A new exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, tells the story of Angria and gives Branwell, the hapless sibling, due credit as an inspiration and catalyst for his sisters’ creative imaginations.
Arts and culture holiday ideas Quaint, cobbled Haworth, with its tea shops, its graveyard and its hinterland of forbidding moorland, is saturated with the Brontës. Their books and characters are reflected in the names of cab companies, Indian restaurants, hotels and streets. The annual throughput of 75,000 tourists – almost all pilgrims to the Parsonage Museum – may appreciate the atmosphere of bygone days, but Haworth’s prize tourist asset is far from complacent.
That’s why the dour, four-square, moorland house where, more than a century and a half ago, three rather strange sisters produced works of literary greatness – and a brother wasted his promise – is in the midst of a rolling redevelopment. Last year it reopened with a freshly designed exhibition space on the first floor that shows the minute storybooks that brought Angria to life, complete with magnifying glasses to read the exquisitely tiny handwriting. Downstairs in the Bonnell Room is a temporary exhibition on the hitherto neglected Branwell called Sex, Drugs and Literature: the Infernal World of Branwell Brontë.
Branwell is generally remembered for the spectacular trajectory of his self-destruction, as implied in the lurid title of this exhibition. The details of his downward spiral are well chronicled through his drawings, notebooks and letters.
According to Elizabeth Gaskell, novelist and biographer of Charlotte Brontë, Branwell was “perhaps, to begin with, the greatest genius in this rare family” but he dissipated his talents as artist and writer in drink and drugs.
After trying his hand as a portrait painter in Bradford (largely unsuccessful), he worked as a family tutor (dismissed), as a railway employee (dismissed) and once more as a tutor (dismissed again after a love affair with the mistress of the house – the traumatic event that pitched him even further into what we would nowadays call substance abuse).
When he died of tuberculosis in 1848 at the age of 31, having achieved little of note, Charlotte wrote: “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement, but for the wreck of a talent, the ruin of promise… ”
The upstairs rooms of the museum provide a corrective to this negative view of Branwell. In his “studio” – which actually served for most of the time as a bedroom – hang portraits of Bradford worthies that show him to have been a competent if uninspired artist. Next door, in the revamped Exhibition Room dedicated to the Brontës as writers, Branwell is revealed as a crucial midwife of his sisters’ imaginations.
Indeed, their love of imaginary worlds may be said to have dated from the day in June 1826 when a set of toy soldiers arrived at the Parsonage for Branwell, a gift from his father, Patrick. The soldiers do not survive, but the children’s accounts of the imaginary worlds they created for them do. In tiny, meticulous handwriting – tiny enough for a toy soldier to read – the siblings took the soldiers off to Africa and the imaginary land of Angria.
Later, Emily and Anne created yet another world that they called Gondal. In the family’s copy of Grammar of General Geography, wedged between entries for Gomera and Gondar, Anne added in her neat handwriting this fictitious land of Gondal, which she described as “a large island in the North Pacific”.
Marooned in their windswept moorland parsonage, the siblings gave full vent to their powerful imaginations and Charlotte and Branwell in particular had ambitions of wider literary success.
Charlotte’s expectations were temporarily dashed when the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, wrote in reply to her letter that “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life”. Branwell’s pompous and long-winded letter to William Wordsworth – “I have lived among secluded hills, where I could neither know what I was or what I could do” – did not elicit a reply. Perhaps the most poignant exhibit is Branwell’s last surviving drawing, entitled A Parody, which shows him being summoned from sleep by Death in the form of a gesturing skeleton.
The Branwell exhibition in the Bonnell Room runs until May, by which time two more phases of refurbishment at the Parsonage Museum will have taken place.
This year the “interpretation and casing” of exhibits in the original rooms of the house have been modernised and new displays reflect the history of Haworth. Later the house will be redecorated in a more authentic way to reflect the early- to mid-19th-century period when the family lived there.
‘‘We’re trying to do some decorative archaeology with English Heritage to produce something with more historical veracity,” says the director of the Parsonage Museum, Andrew McCarthy. “It will be quite a dramatic change.”
After visiting the Parsonage I walked up on the moors behind the house as far as Top Withens, the ruined farmstead said by some to have been the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. From this bleak, haunting spot I looked back over a landscape of bog, bracken and heather, and a deep, dark valley cleft.
The spirit of these literary siblings is captured forever in the scene. After the deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte wrote of these moors that Emily’s memory was distilled in the heather and ferns, while “The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.” Branwell you may detect in the plangent moaning of the wind.