Robinson, and in 1834 painted a picture of his three sisters (above in black and white form), now one of the most famous images of the sisters which now hangs in the National Gallery. Branwell was originally in the picture himself (in the middle at the back), but he painted himself out after deciding he didn’t like his appearance in it. 

To Walk Invisible portrays a series of events where Branwell attempts to get into London’s Royal Academy of Arts and loses his nerve spending the money his father had given him on drink instead. It is unclear whether this really happened – Branwell certainly wrote a letter seeking admittance in 1835, but recent scholarship suggests he never posted it or actually made the trip.

Branwell certainly did attempt to support himself with his painting in Bradford in 1838 and 1839, before returning to the family home of Haworth in debt in 1839.


Tutoring and affair

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In January 1840 Branwell started work as a tutor for the Postlethwaite family in Broughton-in-Furness, continuing his literary work on the side by writing poems and translations of classical works. By June 1840 he’d been sacked from the job, and in April 1841 got a job as a clerk for Manchester and Leeds Railway. He was sacked from that job in 1842, after some money was stolen by a third party while Branwell was out drinking.

Nine months later Branwell was hired to tutor the Reverend Edmund Robinson’s son at Thorp Green, where his sister Anne had been governess since 1840. At first things went well, but over the time he spent there Branwell wrote to several friends about his romantic interest in the Reverend’s wife Lydia (who was 15 years older than him), and eventually he was fired from the position in 1845.

While it’s not clear exactly what led to his sacking, the most likely explanation is that Branwell was (as he claimed) having an affair with Mrs Robinson, and may have hoped to marry her after her husband’s death. For several months after he was fired he continued to receive money from Mrs Robinson, possibly to dissuade him from blackmailing her husband.


Decline and death

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After his dismissal, Branwell returned home to the Haworth parsonage, which is roughly where To Walk Invisible picks up. During his time there he wrote poetry and attempted to work on a novel called And the Weary are at Rest, adapting some of the material he and Charlotte had generated in their Angria stories. Around this time he also had some poems printed in local papers under the penname of Northangerland, making him the first Brontë to be a published poet.

However, things took a turn for the worse after the death of Mr Robinson. Branwell attempted to rekindle his relationship with Mrs Robinson but was rebuffed, and over the next three years he descended into self-pity, alcoholism and drug abuse. He began begging friends for money for alcohol, embarrassing his family and even once set fire to his own bed, requiring his father Patrick to share a bed with him to protect the family.

It’s unknown whether he was made aware of the novels published by his sisters in 1847 (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey), but it seems unlikely. As Charlotte explained:”We could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied.”

Branwell died aged 31 on the 24th September 1848 at Haworth, and while his cause of death was recorded as “chronic bronchitis-marasmus” most now believe that he died from acute tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism, drug use (specifically opium and laudanum) and alcohol withdrawal, aka delirium tremens. He was placed in the family vault four days later.


Legacy

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It has been suggested (including in To Walk Invisible) that Branwell was the inspiration for violent drunken characters in the Brontë sisters’ works, specifically Hindley Earnshaw in Emily’s Wuthering Heights and the red-haired Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

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Some critics have also debated whether Branwell could be the real author of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, though the theory has declined in fashion in more recent years.