The Death Of Branwell Brontë

The 24th of September is a solemn day for Brontë lovers, as it marks the anniversary of the death of Patrick Branwell Brontë on that day in 1848. That itself was a significant loss to his family and posterity, if we look beyond the two dimensional ‘ogre’ often portrayed. It is even more significant, and moving, however, when we consider that it was the first of three sibling deaths in little over eight months, and that all too soon his sisters Emily and Anne Brontë would follow him out of this world.

Branwell head
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

Branwell Brontë was a complex man who undoubtedly had serious issues that contributed to his decline and death. He was an alcoholic and frequently throughout his life he was also addicted to opium (of which heroin is the modern day equivalent) and laudanum, the tincture of opium mixed with spirits that was cheap, easily available in Haworth, and terrifyingly addictive and powerful. Like Lord Lowborough in Anne’s ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall‘ he managed to beat this addiction by going ‘cold turkey’ but he also returned to its embrace. Branwell’s addictions, and his recurring boutsof depression and mental anguish, were in all probability linked to issues relating to the childhood losses he suffered – the devastating early deaths of his mother and then his eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth; we should not, however, let the form of his end cloud our impression of his life as a whole.

Branwell could be a happy, generous brother – it was he after all who shared the gift of twelve toy soldiers with Charlotte, Emily and Anne in July 1826, a gift that was to prove pivotal in unlocking the childhood creativity within the Brontës. Patrick had brought other gifts for his daughters, including a paper doll for Anne, but the soldiers he bought for his son were shared immediately among his siblings as a young Branwell himself remembered:

‘I carried them [the soldiers] to Emily, Charlotte and Anne. They each took up a soldier, gave them names, which I consented to, and I gave Charlotte Twemy, to Emily Pare, to Anne Trot to take care of them, although they were to be mine and I to have the disposal of them as I would.’

These twelve soldiers became the young men who populated their childhood world of the Great Glasstown Confederacy, which in turn became Angria. This is the land behind the incredibly tiny and intricate little books that can still be seen at Harvard University and in the Brontë Parsonage Museum today. It is Branwell that took the lead role in this early creative outburst, as evidenced by the initial name of their books being ‘Branwell’s Blackwood Magazine.’

Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte
Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte

Branwell was possibly the most enthusiastic early poet of the four remaining siblings, and he was not lacking in ambition, as the conclusion to his letter to Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh in December 1837 showed:

‘Now, sir, do not act like a commonplace person, but like a man willing to examine for himself. Do not turn from the naked truth of my letters, but prove me – and if I do not stand the proof, I will not further press myself upon you. If I do stand it, why, you have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë’

Branwell was also not lacking in talent as a poet, and we do well to remember that Branwell was the first of the Brontë siblings to find themselves in print (Anne was the only other sibling who had her poetry published without paying for it). His verse appeared in a number of local publications under the pseudonym of ‘Northangerland’, a complex character from the Angrian saga, one readily identified with by his creator. Under this guise his work appeared in publications ranging from the Yorkshire Gazette and Leeds Intelligencer to the Halifax Guardian which on June 5th 1841 published his poem ‘Heaven an Earth’.

Branwell had twelve poems published by the Halifax Guardian alone, and this was no mean feat as they took their poetry very seriously, and the standard was very high. Reading Branwell’s poetry today reinforces the impression of a good poet with a real love of verse. It is sad, therefore, that by 1846 his addictions made him unable to be considered for inclusion within ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’.

Branwell was a talented man in many areas; a skilled musician from an early age, a fine artist, and a loving brother who drew sketches for his baby sister Anne – a kindness she never forgot. He could write with both hands at once, composing a Greek letter with his left hand and a Latin letter with his right – an incredible testimony to the talents that lay within him. If Branwell had reached creative maturity I have little doubt that the results would have been brilliant, and with modern day medicines, treatments and understanding he could have lived a longer and productive life. As it is, the last creation we have from Branwell’s hands is entitled ‘A Parody’ and shows himself being visited by death (it’s at the head of this post.)

