In my new novel, The Garden of Bewitchment, two sisters are obsessed with all things Brontë and one in particular has an unhealthy adoration of Brontë brother, Branwell. She becomes convinced of his actual presence in her life even though he has been dead for decades at the time the novel is set.
The real Branwell Brontë was a complex character who became addicted to alcohol and opiates and caused his father and sisters much grief through his shortcomings. They loved him dearly, but his entire adulthood seems to have been marred by self-doubt, lack of confidence and personal failures. The classic under-achiever, he died young, at the age of just 31. He proclaimed he had done nothing ‘either great or good.
He was a talented portrait artist and at some stage – probably around 1834 (or so it is believed) – he decided to paint a group portrait of his three sisters – Emily, Charlotte and Anne. This famous group painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London and is the only time the three writers were ever painted together. Behind them stands a pillar and for many years that’s all it was. Until someone decided to take a closer look.
The painting itself had something of a chequered history. It was forgotten altogether, folded up and dumped on top of a wardrobe where it was discovered in 1906 by Mary Anna, the second wife of Charlotte Brontë’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls.
With the bicentenary of Branwell’s birth in 1817 looming, an examination was undertaken to discover precisely what was going on behind the mysterious pillar which, as time marched on, was gradually revealing a ghostly image.
Modern techniques showed that the painting had originally comprised all four siblings but, probably almost immediately, Branwell had taken the decision to paint himself out. Various theories have been offered for this. Maybe he felt his presence unbalanced the picture, maybe he felt he wasn’t worthy to share centre stage with his prodigiously talented sisters. We will never know the truth, but his decision acts as an uncanny metaphor for his life.
He seems to have been a man of extremes – an all-or-nothing character. When he fell in love, it was with every morsel of his soul and being. Sadly the object of his affections - Mrs Lydia Robinson -was already married. Still he pursued her and Charlotte’s biographer, the writer Mrs Gaskell, described her as Branwell’s ‘paramour’. When Mr Robinson died, Branwell’s hopes of marrying his widow were dashed when she promptly upped and married someone else – someone who could provide her with a more prosperous lifestyle.
Similarly, Branwell’s drinking and drug use rapidly grew to excess and he frequently didn’t even need to pay for the drinks himself. A noted raconteur, his talent to entertain, especially when fuelled by a few glasses of alcoholic beverage, brought him to the attention of the landlord of the local Haworth hostelry, the Black Bull. Whenever a stranger would stay there overnight, Branwell would be sent for to come and entertain with his stories and erudite chatter. The shrewd landlord could then be sure of keeping his guest on his premises until bedtime, rather than losing him to one of the other drinking establishments in the village. Branwell would then make his unsteady way back home to the parsonage a few yards away.
While his official cause of death would be recorded as chronic bronchitis and ‘marasmus’ (wasting of the body), and tuberculosis (rife in Haworth and elsewhere at the time), his excessive alcohol and opiate consumption cannot have had anything other than a detrimental effect on his already impaired health.
But he had started out with so much promise. As children, the four surviving Brontë siblings (two older sisters - Maria and Elizabeth - died in childhood), lived a fairly insular life, educated by their over-protective father, who was understandably anxious not to lose more of his offspring (Maria and Elizabeth had been sent away to school where they contracted their fatal illnesses). Their father, the incumbent rector of Haworth, bought Branwell a tin of toy soldiers which he love to play with. Before long, he and his sisters were creating stories for them, giving them names and characters and sending them on heroic adventures, wars and battles in their fictional worlds of Angria and Northangerland. All of these were faithfully transcribed in the most exquisite miniature magazines full of poems and stories of heroism which survive to this day (in the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth).
Much was expected of Branwell. He was self-confident, an excellent orator and his talents as a poet, artist and translator of the classics were encouraged by the entire family. As the only boy, with sisters who, as time went on, seemed unlikely to marry, he would need to be able to provide for them. Their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, was not a man of independent means. Charlotte, Emily and Anne found work as governesses - but unhappily. Charlotte would find an outlet for her misery in writing thinly veiled accounts of her life in Jane Eyre while Emily’s unhappiness took her down the even darker road of Wuthering Heights. Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey is an almost autobiographical account of its author’s time as a governess at Blake Hall, where her charges were spoiled and unruly and her employers unsupportive of her attempts to instil discipline.
Sadly, artistic and cultural success eluded Branwell culminating in a disastrous trip to London where he was due to submit his drawings to the Royal Academy. The rpecise detail of what happened there remains a mystery but when he returned he was a changed man and it is at that point his life began to unravel. He drifted from job to job, generally losing positions as a result of his excessive drinking and resulting absenteeism.
His disastrous love affair with Lydia Robinson left him devastated. By now he was convinced he was a failure and would never amount to anything. Like the ghost in the picture, he was fading away. Unlike the ghost in the picture, he would not re-emerge.
Branwell’s sketches of himself are quite cruel. In his most famous one, he accentuates his long thin nose and in another - A Parody, perhaps the saddest of the lot – he portrays himself on his death bed with the figure of death waiting by his bedside.
It didn’t have long to wait. Two months after drawing it, Branwell was dead.
(If you want to learn more about the tragic Brontë brother, I recommend the classic biography The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne Du Maurier. The Brontë Parsonage in Haworth is beautifully restored and contains a replica of Branwell’s room. Well worth a visit. Their website is Bronte Parsonage)
In my story, Branwell returns - to Claire at least. Death has changed him and the classic warning, 'Be careful what you wish for', echoes through the rooms of Heather Cottage...
Blackwell's University Bookshop in Liverpool is hosting my official book launch for Garden of Bewitchment on Thursday February 20th at 6.30p.m. If you can get there, I will be delighted to welcome you. We shall be talking about the ghostly, the Gothic, and anything else that crops up.
The event is ticket only - but the tickets are FREE. Booking couldn't be simpler. Either click onto Facebook or Evenbrite at the links highlighted below;
Don’t play the game.
In 1893, Evelyn and Claire leave their home in a Yorkshire town for life in a rural retreat on their beloved moors. But when a strange toy garden mysteriously appears, a chain of increasingly terrifying events is unleashed. Neighbour Matthew Dixon befriends Evelyn, but seems to have more than one secret to hide. Then the horror really begins. The Garden of Bewitchment is all too real and something is threatening the lives and sanity of the women. Evelyn no longer knows who - or what - to believe. And time is running out.
"Cavendish draws from the best conventions of the genre in this eerie gothic novel about a woman’s sanity slowly unraveling within the hallways of a mysterious mansion." – Publishers Weekly