Influenced by the ambiguous sibling/lover relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), biographers and creative writers from the nineteenth century to the present age have characterized the relationship between Branwell and his sisters as subversively sexual. Works such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Sally Wainwright’s Brontë biofilm, To Walk Invisible: the Brontë Sisters and Polly Teale’s twenty-first-century drama, Brontë, provides multiple explanations about the supposedly incestuous love in the Brontë family.
To investigate the reason Branwell’s story was never jettisoned from the Brontë narrative, there is the need to critically interrogate a few happenings. Firstly, Gaskell had to emphasize the extremity of Branwell’s addiction, decline and almost pathological obsession with Ms Robinson (his lover)- “whimpering pathetically about her promises and betrayals, threatening to shoot members of his family and drinking to reach a state of stupor — in order to deflect attention from the fact that Charlotte was experiencing an almost identical crisis”. The second reason Gaskell expressed includes the details of Branwell’s debauchery and his erratic and intemperate behaviour that helped exonerate the Brontë sisters- particularly Charlotte from the accusations of coarseness and unwomanliness that were levelled at them by some early reviewers.
As posited by Wainwright in her discussion about the Brontës, “when we think of the Brontë sisters, we tend to think of Branwell as an annoying little brother in the background. But in terms of their personal everyday lives, he wasn’t in the background: he was an ever-present problem they had to deal with and live with". In To Walk Invisible, Wainwright placed Branwell at the centre of the family, especially in the last three years of his life when he was discarded and disgraced after his alleged affair with Lydia Robinson. He returned to the Parsonage and sank even more deeper into debt, addiction and despair. It was during these three years that his sisters wrote the books that would make them famous. They did it all in the teeth of their alcoholic brother’s brutal decline and death. Many authors including Wainwright have explored how Brandwell’s alcoholism and drug addiction, his extreme violence and sexual fantasies about his sisters and even the sexual abuses supposedly recorded continue to spark debates, be it scholarly or mythic. Seeming to take their cue from the complicated, loving, tormenting relationship of Cathy and Heathcliff (the twin-like lovers of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights -1847), biographers and creative writers from the nineteenth century to the present day have characterized the relationship between Branwell and Emily as particularly close.
However, during the inter-war period, when the Brontës first began to appear as characters in works of fiction and drama, the bond between Branwell and all three of his surviving sisters (not just Emily) was often presented as subversively sexual. It is no surprise that Polly Teale’s 2005 play, Brontë, intertwines the composition of the juvenilia with adolescent erotic play between Charlotte and Branwell, and why the adult Branwell’s sexual assaults on Charlotte and Anne are shown to catalyse their mature fiction. It also explains why, as late as 2005, Teale approached the Brontës’ lives with the same question in mind that had occupied her Victorian and inter-war predecessors:- "how was it possible that these three women, three celibate Victorian sisters, living in isolation on the Yorkshire moors, could have written some of the most passionate (even erotic) fiction of all time?".
For more information, refer to the following resources:
Pouliot, Amber. “‘Swallow It’: Imagining Incest in Inter-War Writing on the Brontës.” Brontë Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 136–48.