Branwell Bronte played by Adam Nagaitis
Branwell Bronte played by Adam Nagaitis in ‘To Walk Invisible’

What is, perhaps, strange, however, is that it was not his addictions which killed Branwell, but tuberculosis, the same consumptive condition which would wrest Emily and Anne away too. Haworth was a sickly village at this time, with rampant epidemics of the likes of cholera and typhoid, but tuberculosis was relatively rare – it was a disease of densely packed urban areas.

It seems likely that either Anne or Charlotte inadvertently brought the disease back from their voyage to London in July 1848. Branwell, his immune system seriously weakened by his addictions, succumbed first. Kind, caring Emily would no doubt have nursed Branwell, even if she was ordered not to, and so she caught the disease from her brother and in stoic silence she perished next. Anne was next to fall, like a series of dominoes whose conclusion is certain once the first one has been pushed.

It is a terrible sequence for literary lovers, a tragedy for Brontë fans, and a disaster for Patrick and Charlotte Brontë and for those across the world who to this day hold the Brontë family close in their hearts. But let us not mourn, but rather let us remember the kind, talented brother Branwell could be and the great works that his early help and support led to. In his last moments Branwell showed his true character once more, saying ‘amen’ to his father’s prayers, and with a great strength of will rising shakily to his feet and dying in Patrick’s arms. It was the death of a hero, if a tragic one. Perhaps, as so often, the case Emily Brontë sums it up best in her conclusion to her 1839 poem ‘Stanzas To ‘:

“Do I despise the timid deer,
Because his limbs are fleet with fear?
Or, would I mock the wolf’s death-howl,
Because his form is gaunt and foul?
Or, hear with joy the leveret’s cry,
Because it cannot bravely die?
No! Then above his memory
Let Pity’s heart as tender be;
Say, ‘Earth, lie lightly on that breast
And, kind Heaven, grant that spirit rest!'”

Maria Brontë and the Advantages of Poverty

Yesterday, the 22nd of September, marked a sad anniversary in the Brontë story, as it was on that day in 1821 that Maria Brontë was buried in the vault of St. Michael and All Angels’ church in Haworth, leaving Anne Brontë and her five siblings without a mother (although Maria’s sister Elizabeth ‘Aunt’ Branwell filled that void in some ways in the years to come). Maria had died exactly a week earlier on 15th September after a long illness, but if we look closely we can still see a lot of Maria reflected in her children.

Bronte memorial
Maria Bronte is remembered on Haworth church’s Bronte memorial

We learn from Charlotte, after she perused the letters that Maria had sent to Patrick Brontë during their courtship, that she had a fine mind which reminded her of her own:

‘It was strange now to peruse for the first time the records of a mind whence my own sprang – and most strange – and at once sad and sweet to find that mind of a truly fine, pure and elevated order. They were written to papa before they were married – there is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wished she had lived and that I had known her.’

From these letters of Maria’s, we also learn that she was an excellent and expressive writer, a woman full of love but who also had a sense of humour. These qualities, I feel, are also in the writing of Anne Brontë. There is one other piece of writing that Maria has left us, a short yet remarkable essay called ‘The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns.’

It’s a very revealing essay, and shows how religion and faith were central to Maria’s life, and also how highly she valued stoicism, a quality associated with both Emily Brontë and Elizabeth Brontë. Maria Branwell, as she was known before her marriage, was from a wealthy Cornish family with a very different social background to Patrick Brontë. She could have seen a match with him as unsuitable, but she valued his piety and faith much greater than his lack of wealth and private income. This too is reflected in the opening to Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’ when Agnes reflects on the social differences between her mother and father:

‘My mother, who married him against the wishes of her friends, was a squire’s daughter, and a woman of spirit. In vain it was represented to her, that if she became the poor parson’s wife, she must relinquish her carriage and her lady’s-maid, and all the luxuries and elegance of affluence… but she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world.’

