by Patrick Branwell Brontë oil on canvas, circa 1834
NPG 1725 © National Portrait Gallery, London
"Oh no. What?" I asked, bracing myself for some bad news about a kid in chorus, perhaps, or maybe some kind of social mishap that I'd need to respond to in an effective yet non-helicopter-parent fashion.
I was momentarily nonplussed. Branwell, Branwell, do we know someone named Branwell?
Oh, right. Branwell Brontë. The bad-boy brother of the Brontë sisters. Tim has been reading N. Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) for the past couple months, and they'd reached the part where Branwell's drinking finally does him in.
N. has really enjoyed hearing Gaskell's riveting account of the Brontë family with its vivid characters, Gothic-nightmarish schools, and intense familial creativity. He loves Victorian England, especially its architecture, so that's a major point of interest in this biography. And he loves the Yorkshire moors, thanks to James Herriot and The Secret Garden. We began our semester abroad in 2013 in western Yorkshire at a family wedding, so we'd been to some of the villages mentioned in the book (though unfortunately we did not make it to Haworth, the Brontë home village) and it has been fun to virtually revisit them.
While reading this book, Tim and N. have had occasion to talk about the inevitable biases and omissions in biographies, as Tim has compared Gaskell's narrative to the more recent scholarly biographies of the Brontës, especially those of Juliet Barker, which paint a much more sympathetic image of Patrick Brontë, the father, who, for all his seeming neglect of his children, did cultivate an atmosphere of fertile creativity that may well have made the novels of his daughters possible. Gaskell says nothing about the jointly authored juvenilia that so fascinates modern students of the Brontës.
Other interesting subjects of conversation that Gaskell's biography has raised include medical and scientific history in reference to the deaths of most of the Brontës from "consumption;" education and economics in relation to the Brontës' limited access to decent schooling as the children of a clergyman of limited income; the extremely limited life opportunities for the Brontë sisters as Charlotte begrudgingly taught school; and the discrimination faced by women writers as the sisters published their books under male pseudonyms. Once again, I've been impressed by how many directions of inquiry biographies open for Tim and N.