Interview with James T Kelly

Cover to the book Who is Branwell Brontë?We spoke to the author of the new book about Branwell, Who is Branwell Brontë?, to find out a little more about why he wrote it, why he felt it was needed, and ask him for his favourite Branwell fact.

Why did you write a book about Branwell Brontë?

That’s a big question! I tell everyone there were three reasons: it felt unfair that he was so overlooked, I felt sorry for him, and it didn’t seem fair that he was remembered for drink and drugs instead of his poetry.

You mention that you studied Branwell at university. Why didn’t you pursue academic publication?

That’s certainly the traditional route, but academic publications are largely unknown by most people, and they’re often really expensive! I hated the idea that I could write something that no-one would read because they didn’t know about it or couldn’t afford it.

You mention in the introduction that you want to “reset the Branwell narrative”. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Sure. Most people don’t know who Branwell is. Those who do think he was the man portrayed in dramas like To Walk Invisible; a waste of space, a drunk and little more. Even among academic circles, Branwell is relegated to a footnote; they might recognise he published poetry, but he’s still deemed unimportant. I wanted this book to be a reset button: clear out all the bugs in Branwell’s story and start afresh. Once we’ve got rid of the myths and the misconceptions, we can start to have a proper conversation about him!

You mention academic circles, but you’re not an academic yourself. Are you worried the book won’t be taken seriously? After all, you’re a novelist by trade.

Well I’d like to think that people will care about what’s inside the book rather than the letters after my name or what else I do. But it’s up to individuals how they want to treat the book. I’ve spent a lot of time on it, and I hope readers will enjoy it.

You make some bold claims about Branwell. Are you worried about creating controversy?

Not at all, I think Branwell could do with some heated discussion! No-one has to agree with everything I write, but I hope they’ll talk about it.

What’s your favourite fact about Branwell?

Ooh, that’s a tough one. It’s a bit sad, but I love the fact he managed to rile up the people of Haworth so much they burnt an effigy of him!

If you could change one thing about people’s perception of Branwell, what would it be?

That he wasn’t a raging alcoholic all his life; just the last couple of years!

Who is Branwell Brontë? is available from Amazon now.

Did Branwell Try to Get into the Royal Academy?

The Bronte sisters by Branwell BronteBranwell’s most famous work is his art; his portrait of his sisters hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, alongside a fragment of Emily from another portrait he painted. Branwell’s style, and his faults, come from tutelage he received from William Robinson, an artist from nearby Leeds who had studied at the Royal Academy. It seems that, at one point, Patrick saw the potential for Branwell to make a living in paint, for a letter exists that suggests they were thinking of sending him to the Royal Academy too.

It’s widely accepted that Branwell was sent to London with a portfolio and letters of introduction, in an attempt to secure admission. It’s also widely accepted that Branwell wasted his opportunity, spending the money he had been given on drink, and returning home with a story about being robbed. This is one of the most prevailing of the myths surrounding Branwell, even making it into the recent drama To Walk Invisible.

But it isn’t true. The fact is that, while Patrick did draft a letter, the Royal Academy has no records of receiving it. Neither Patrick nor Branwell would have been foolish enough to think an unsolicited visit would endear Branwell to the Academy and, in fact, the entire episode appears to be drawn from one of Branwell’s Angrian stories in which a character visits a (fictional) city, and is so overawed by the sights that he loses his nerve and fails to bear his letters of introduction to their intended recipient. Instead, he spends his coin on run, and his time on aimless meandering about the city.

But while writers use their own lives for inspiration, they use other people’s lives too and, of course, event entire people and scenarios from imagination. It’s a mistake to read too much into a story, or to assume it was somehow autobiographical.

The truth is that this was nothing more than an aborted plan. It would be followed by another notion that Branwell might spend a summer in Europe to pursue further instruction. But both plans failed for one simple reason: they were too expensive. Patrick had only a modest income, and he simply could not afford to send Branwell to study in London, let alone Europe.

Like so many of the myths surrounding Branwell, the evidence for the idea he wasted an opportunity in London by spending his family’s money on drink and inventing a story about robbery simply does not exist. It is nothing more than an invention, based on nothing more than a story, and another example of why it is a bad idea to assume that every word of an author’s work is autobiographical.