The Advantages of Poverty In Religious Concern, manuscript
The Advantages of Poverty In Religious Concerns, manuscript page 1, Brotherton Library, Leeds

Anne was just one year old when her mother died, but if she had read ‘The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns’ she would have found a heart and soul akin to her own. Maria begins with this proclamation:

‘Poverty is generally, if not universally, considered an evil; and not only an evil in itself, but attended with a train of innumerable other evils. But is not this a mistaken notion – one of those prevailing errors which are so frequently to be met with in the world and received as uncontroverted truths? Let the understanding be enlightened by divine grace, the judgement improved and corrected by an acquaintance with the holy Scriptures, the spirit of the world subdued, and the heart filled with the earnest desires for heavenly attainments and heavenly enjoyments, and, then, what is poverty? Nothing.’

In a moving section, particularly in the light of how Maria would all too soon have to leave her own children, she considers that people would say she couldn’t understand poverty because she had never experienced it, and that they would say:

‘Is it not an evil to be deprived of the necessaries of life? Can there be any anguish equal to that occasioned by objects, dear as your own soul, famishing with cold and hunger? Is it not an evil to hear the heart-rending cries of your children craving for that which you have it not in your power to give them? And, as an aggravation of this distress, to know that some are surfeited by abundance at the same time that you and yours are perishing for want?’

Maria’s response is that yes, this is an evil, but people can overcome even this when they have been transformed by God and the divine message. She ends her essay with the words:

‘It surely is the duty of all Christians, to exert themselves in every possible way, to promote the instruction & conversion of the Poor: and, above all, to pray with all the ardour of Christian faith, and love, that every poor man, may be a religious man.’

Brotherton Library, Leeds University
The beautiful Brotherton Library holds Maria’s manuscript and letters

We can see then that Maria placed faith above all other things, and believed it was better to be poor and have faith in God, than to be wealthy and lack faith. It’s a view that some in today’s increasingly secular society would find hard to understand, but it was the driving force behind Maria’s life, and found its closest match in Anne, the one year old baby she had to leave behind. The manuscript can today be read in the Brotherton Library, Leeds. Just below Maria’s conclusion is another hand; it’s that of her late husband Patrick Brontë, a moving footnote that reveals his unending love and admiration for his wife:

‘The above was written by my dear Wife, and sent for insertion in one of the periodical publications – Keep it as a memorial of her.’

World Sepsis Day And Maria Brontë

The 13th September marks World Sepsis Day, and it’s a condition that we should all be aware of as it can strike at any age, and accounts for around 44,000 deaths every year. It’s also claimed many lives throughout the centuries of course, and one of those may well have been Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, mother of the six Brontë siblings.

Maria Bronte
Maria Branwell, later Bronte, drawn in 1799

This week also marks the 197th anniversary of the death of Maria Brontë. She had suffered a long and painful illness that left Patrick distraught and facing financial ruin (he was helped out by friends and well wishers, one of whom is believed to be Yorkshire philanthropist Frances Mary Richardson Currer), and six children without a mother. By the time of Maria’s death, her sister Elizabeth had arrived at the parsonage, and the woman who became known as Aunt Branwell never saw her beloved Cornwall again. Nevertheless the loss of Maria had a huge impact on the Brontë children, and perhaps particularly on Branwell and Charlotte.

‘Hang on’, I hear you say, ‘Maria Brontë died of uterine cancer!’. This is the commonly accepted theory of her death, but I believe an expert source who looked at the facts of the matter in 1972 gave a compelling case for the cause of death being sepsis.

