Francis Leyland was a former bookseller and friend of Branwell Brontë's, having been introduced to him by his brother, the Halifax sculptor J.B. Leyland (probably Branwell's closest friend), at Sowerby Bridge Station in 1840 (see his letter to Woollven below). After his brother's death in 1851 he inherited his considerable collection of letters, sketches and poems by Branwell which he was keen on publishing. In 1886 he brought out The Brontë Family with Special Reference to Patrick Branwell Brontë. In it, he "took up the idea that Emily had been particularly close to her brother but turned it into a means of bolstering and elaborating on William Dearden's and Francis Grundy's earlier claims aboutWuthering Heights, arguing that the novel was a work of joint authorship. Without Charlotte's knowledge, Branwell had, Leyland claimed, handed over the unfinished manuscript for his favourite sister, the sympathetic Emily, to complete" (Lucasta Miller The Brontë Myth, Anchor edition, 2005, p.242).
The present collection was largely assembled during the course of Leyland's research for the book. His speculations about Wuthering Heights notwithstanding, the book contains a good deal of information about his friend Branwell which is not available elsewhere and which has been analysed in depth by Juliet Barker in The Brontës (1994). The present collection, which was unknown to Juliet Barker when preparing her biography, is particularly valuable in that it allows us direct access to that evidence, without Leyland's intervention.
Leyland's advocacy of Branwell in the face of what he saw as Mrs Gaskell's vilification did not make him popular with either Charlotte's husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, or her friend Ellen Nussey. The collection contains a pair of autograph letters by each, written between 1884 and 1885. The two by Ellen Nussey are written at a high emotional pitch: "Your letter respecting Branwell Brontë & your intended publication of his letters &c is simply a grief for me - Why not let the poor erring brother rest in peace? What good can possibly arise from reviving the memory of him? It was unwise, it was unjust to his patient & enduring sisters to say what has been said of him.../...In your eagerness to defend the Brontës' Brother you are in danger of injuring his sisters. How can you know the exact truth?... How can any one dare to judge in such a case where blame begins & ends? Who has fathomed the depths of suffering he inflicted on his devoted sisters? If you gather that Charlotte was 'injudicious' it must certainly have been her brother's morbidmind to represent her as such... You did not know them - You only saw them once, I have been informed...". While the two by A.B. Nicholls are blunt to the point of rudeness. In both he refuses to have the portrait medallion of Branwell, which Leyland's brother had executed, photographed. When told by Leyland that he, Leyland, had given it to the family, Nicholls replies: "I was not aware that you had given the portrait to Mr Brontë - I always understood that it had been found in a Broker's shop in Halifax - I know that my late wife gave £5 for it". From the draft of Leyland's reply, it transpires that the rascally sexton John Brown, who had been entrusted with its carriage, sold it instead. For good measure, Nicholls twice refuses Leyland permission to publish "Mr Branwell Brontë's Manuscripts"; this partly on the advice of Richard Monckton Milnes (see Barker, p.817).
Equally evocative are letters by two of Branwell's fellow employees at Luddenden Foot railway station, the minor poet William Heaton and H. Woollven (as he signs himself here, rather than 'Woolven', the form more usually given). Heaton, writing in 1863, tells Leyland: "I knew Mr Bronte well he was the station Master at Luddenden foot but how long it is since I cannot tell at that time I frequented the Anchor and Shuttle Inn and so did he sometimes he was blyth and gay and at others he looked down cast and sad...tis true he loved his cup as he frequently called his glass of Brandy but I shall never forget his love for the sublime..." (for the text of this letter as printed by Leyland, see Barker, pp.370-1). The testimony of Woollven is especially important for its bearing on the question as to whether Branwell ever did in fact go to London, rather than merely acquire seeming familiarity with the capital through his reading, as Barker argues (pp.227-9). What had seemed a stumbling-block to Barker's case is that "Leyland's account... cites one 'Mr Woolven', who, while later working on the construction of the Manchester and Leeds Railway, met and remembered Branwell from the Castle tavern at Holborn" (p.229). However Woollven's original letter (which is on Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway headed paper) does not in point of fact describe such an encounter. What Woollven actually tells Leyland is that Branwell "was a very extraordinary character. I remember previous to my being engaged in the Railway Service, I one night visited the Castle Tavern in Holborne London then Kept by the once Champion Prize fighter Tom Spring. The parlour was full of sporting characters, Pugilists &c. One of the company, I believe was Mr Bronte, to whom was referred to decide many disputes about great battles that had been fought". Woollven is not claiming to have seen him. Merely that he was led to believe (no doubt by Branwell himself, long afterwards) that he was there. Woollven goes on to relate the story of Branwell's passion for Mrs Robinson, eliciting the shocked response from Leyland that "Branwell was indeed a very strange character... No man in his sound senses, entrusted with the heart, honour, and fair name of a married woman, would make a public talk of it everywhere...". (It is pleasing, also, to note that this correspondence confirms the corporeal reality of the enigmatic Woollven, of whose existence Juliet Barker can find no trace outside the pages of Leyland, see footnote 12, pp.881-2).
The collection also includes a letter by Patrick Brontë's friend the Halifax poet William Dearden written in August 1857, in which he discusses their joint visit to Patrick that year and the publication of Mrs Gaskell's biography five months earlier: "He [Patrick] said he did not know that he had an enemy in the world before Mrs Gaskell's publication of the life of his daughter, and he really could not tell from what source she had derived her information about himself except it might be from some discarded servant..." (see Barker, p.803). There is also Leyland's own account of his visit to Haworth on 28 January 1874 to interview John Brown's brother ("...Visited Haworth twenty-six years after the death of Branwell Bronte, and found, still living, William, the brother of John Brown late grave digger and sexton... The ardent, imaginative, and impulsive youth fell a victim to this man of coffins, graves, pickaxes, and spades...") with an autograph letter to him by William Brown, Haworth, 18 February 1874, and an autograph journal of his further visit to the Browns at Haworth in May 1874 ("...William Brown had been expecting me by the train and overtook me in the street. We passed the memorable 'Bull' in our way to his house where he introduced me to his niece Martha, late servant to the Brontës and now with Mr Nicholls the husband of the late Charlotte... Mrs Brown said that when Branwell was forbidden to approach Mrs R. he was in a state of frenzy walking round their table, clenching a knife in his hand, and wildly raving at the irrevocable decrees of damned fate!...").
As well as Leyland's retained copies or drafts of his outgoing letters (as for example to the editor of the Athenaeum, submitting "My brother's lyrics and ballads, of which I have found some in his old metallic books, where they were scribbled, are weird and beautiful"), the collection also comprises Leyland's transcripts of letters to William Dearden by Martha Brown ("...Mother says you asked her on Saturday whether Mrs Gaskell had any talk with me before she began to write the memoir of my late Mistress...") and Patrick Brontë ("...As Mr Nicholls has stated, I have given to him, all Branwell's writings and wish, earnestly that no one should write his life - enough, I think, has been said on that head. He was a young man of varied, and brilliant talents; but alas! his appetite, was stronger than his reason, and thus all his fair prospects were blighted, his life shortened, and great sorrow brought upon his sisters, and me...")