Branwell: The Political Brontë

An excerpt from Who is Branwell Brontë?, describing Branwell’s political activity in 1837:

Branwell also became a political figure that year. On 27th January he established a Haworth Operative Conservative Society, the objectives of which were to ‘maintain loyalty to the King attachment to the connection between church and State respect for the independence and prerogatives of the House of Lords and a proper regard for the Commons House of Parliament’.

Given how much Branwell enjoyed writing Angrian tales about Alexander Percy, Earl of Northangerland and political demagogue, it is interesting to see his real-world affection for the status quo.

That being said, 1837 did see Branwell, and Patrick too, in opposition to the government of the day. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was just beginning to take effect in Yorkshire, and saw anyone unfit to work being put into the work-houses. There the men, women, and children were separated and expected to perform hard, back-breaking labour to earn their keep. With so many advancements in the textile trade, many workers in Yorkshire found themselves faced with the choice between splitting up their family or risking starvation together.

Patrick was vocal in his opposition, calling a meeting to petition Parliament to repeal the Poor Law Amendment Act. The meeting was so well attended it had to be held outside, where Patrick urged the whole village to oppose the Act, even mentioning rebellion (albeit as a possible, undesirable consequence of the deprivation inflicted by the Act).
It was Branwell who read and moved the petition, and the support was unanimous. But such support wasn’t a regular feature of Branwell’s short-lived political career. Just five days later, a meeting was held to petition Parliament again, this time to abolish church rates. These were effectively a tax that went to the upkeep of parish churches. Patrick and Branwell opposed abolition of the rates; they both knew how much parish churches relied on the money the rates brought in.

But the Brontë men were in the minority; not everyone was so willing to make compulsory contributions to one church in favour of another. For example, Hall Green Baptist Chapel, where the meeting was held, didn’t benefit from church rates, and nor did any Roman Catholic churches.

Patrick and Branwell found themselves vilified for their opposition to the petition, and Branwell was even accused of sending false statements to the newspapers. There isn’t any evidence that he did so, and Juliet Barker believes the accuser had confused Branwell with William Hodgson, Patrick’s curate, who had indeed written to a newspaper about church rates.

It wouldn’t be the last time that Branwell would be so vilified. Just a few months later, Parliament was dissolved in the wake of King William IV’s death in June 1837. When the Whig candidate, Lord Morpeth, visited Haworth to speak to his electorate, Patrick tried to ask him some questions. But Patrick was a know Tory, despite his opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act, and the crowd overwhelmingly supported the Whigs. They shouted him down, prompting Branwell to step forward and declare ‘If you won’t let my father speak, you shan’t speak.’

Noble, perhaps, but fruitless. Lord Morpeth was elected, and Branwell faced the indignity of seeing his effigy carried down the street and then burnt. At least he could claim a dramatic end to his political career.

Who is Branwell Brontë? is available to buy from Amazon.

Noah’s Warning Over Methuselah’s Grave

Brothers and men! One moment stay
Beside your latest patriarch’s grave,
While God’s just vengeance yet delay–
While God’s blest mercy yet can save.

Will you compel my tongue to say,
That underneath this nameless sod
Your hands, with mine, have laid to-day
The last on earth who walked with God?

Shall his pale corpse, whose hoary hair
Are just surrendered to decay,
Dissolve the chain which bound our years
To hundred ages passed away?

Shall six-score years of warnings dread
Die like a whisper on the wind?
Shall the dark doom above your head,
Its blinded victims darker find?

Shall storms from heaven without the world,
Find wilder storms from hell, within?
Shall long stored–late come wrath be hurled;
Or–will you–can you turn from sin?

Have patience if too plain I speak,
For time, my sons, is hastening by;
Forgive me if my accents break;
Shall I be saved and Nature die?

Forgive that pause:–One look to Heaven
Too plainly tells me He is gone,
Who, long, with me in vain had striven
For earth, beneath its Maker’s throne.

He is gone!–My Father–full of days–
From life which left no joy for him;
Born in creation’s earliest blaze;
Dying–himself, its latest beam.