Professor Philip Rhodes was one of the foremost gynaecologists and obstetricians of his day; he was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and a Professor at the University of London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. He was also a huge Brontë fan, and this led him in 1972 to write the article ‘A Medical Appraisal of the Brontës’. Here is his opinion on Maria:

“Mrs. Brontë died in September 1821. It seems that she had taken to her bed and had slowly succumbed to illness over the course of seven months. According to Mrs. Gaskell she was in agonising pain for most of this time, and this evidence is given on the strength of a letter from Mr. Brontë to his former vicar. Mrs. Brontë was born in 1783, so that at the time of her death she was only 38. The pain from which Mrs. Brontë suffered was presumably abdominal, and in view of her obstetric history it is probable that her symptoms were related to her pelvic generative organs. It is obvious that she did not die as an immediate result of her rapid childbearing, but probably because of some chronic disorder consequent upon it. The common causes of death during or just following childbirth are haemorrhage and infection. She could possibly have had a lingering chronic pelvic inflammation for this would be painful and debilitating and would cause heavy periods so that she would gradually become anaemic. Another possibility might have been a chronic inversion of the uterus giving rise to pain, bleeding and anaemia. The ultimate cause of death in both instances would be cardiac failure due to the anaemia. Of course there is an outside possibility of cancer of some organ within the abdomen, but it is unusual for this to occur before the age of forty. Certainly genital cancer would be very unlikely when the previous normality of reproductive function was so well displayed. There is no reference to vomiting so that a malady of the alimentary tract is less likely than some chronic disease of the pelvic organs. All in all, I would lean to to the idea of chronic pelvic sepsis together with increasing anaemia as the probable cause of her death. It is to be remembered that this was before the age of bacterial knowledge so that almost nothing was known of infectivity by extraneous organisms. Gynaecological knowledge was primitive, there was no ante-natal care and no attempt at follow-up after childbirth.”

Maria’s death was a tragedy for all who knew her, but from adversity came the strength the Brontë children found with each other, and the works of genius that eventually resulted from their mutual love, support and brilliance. Here are the symptoms to look for in sepsis, if you see or experience them seek medical help immediately:

Sepsis symptoms
Be aware of these sepsis symptoms

Anne Brontë and the Student’s Serenade

September is now in full swing and the glorious gold leafed autumn is preparing to make its entrance. For parents of young children that means it’s back to school time, whilst young men and women prepare to head back to University.

Education in the first half of the nineteenth century was very different to how it is today, and how much you received, or whether you received any at all, was down to two factors: class and wealth. Their position as children of a Church of England vicar gave the Brontë siblings lower middle class respectability, but their father lacked the independent wealth of many vicars of this time. For that reason, Anne Brontë’s time as a formal student was limited to little over two years at Roe Head School at Mirfield. Nevertheless, she was a highly accomplished scholar and her student days prepared her for her brilliant, yet all too brief, adulthood ahead.

Roe Head
This was Anne Bronte’s classroom at Roe Head

As the youngest child of the family, Anne was spared the horrors of the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, horrors that would claim the lives of Maria Brontë and Elizabeth Brontë, and leave an indelible mark upon Charlotte and Emily. Remaining at home, however, did not preclude her from being educated, primarily at the hands of Patrick and her Aunt Branwell who became very fond of her youngest niece.

Aunt Branwell has often unfairly been portrayed as teaching her nieces needlework and little else. This is largely due to a recollection of Mary Taylor, a great friend of Charlotte Brontë, who stated: ‘She [Aunt Branwell] made her nieces sew, with purpose or without, and as far as possible discouraged any other culture. She used to keep the girls sewing charity clothing, and maintained to me that it was not for the good of the recipients but of the sewers.’

Mary Taylor did not see Elizabeth Branwell on a regular basis, and was equally sniffy about the old fashioned clothes the aunt wore without thinking why she wore them and the sacrifices she was making, so may have been ignorant of the other lessons she provided to her nieces, but their intelligence and accomplishments are testaments to the fact that she gave them a rounded education.

