Accounts Of The Death Of Branwell Brontë

This day in 1848, also a Sunday, was a day of tragedy in Haworth Parsonage, a day of horror beginning to unfurl, for on this day Branwell Brontë died. He had been intermittently ill for a long time, but it wasn’t his addictions to opium, laudanum and alcohol that killed him. His death certificate gave the cause of death as ‘chronic bronchitis – marasmus.’ Marasmus was a wasting condition, a sign of what had truly killed him: tuberculosis. Within a year it would also claim the lives of Emily and Anne Brontë and turn the family home into a parsonage full of shadows, of memories, of faintly snatched ghosts.

Branwell Bronte self portrait
Branwell Bronte self portrait

We’ve covered Branwell’s life before. It was a life of promise unfulfilled; he was, I believe, as his friend Francis Grundy so fittingly said, no domestic demon – he was simply a man moving in a fog, who lost his way. In today’s post we’re going to look at three accounts of Branwell Brontë and his death, starting with the account of his sister Charlotte Brontë. We know that on the day of his death, exactly 175 years ago today, he said ‘Amen’, rose from his bed, embraced his father and died.

Charlotte’s letter to W. S. Williams, of her publisher Smith, Elder & Co, gives a moving account of her feelings after the death of her only brother – a brother she had loved dearly but then turned her back upon as his addiction and behaviour grew worse. Below you will see Charlotte’s actual letter, followed by a transcription below each page:

‘My dear Sir, “We have buried our dead out of our sight.” A lull begins to succeed the gloomy tumult of last week. It is not permitted us to grieve for him who is gone as others grieve for those they lose; the removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement. Branwell was his Father’s and his sisters’ pride and hope in boyhood, but since Manhood, the case has been otherwise. It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent; to hope, expect, wait his return to the right…’

‘path; to know the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled, to experience despair at last; and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career.’

I do not weep from a sense of bereavement – there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost – but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely, dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light. My brother was a year my junior; I had aspirations and ambitions for him once – long ago – they have perished mournfully nothing remains of him but a memory of errors and sufferings – There is such a bitterness of pity for his life and death – such a yearning for the emptiness of his whole existence as I cannot describe – I trust time will allay these feelings.

My poor Father naturally thought more of his only son than of his daughters, and much and long as he had suffered on his account – he cried out for his loss like David for that of Absalom – My Son! My Son! And refused at first to be comforted – and then – when I ought to have been able to collect my strength, and be at hand to support him – I fell ill with an illness whose approaches I had felt for some time previously – and of which the crisis was hastened by the awe and trouble of the death-scene – the first I had ever witnessed. The past has seemed to me a strange week – Thank God –…’

‘for my Father’s sake – I am better now – though still feeble – I wish indeed I had more general physical strength – the want of it is sadly in my way. I cannot do what I would do, for want of sustained animal spirits – and efficient bodily vigour.

My unhappy brother never knew what his sisters had done in literature – he was not aware that they had ever published a line; we could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied – Now he will never know. I cannot dwell longer on the subject at present; it is too painful.

I thank you for your kind sympathy – and pray earnestly that your sons may all do well and that you may be spared the sufferings my Father has gone through. Yours sincerely, C Brontë’

Branwell Bronte death picture
‘A Parody’ by Branwell Bronte

Next we turn to an account from long-standing parsonage servant Martha Brown, given to Elizabeth Gaskell during a visit to Haworth Parsonage in this week 1843:

‘Patrick Branwell Brontë died Sep 24, 1848, aged 30. Emily Jane Brontë died Decr. 18. 1848 aged 29—Anne Brontë May 28, 1849, aged 27. ‘‘Yes!’’ said Martha. ‘They were all well when Mr. Branwell was buried;… about Mr. Branwell Brontë the less said the better – poor fellow. He never knew Jane Eyre was written although he lived for a year afterwards; but that year was passed in the shadow of the coming death, with the consciousness of his wasted life.’

