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.

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.