But he gone! And, oh, behold,
Shewn in his death, God’s latest sign!
Than which more plainly never told
An angel’s presence, his design.

By it, the evening beams withdrawn
Before a starless night descend;
By it, the last blest spirit born
From this beginning of an end!

By all the strife of civil war
That beams within yon fated town;
By all the hearts worst passions there,
That call so loud for vengeance down;

By that vast wall of cloudy gloom,
Piled round heaven’s boding firmament;
By all its presages of doom,
Children of men–Repent! Repent!

Letter from a Father on Earth to His Child in Her Grave by Branwell Brontë

From Earth, –whose life-reviving April showers

Hide winter’s withered grass ‘neath springtide flowers,

And give, in each soft wind that drives the rain,

Promise of fields and forests green again–

I write to thee, the aspect of whose face

Can never change with change of time or place;

Whose eyes could look on India’s wildest wars

More calmly than the hardiest son of Mars;

Whose lips, more firm than Stoic’s long ago,

Would neither smile with joy nor blanch with woe;

Whose limbs could sufferings far more firmly bear

Than could heroic sinews strung for war;

Whose frame desires no good, nor shrinks from ill,

Nor feels distraction’s throb nor pleasure’s thrill.

I write words to thee which thou wilt not read,

For thou wilt slumber on howe’er may bleed

The heart, which many think a worthless stone,

But which oft aches for its beloved one;

Nor, if God’s life mysterious, from on high

Gave, once gain, expression to thine eye,

Would’st thou thy father know, or feel that he

Gave life, and lineaments, and thoughts to thee,

For, when thou diest, thy day was in its dawn,

And night still struggled with life’s opening morn;

The twilight star of childhood, thy young days

Alone illumined, with its twinkling rays,

So sweet, yet feeble; given from those dusky skies,

Whose kindling, future noontide prophesies,

But tells us not that brightest noon may shroud

Our sunshine with a sudden veil of cloud.

If, when thou gavest back the life which ne’er

To thee had given either hope or fear,

But peacefully had passed, nor asked if joy

Should cheer thy future path, or grief annoy–

If, then, thoud’st seen, upon a summer sea

One, once in features, as in blood like thee

On skies of azure blue and waters green

Commingled in the midst of summer’s sheen,

Hopelessly gazing–ever hesitating

‘Twixt miseries, every hour fresh fears creating

And joys–whate’er they cost–still doubly dear–

Those “troubled pleasures soon chastised by fear”

If thou hadst seen him thou wouldst ne’er believe

That thou hadst yet known what it was to live.

Thy eyes could only see thy mother’s breast,

Thy feeling only wish on that to rest;

It was thy world; –Thy food and sleep it gave,

And slight the change ‘twixt it and childhood’s grave.

Thou view’dst this world like one who, prone, reposes

Upon a plain and in a bed of roses

With nought to see save marbled skies above,

Nor hear, expect the breezes in the grove:

I–thy life’s source–was a wanderer breasting

Keen mountain winds, and on a summit resting,

Whose rough rocks rose above the grassy mead

With sleet and north winds howling over head,

And nature, like a map, beneath him spread:

Far winding river, tree, and tower, and town,

Shadow and sunlight, ‘neath his gaze mark’d down

By that mysterious hand which graves the plan

Of that drear country called the life of man.

If seen, men’s eyes would, loathing, shrink from thee,

And turn, perchance, with no disgust from me;

Yet thou had’st beauty, innocence, and smiles,

And now hast rest from this world’s woes and wiles,

While I have restlessness and worrying care,

So, sure thy lot if brighter–happier–far!

So may it prove–and, though thy ears may never

Hear these words sound beyond Death’s darksome river

Not vainly, from the confines of despair

May rise a voice of joy that THOU art freed from care!

Black Comb

Far off, and half revealed ‘mid shade and light,

Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; his mighty form

Scarce blending into peace; –more formed to fight

A thousand years of struggles with a storm

Than bask one hour, subdued by sunshine warm

To bright and breezeless rest; –yet even his height

Towers not o’er this world’s sympathies–he smiles,

While many a human heart to pleasure’s wiles

Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise;

As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight,

Again rejoices in his stormy skies,

Man loses vigour in unstable joys.