Roe Head by Anne Bronte
Roe Head, drawn by Anne Bronte

Anne Brontë entered Roe Head in October 1835, aged 15, and she quickly demonstrated her keenness to learn and her polite, well behaved manner. Before the 1836 Christmas break, the school’s head Miss Margaret Wooler presented her with a book by Isaac Watts, and a certificate that read: ‘A prize for good conduct presented to Miss A. Brontë with Miss Wooler’s kind love, Roe Head, Dec. 14th 1836.’

Anne also made a close friend at the school in Ann Cook but in 1837, while her studies were as fruitful as ever, her mind became troubled by religious doubts brought on by the sermons of harsh Calvinist preachers. By the close of 1837, Anne had recovered from what was a potentially life threatening bout of typhoid and was back at Haworth, but the two years and two months she spent as a student were more than any of her sisters had managed.

We can see Anne’s great intelligence and knowledge in her writing. In the Tenant of Wildfell Hall she shows her deep understanding of the Bible and the true meaning of ‘eternal’, something she was able to do as she could read Latin and Greek fluently. In another document she talks in great detail about the geological processes that shaped the earth as we know it, with comments such as:

‘When these volcanic revolutions became less frequent, and the globe became still more cooled, and the inequalities of its temperature preserved by the mountain chains, more perfect animals became its inhabitants, many of which, such as the mammoth, megalonix, megatherium, and gigantic hyena, are now extinct.’

Anne used her knowledge not only in her writing but also in real life, during her career as a governess. She was highly regarded by the Robinson family and especially by her charges, who continued to correspond with her on an almost daily basis after she had returned to Haworth from Thorp Green Hall near York.

Flossy by Anne Bronte
Flossy by Anne Bronte, the spaniel was gifted to her by the Robinson children

We have a poem from Anne that shows her attitude to studies, both at school, and later as she studied alone in her spare time (as she was wont to do). The poem is called ‘The Student’s Serenade’ and was written at Thorp Green in February 1844. Anne has a book propped before her, but she has drifted into a dream where she sees the things that really matter to her. I leave you with that poem now; if you are a student heading to University I wish you the best of luck, if you are a parent of school going children I hope they have a happy and productive year, and if you’re a teacher yourself then give yourself a pat on the back and keep up the great work:

“I have slept upon my couch
But my spirit did not rest,
For the labours of the day
Yet my weary soul opprest.
And before my dreaming eyes
Still the learned volumes lay,
And I could not close their leaves
And I could not turn away.
While the grim preceptors laughed
And exulted in my woe:
Till I felt my tingling frame
With the fire of anger glow.
But I oped my eyes at last,
And I heard a muffled sound,
‘Twas the night breeze come to say
That the snow was on the ground.
Then I knew that there was rest
On the mountain’s bosom free;
So I left my fevered couch
And I flew to waken thee.
I have flown to waken thee
For if thou wilt not arise,
Then my soul can drink no peace
From these holy moonlight skies.
And this waste of virgin snow
To my sight will not be fair
Unless thou wilt smiling come,
Love, to wander with me there.
Then awake! Maria, wake!
For if thou couldst only know
How the quiet moonlight sleeps
On this wilderness of snow
And the groves of ancient trees
In their snowy garb arrayed,
Till they stretch into the gloom
Of the distant valley’s shade.
O, I know thou wouldst rejoice
To inhale this bracing air,
Thou wouldst break thy sweetest sleep
To behold a scene so fair.
O’er these wintry wilds alone
Thou wouldst joy to wander free,
And it will not please thee less
Though that bliss be shared with me.”

Anne Brontë, Universal Salvation and the Narrow Way

We may be becoming a more secular society, but Sunday morning is still a day when many of us go to church – and it can be an energising experience, one that fills us with love and makes us think about deeper aspects of life that can so easily be lost in the hustle and bustle of the modern world.

Church going was certainly something that Anne Brontë loved, and of course church attendance as a whole was much greater in the early nineteenth than the early twenty first century. Not everyone in Haworth attended the Reverend Patrick Brontë‘s church however, far from it. St. Michael’s and All Angels at the summit of Main Street was the official Church of England church, and every household had to pay dues to the church, whether they attended it or not. This caused great anger among the Haworth dissenters, as followers of the Baptist and Wesleyan (or Methodist) faiths were known, and in fact they were greatly in the majority.

