by Robert Edric
The year is 1848. Branwell Brontë, only brother of the legendary sisters, has returned to Haworth having failed in his career as a railwayman. He is alcoholic and drastically in debt. He needs the comfort of home, the care of his sisters and the sanctuary of Haworth. His parson father is ailing but continues to care for the poor and needy of the parish. And this is the year the sisters have come to prominence for their collective body of work soon to be universally lauded. Where does the profligate Branwell, failed poet, failed businessman, failed tutor, failed lover and semi-invalid (he suffered regular seizures) fit in this family of goodness and literary genius?
The novel is written in the first person and Branwell’s desolation is profound. His regret and disillusion with the world is compounded by the knowledge that there are things happening at Howarth that he’s not being told about. There’s a buzz in the house. Endless letters arrive for the sisters, trips are made to London and curious strangers hang around the parsonage trying to get a glimpse of the mysterious Brontë clan who have been ‘outed’ from their pseudonymous personae.
There’s also the spectre of illness that pervades the parsonage and there’s a curious mix of Branwell’s feeling resentful of the sisters (especially Charlotte who constantly bails him out then chides him for his recklessness) and his fear that they’ll be taken from him. As his sense of hopelessness and despair increases so does his need for alcohol and laudanum.
I really enjoyed this strange and moving account of the last year of Branwell’s life. The bleak landscape of north Yorkshire, the sadness of a life poorly lived and the odd and tragic existence of this great literary family is a terrific blend, worthy of a Brontë novel itself.
Published by Doubleday – 297pp
WUTHERING HEIGHTS Emily Brontë's only novel was published in 1847. She died the following year, aged 30.
JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë was published in 1847. She died 1855 aged 39.
THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL is the second and final novel by Anne Brontë, published in 1848. She died 1849 aged 29.