Finally we turn to the official obituary given to Branwell Brontë in the Leeds Times of 30th September 1848, and a fulsome and remarkable tribute it is too (despite them mis-spelling his name as Bramwell). For all his weaknesses and challenges, and his challenging behaviour, Branwell Brontë was loved by those who had known him.

Branwell Bronte obituary Leeds Times 30 09 1848

I promised you a cheerier post this week, but this special anniversary would not permit it. On this very day in 1849, exactly a year after Branwell’s death, Charlotte Brontë sent a mournful letter, ending it, ‘Life is a battle – may we all be enabled to fight it well.’ I hope to see you next week for a new, and cheerier, Brontë blog post.

Anne Brontë And The Loss Of Her Mother

This week saw the anniversary of one of the great tragedies in the Brontë story, which is far from short of them of course. On 15th September 1821 Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, mother of the world’s most famous writing siblings died aged only 38. In today’s post we’re going to look at the impact this may have had on her youngest child, Anne Brontë.

On the anniversary, Friday, the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s social media declared: “On this day in 1821 Mrs. Brontë died in Haworth following a harrowing battle with cancer. Maria Brontë was survived by her husband, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, and their four surviving children Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.”

Maria Branwell by Tonkins

I believe the medical evidence now pretty firmly shows that Maria did not die of cancer. In 1972 the Brontë Society’s journal published an in depth article by Professor Philip Rhodes, a Brontë fan and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, 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 had studied all the evidence we had about the life and death of Maria Brontë and his conclusion was hard to disagree with:

“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.”

Given that it would be hard to find a greater expert in the field than Professor Rhodes was I think we have to accept his prognosis that sepsis, rather than cancer, was the cause of Maria’s death.

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

The social media post made a rather more concrete error too, of course, as in September 1821 Maria left behind six surviving children not four. Let us not forget the two eldest Brontë siblings. Let us name them all now: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and Anne.

What impact did Maria’s tragic death have on her children? The greatest impact must inevitably have been felt by the oldest children at the time: Maria, named after her mother, would have been seven and Elizabeth Brontë six. Aged just seven, little Maria would now became a mother like figure to her five siblings. Perhaps this is one reason that she became such a precocious and advanced child, but alas Maria herself, and Elizabeth, had less than four years left to live.

Charlotte Brontë was just five at the time of her mother’s death, but she too was a highly intelligent and deep-feeling child. Even so, the memories she had of her mother began to fade over time, until Charlotte found it hard to remember what she had been really like at all. We can imagine how moving it must have been when, many years later, Patrick Brontë handed Charlotte, by then his only surviving child, the carefully preserved love letters Maria had sent him in 1812. Charlotte revealed in a letter the impact this moment had on her:

“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… There is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wish she had lived, and that I had known her.”

Anne Brontë was just one year old at the time of her mother’s death, so she would have had no recollection of her mother at all, and would have been incapable of understanding the scale of the loss at the time of Maria’s passing. Nevertheless, Anne was a deeply sensitive child and the atmosphere of mourning and despondency in late 1821 must have been felt by her.

For Anne especially a second mother was now to take to the stage. Elizabeth Branwell had made the long, and potentially perilous, journey to Haworth from Penzance (their Penzance home is shown at the head of this post) to nurse her sister Maria during her final illness. She could easily have returned to Cornwall after Maria’s death, but instead she remained in Haworth until her own death 21 years later.

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Elizabeth Branwell miniature, she was known as Aunt Branwell to the Brontes

Elizabeth became known as Aunt Branwell to the Brontë siblings, but she had sacrificed everything to step into a mother’s shoes and to do all she could to raise the children of the younger sister she had loved. To Anne especially she was like a mother, and the two shared a bedroom during Anne’s infancy and childhood. Ellen Nussey, great friend of Charlotte and the family as a whole, commented on this:

“Anne, dear, gentle Anne, was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite.”