Hall Green Baptist Church
Hall Green Baptist Church, Haworth

An ecclesiastical survey taken on Sunday May 30 1851 revealed that 383 people had attended the three services that day at Patrick’s church. However, 422 had attended Lower Town Wesleyan Methodist church, 424 had attended West Lane Baptist church, and 900 had attended Hall Green Baptist church, showing that only 15% of church goers in Haworth went to the official Church of England services.

Anne Brontë was undoubtedly the most religious of the Brontë sisters, and her deep love and understanding of the Bible is shown in her great novels ‘Agnes Grey‘ and ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall‘. In one passage we see how Anne had read the Bible in its original Greek, and come to understand that the translation of eternal within its chapters, meaning forever, is wrong – the original meaning was actually enduring or for a long time, but not without end, not without hope. It was this that led Anne to realise that people were not damned for ever as many hardline Calvinist preachers, men such as William Carus Wilson, stated, but rather that forgiveness would come eventually, that salvation was available for all in the next world.

Mr Brocklehurst
Carus Wilson was depicted as the cruel Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre

This belief in a loving God was, strange as it sounds today, controversial and unconventional in its time, and it’s expressed beautifully in a letter she wrote to the Reverend David Thom of Liverpool. He had been so moved by ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’, recognising a kindred spirit, that he wrote to the author. 30th December 1848 was a time of trauma for Anne, her beloved Emily had died less than two weeks earlier, and she herself was clearly now gravely ill, and yet it was on this date that she replied to Reverend Thom:

‘I have seen so little of controversial Theology that I was not aware the doctrine of Universal Salvation had so able and ardent an advocate as yourself; but I have cherished it from my very childhood – with a trembling hope at first, and afterwards with a firm and glad conviction of its truth. I drew it secretly from my own heart and from the word of God before I knew that any other held it. And since then it has ever been a source of true delight to me to find the same views either timidly suggested or boldly advocated by benevolent and thoughtful minds; and I now believe there are many more believers than professors in that consoling creed… I thankfully cherish this belief; I honour those who hold it; and I would that all men had the same view of man’s hopes and God’s unbounded goodness as he had given to us.’

Anne Bronte plaque Haworth old school rooms
Anne Bronte plaque from ‘The Narrow Way’, Haworth old school rooms

This doctrine of love and beauty and salvation was at the heart of all Anne believed and did, and it’s also at the heart of her wonderful poem ‘The Narrow Way’ (which has itself been adopted as a hymn by the Moravian church). I will leave you with this poem of Anne’s, and whatever your beliefs I wish you a blessed, happy, reflective and love filled Sunday:

‘Believe not those who say
The upward path is smooth,
Lest thou shouldst stumble in the way
And faint before the truth.
It is the only road
Unto the realms of joy;
But he who seeks that blest abode
Must all his powers employ.
Bright hopes and pure delights
Upon his course may beam,
And there amid the sternest heights,
The sweetest flowerets gleam;
On all her breezes borne
Earth yields no scents like those;
But he, that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.
Arm, arm thee for the fight!
Cast useless loads away:
Watch through the darkest hours of night;
Toil through the hottest day.
Crush pride into the dust,
Or thou must needs be slack;
And trample down rebellious lust,
Or it will hold thee back.
Seek not thy treasure here;
Waive pleasure and renown;
The World’s dread scoff undaunted bear,
And face its deadliest frown.
To labour and to love,
To pardon and endure,
To lift thy heart to God above,
And keep thy conscience pure,
Be this thy constant aim,
Thy hope and thy delight,
What matters who should whisper blame,
Or who should scorn or slight?
What matters – if thy God approve,
And if within thy breast,
Thou feel the comfort of his love,
The earnest of his rest?’