Working Girls: The Brontës

Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of a Genius

by Winifred Gérin
Oxford, 634 pp., $15.00

Emily Brontë

by Winifred Gérin
Oxford, 290 pp., $9.95

The careers of the three Brontë sisters—Anne, Charlotte, and Emily—conferred a sort of perpetuity upon the whole family. The father’s eccentricities, once brought under scrutiny by the fame of the daughters, proved to be rich enough in detail to provide a good store of anecdote. There is, as with all of the family, always some question about what was truth and what fancy.

Brontë sisters
Brontë sisters; drawing by David Levine

The Reverend Brontë was a failed writer. He had published Cottage Poems and The Rural Minstrel, and he certainly had the sedentary habits and wide range of peculiarities that might have assisted a literary career, but perhaps the Reverend was not able to take in enough from the outside to nourish his art. He carried a pistol around with him and sometimes when he was angry found relief by shooting through the open door. It was rumored that he cut up one of his wife’s silk dresses out of regard for his strict standards of simplicity and seriousness. For his own part the Reverend Brontë disowned claims to flamboyance and said: “I do not deny that I am somewhat eccentric…. Only don’t set me on in my fury to burning hearthrugs, sawing the backs off chairs and tearing my wife’s silk gowns.”

There were five daughters and one son in the Brontë family, and the father unluckily placed his hopes in his son, Branwell. It is only by accident that we know about people like Branwell who seemed destined for the arts, unable to work at anything else, and yet have not the talent, the tenacity, or the discipline to make any kind of sustained creative effort. With great hopes and at bitter financial sacrifice, Branwell was sent up to London to study painting at the Academy Schools. The experience was wretched for him and he seemed to have sensed his lack of preparation, his uncertain dedication, his faltering will. He never went to the school, did not present his letters of introduction, and spent his money in taverns drinking gin. It finally became necessary to return home in humiliation and to pretend that he had been robbed.

One story has poor Branwell visiting the National Gallery and, in the presence of the great paintings there, despairing of his own talents. This is hard to credit, since the example of the great is seldom a deterrent to the mediocre. In any case, nothing leads us to think Branwell lacked vanity or expansive ideas of his own importance. Also, the deterrent of Branwell’s own nature made any further impediments unnecessary. His nature was hysterical, addictive, self-indulgent. Very early he fell under the spell of alcohol and opium; his ravings and miseries destroyed the family peace, absorbed their energies, and depressed their spirits. He had to be talked to, watched over, soothed, and protected—and nothing really availed. Branwell destroyed his life with drugs and drink and died of a bronchial infection…

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