There are many potential reasons for this favouritism. Perhaps, understandably, Elizabeth Branwell felt particularly moved by the plight of this one year old girl left without a mother? Perhaps she particularly liked Anne’s quiet, studious nature and her love of the scriptures? But perhaps there is another clue in Ellen Nussey’s statement above? Anne was named after her maternal grandmother, the mother of Maria and Elizabeth. Perhaps she alone had also inherited the Branwell family looks? Take a look at this portrait of a young Maria Brontë drawn by a Cornish artist named Tonkins side by side with a portrait of a young Anne Brontë drawn by her sister Charlotte. I think there’s more than a passing similarity, so could it be that Anne in particular reminded Elizabeth Branwell of her dear, departed sister Maria?

In last week’s post we looked at another loss suffered by Anne Brontë – one she had to face in adulthood, and which changed the course of her writing and her life, the loss of her love William Weightman. Many of you have asked for a complete copy of the funeral sermon Patrick Brontë gave for his assistant curate Weightman, and I will be sending these out over the next couple of days.

Apologies too, for those of you who were unable to read last week’s blog. The WordPress gremlins struck yet again. You can guarantee to receive my weekly blogs by clicking the subscribe button, but I also hope that I will soon be able to overcome these problems by moving this website to a new platform. What is certain is that I will be here next Sunday with another new Brontë blog post, and it will be on a cheerier subject. After all, the world brings challenges to everyone, as the Brontës knew all too well, but it is still a magnificent world full of hope, opportunity and love. I hope you can join me then.

Charlotte and Anne Brontë And The Fateful Coffee House

When Charlotte and Anne Brontë visited London in July 1848 it changed literary history completely, for two very different reasons. Firstly, it was on this occasion that the sisters threw off their pen name masks and announced that the authors generating so much interest were not the Bell brothers, but the Brontë sisters. Without that moment, and the letter from Anne and Emily’s unscrupulous publisher Thomas Cautley Newby that necessitated their journey to London, it is entirely possible that we may never have known the true identity of the authors of books as great as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

Secondly, and rather less triumphantly, it seems very likely that one of the sisters took an unwanted guest back to Haworth Parsonage from London: tuberculosis. It was typically a disease of crowded spaces, and it was rampant in the capital. Within a year of their return from London, tuberculosis (which was relatively rare in Haworth, full of deadly diseases though the village was) had claimed the lives of Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.

The Chapter Coffee House in 1843
The Chapter Coffee House in 1843, Anne and Charlotte stayed there 5 years later

We know that when they arrived in London, Charlotte and Anne took a cab to the Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row, for the simple reason that it was the only place in London that Charlotte knew. In fact, she her sister Emily and father Patrick had stayed at the Chapter Coffee House en route to Belgium six and a half years earlier. We have Reverend Patrick Brontë’s map of the area below. Being in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral it was a perfect lodging house for an ecclesiastical visitor such as he.

Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte
Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte

A generation or two earlier this same coffee house had also been a famous meeting spot for eighteenth century writers including Samuel Johnson and Thomas Chatterton. It would surely be the site of literary pilgrimages today but for one reason: it’s no longer there.

In 1940 London was under attack from a blitz of German bombs. Miraculously the beautiful, imposing St. Paul’s Cathedral of Sir Christopher Wren survived unscathed from the relentless attacks, but the area around it including Paternoster Row was badly damaged. The building which had once been The Chapter Coffee House was burnt to the ground, and after the war the area was extensively remodelled.

View Of St Paul's Cathedral
Anne Bronte’s view Of St Paul’s Cathedral from the Chapter Coffee House

So just where was the Chapter Coffee House? Where was the place Charlotte and Anne Brontë so briefly called home during that fateful London sojourn? Well, I’m in London myself at this very moment staying just across the Thames from St. Paul’s and Paternoster Row. In the video below, I explain what I think is the location that played such a big role, for better and for worse, in the Brontë story. I’m travelling back to Yorkshire myself soon, so from a gloriously hot and sunny London I wish you well, and hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.