The brother who went from bad to worse
His unfortunate parents persevered through the births of five girls until, in 1817, a son was born. Greatly was he welcomed, a boy rather than the all-very-well-but-female elder sisters who could amount to nothing much in the world other than, perhaps, a successful marriage. That three of those sisters were Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë did not seem important. Their mother died when Branwell was young (Branwell was her maiden name) and while the girls were educated and to a large extent brought up by her sister Elizabeth, their brother Branwell was kept at home and educated by his clergyman father Patrick.
If his parents had placed great hopes on him, they were no less than the hopes Branwell placed on himself – principally as an artist. His portrait of his three sisters, painted in 1843, is not a great work of art but is one of the few portraits of them that we have. In 1835 he took up a place at the Royal Academy, but only stayed there a few days. He lowered his sights, came closer to home in Bradford where he tried his hand at portraiture, but he failed again. Suitably chastened perhaps, he became a clerk on the local railway, from which position, in 1842, he was fired for negligence.
His sister Anne, in an attempt to help him, secured him a position as tutor in the house where she worked as governess (Thorp Green Hall, near York) but he blotted yet another page of his copybook there by starting a sexual relationship with a woman seventeen years older than him, his employer’s wife (the interestingly named Mrs Robinson – and yes, Simon and Garfunkle did have her in mind). Branwell was sent home. Disappointment may provide some slight excuse for his descent into alcoholism and drug abuse (opium), but it does not excuse his appalling behaviour in the Haworth parsonage which, in one of his drunken rages, he almost burnt down. He gave and left little to the world, other than that he inspired some of the wilder excesses in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in the year of his death, 1848. In a final moment of clarity, perhaps, his last words are reported as having been: ‘In all my past life I have done nothing either great or good.’