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Branwell Brontë, A Man in the Shadow?

Dark horse of the family, Branwell Brontë, 1834. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Branwell Brontë, usually in the shadow of his more famous sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, has unfairly been branded in history as a drunken drug-taker. Branwell’s spiralling addictions to alcohol and drugs sometimes transformed Haworth (a village in Yorkshire) from a well-ordered home to a domestic prison isolated by shame and fear. His behaviour became so dangerous that his father felt compelled to insist they share a bedroom after Branwell (in one of his drunken states) nearly set fire to the house.

However, Branwell is increasingly recognized as the one who motivated his sisters to engage in their creative expressions from childhood. Despite his dissolute life and opium abuse, he was the first to be published. His achievements were comparably less than his sisters not just because he lacked creative sensibilities but because of his distinct talents. He was a poet, portrait painter, church organist and Greek classicist. He possessed the unusual ability of being able to write in Greek and Latin simultaneously using both hands. He won bets in pubs around Halifax demonstrating this skill- including in the since-demolished Talbot public house (in the adjacent Woolshops), frequented by Piece Hall traders and visitors alike on market days. It was also Branwell who encouraged his sisters to write novels rather than the less profitable poetry. Branwell’s life and the impact on his sisters have, in fact, dominated attempts to explain their writing since 1857, with the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë being a critical example. Branwell recorded a friendship with businessman John Titterington in his Luddenden diaries, painted portraits of him and his wife Mary and visited his friend on market days at the Halifax Piece Hall where John and his father Eli and his brothers traded from room 63 in the Rustick gallery.

The following resources provide more information:

Andrew Hirst. “Branwell Brontë Had a ‘Very Bad Press’; He Was Very Talented Man yet History Has Branded Him a Drunken Drug-Taker.” Huddersfield Daily Examiner: Web Edition Articles (England), 19 Sept. 2017.

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