The famous ‘pillar portrait’ of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Its name derives from the overpainted space between Charlotte and Emily, which originally held the likeness of the painter, their 17-year old brother Branwell. So, who is this missing sibling, the only one of this intense, wondrous family who is not acknowledged as a literary legend, and who had a central place in their group portrait, only to erase himself?
Branwell was born two hundred years ago this year, on 26 June 1817, the fourth of the six children of Patrick and Maria Brontë. As a child he was creatively close to his surviving sisters, and was involved in creating the siblings’ imaginary worlds such as Glasstown and (in collaboration with Charlotte), Angria. Later, he worked as a portrait painter in Bradford, but maintained his interest in writing. Although he did not succeed in having his poetry published in his beloved Blackwood’s Magazine, he was published in various newspapers. But what is most remembered about Branwell is his legendary drunkenness – indeed, the Black Bull in Haworth still displays ‘Branwell’s chair’.
What went wrong for Branwell, and why? As the only boy, he was his father’s focus, and the only one of his siblings who received a classical education. His sisters were expected to be docile and obedient; he was expected to be the family’s resident genius. But the great hope invested in Branwell seemed to create only weakness. In his letters and pub talk he could be arrogant and swaggering, possibly to mask an inner insecurity. What is true is that Branwell tried many careers: painter, poet, railway clerk, tutor, but did not succeed in finding stability.
If there is a central tragedy in Branwell’s life it is that he was unable to control his passions. His sisters’ works are full of passion, but in their lives they behaved with propriety and restraint. Branwell’s passions were lived out rather than written. Whilst working as a tutor he embarked on an affair with his employer’s wife, causing not only his dismissal but the humiliation of his sister Anne, who was also working for the family. On his return to Haworth, his alcoholism and drug addiction blighted the lives of his relatives and his violent rages terrified them. A small measure of peace came only in the days before his death, on 24 September 1848.
But the impact of this missing Brontë is not entirely lost. It could be argued that the three sisters became great because they were forced to: they knew they could not rely on Branwell for financial support, and focused their efforts on writing professionally. Additionally, Branwell was one of the only men they lived with – and this shaped how they depicted men in their fiction. Thus Anne wrote of the corroding effect of alcoholism in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Emily depicted, from first-hand experience, the rage and brutality of men such as Heathcliff and Hindley Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. And how much of Jane Eyre’s virtue and self-possession in the face of Rochester’s passion is derived from Charlotte’s observation of what happens when you give in to your desires? Perhaps, after all, Branwell is not really missing. In the portrait, we may find him in the space between the sisters; and in their work, we may find him in the spaces between what is said and unsaid. He is always there, if we look for him.
This article first appeared on the Waterstones blog in January 2017.