Thus tempests find Blackcomb invincible,

While we are lost, who should know life so well!

On Peaceful Death and Painful Life

Why dost thou sorrow for the happy dead?

For if their life be lost their toils are o’er,

And woe and want can trouble them no more;

Nor ever slept they in an earthly bed

So sound as now they sleep, while dreamless laid

In the dark chambers of the unknown shore,

Where Night and Silence guard each sealed door.

So–turn from such as thee thy drooping head

And mourn the dead alive, whose spirit flies,

Whose life departs, before his death has come;

Who knows no Heaven beyond his gloomy skies;

Who sees no Hope to brighten up that gloom:

‘Tis he who feels the worm that never dies,

The real death and darkness of a tomb!

To Walk Invisible’s Branwell Brontë

If you have any interest in the Brontë family at all, you’ll likely enjoy Sally Wainwright’s biopic To Walk Invisible. It tells the story of the Brontë sisters journey into publication and into fame and, with an excellent script and a fantastic cast, it truly is an excellent film. My only criticism is that it doesn’t treat Branwell very well.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: 1848 was not Branwell’s finest hour. Dismissed from his post at Thorpe Green for a possible affair with his employer’s wife, the revelation that he couldn’t be with the woman he loved sent Branwell into a pit of despair, drink, and drugs. And that, largely, is the Branwell shown in To Walk Invisible. That said, there are some historical inaccuracies (turn away now if you don’t want to see any spoilers!)

One scene sees Emily relate to Anne the tale of Branwell’s ill-fated trip to the Royal Academy in London. Branwell was to visit the Academy to provide his portfolio in the hopes of studying painting at the prestigious institution. The story goes that he didn’t make it to London, instead spending all his money on drink in Bradford and concocting a tall tale about being robbed. It’s a great narrative moment, but it isn’t true.

Branwell did indeed study painting with local painter William Robinson, and there were plans for him to attend the Royal Academy. A letter was even drafted seeking his admission. But it was never sent. The Royal Academy has no record of Branwell’s application, and there is no evidence of Branwell’s journey (or lack thereof).

Instead this tale has its basis in fiction; Branwell wrote a story of a young man visiting a city and being too nervous and overwhelmed to introduce himself to those he had planned to meet. Whilst it is always tempting, and even accurate, to draw biography from a writer’s fiction, there is no evidence to back it up in this case. In fact, there were plans for Branwell to spend a summer in Europe to further his painting career; if he could not be trusted with hard-earned money in London, no-one would suggested sending him to the continent.

To Walk Invisible should not be criticised for this inaccuracy; it was, and still is, a widely believed myth about Branwell, and To Walk Invisible is not a documentary. No doubt the myth was included to make a better narrative (which it does), but it’s always good to be able to separate the fact from the fiction.

Branwell Brontë: Published Poet

A drunk. A drug addict. A wasted talent. These are often the words used to describe Branwell Brontë. But did you know that Branwell was a published poet long before his sisters?

Not many do. Branwell didn’t help himself (he rarely did) by publishing under a pseudonym: Northangerland. This name belonged to his favourite character from the stories he wrote with Charlotte as a boy, and he used it to sign off all but one of his poems.

Here’s a full list of the poems Branwell had published. You can click on the links to read them.

Heaven and Earth – 5th June 1841

On the Melbourne Ministry – 14th August 1841 (published under his initials P.B.B.)

On Landseer’s Painting – 28th April 1842 (published again with amendments 10th May 1845)

On the Callousness Produced by Cares – 7th May 1842

The Afghan War – 7th May 1842

On Peaceful Death and Painful Life – 14th May 1842

Caroline’s Prayer – 2nd June 1842

Song – 11th June 1842

An Epicurean’s Song – 9th July 1842

On Caroline – 14th July 1842

Noah’s Warning over Methuselah’s Grave – 25th August 1842

The Emmigrant – Two Sonnets – 7th June 1845

Black Comb – 10th May 1845

Real Rest – 8th November 1845

Penmaenmawr – 20th December 1845

Letter from a Father on Earth to His Child in Her Grave – 18th April 1846

The End of All – 5th June 1847