In August 1845, Branwell Brontë, ill-starred drug-addict brother of the celebrated trio, took a trip from the Haworth family home to Liverpool. It was on the very eve of the Irish famine, and the city was soon to be thronged with its hungry victims. Many of them would have been Irish speakers, since it was the Irish-speaking poorer classes that the famine hit hardest. As Winifred Gérin comments in her biography of Emily Brontë: ‘Their image, and especially that of the children, was unforgettably depicted in the Illustrated London News – starving scarecrows with a few rags on them and an animal growth of black hair almost obscuring their features.’ A few months after Branwell’s visit to Liverpool, Emily began writing Wuthering Heights – a novel whose male protagonist, Heathcliff, is picked up starving off the streets of Liverpool by old Earnshaw. Earnshaw unwraps his greatcoat to reveal to his family a ‘dirty, ragged, black-haired child’ who speaks a kind of ‘gibberish’, and who will later be variously labelled beast, savage, demon and lunatic. It’s clear that this little Caliban has a nature on which nurture will never stick; and that’s merely an English way of saying that he’s quite possibly Irish.
Later in the novel, Heathcliff will stage a mysterious disappearance and re-enter the narrative as an English gentleman. It’s a transformation with a venerable Irish history, all the way from Oliver Goldsmith to Oscar Wilde. Unlike Goldsmith and Wilde, however, Heathcliff doesn’t make too impressive a job of impersonating the English upper class. You can take Heathcliff out of the Heights, but you can’t take the Heights out of Heathcliff. The Brontës’ father, Patrick, had pulled off the trick rather better. Born Patrick Brunty into a poor peasant family in County Down (still ‘Brontë country’ for the Irish today), he Frenchified his surname and made it to Cambridge, right-wing Toryism and a Yorkshire parsonage. But the Brontës’ Englishness never entirely stuck. When Branwell, enraged at hearing his father shouted down on the Haworth hustings, intervened loyally on his behalf, the local people burnt an effigy of him with a potato in one hand and a herring in the other. And Branwell, whose first name was actually Patrick, lived a flamboyant stage-Irish existence all his life, obediently reinforcing the English stereotype of the feckless Mick.
Of course Heathcliff may not be Irish at all. He may be a gypsy, or a lascar, or (like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre) a creole. It is hard to know how black he is, or rather how much of the blackness is grime and bile and how much pigmentation. As for the famine, the dates don’t quite fit: the blight didn’t strike until the autumn of 1845, so that August, the time of Branwell’s visit to Liverpool, would have been too early for him to encounter its victims. There would, however, have been a good few impoverished Irish immigrants hanging around the city, since Irish emigration by no means began with the Great Hunger, and it is possible that Branwell ran into some of them and relayed the tale to his sister. In any case, there would be something symbolically apt in Branwell, the Luciferian rebel of the outfit, presenting Emily with the disruptive element of her novel. There are certainly strong parallels between the brother and Emily’s Byronic villain. Earnshaw’s ambiguous gift of a sullen urchin to his family is also, perhaps, an imaginative reworking of an actual present of 12 toy soldiers which Patrick Brontë bestowed on the children after a trip to Bradford. It was these figures around which they spun their earliest mythologies, so that the paternal gift burst open their fantasy world as Heathcliff unleashes the drama of the Heights.
It can’t have been easy to have been the brother of those sisters, but Branwell made a more spectacular hash of it than was strictly necessary. Born in 1817, he was a nervous, violent, undersized child who was already glowering and teeth-grinding at an early age, and had to be withdrawn from his brief bout of schooling. Since school helped to kill off two of his sisters, this was not perhaps a wholly unwise move. Educated at home, he proved a remarkably precocious Classical scholar and became the fond hope of his doting father, who in traditional Irish-peasant fashion favoured the boy over the girls. At the age of eight he was bitten by a mad dog, as Emily was to be bitten by another somewhat later; the improbable coincidence seems grotesquely typical of the family’s ill luck. Branwell revealed an early gift for art, music and literature, dreamed of becoming a great writer, and between the ages of 12 and 17 penned around thirty assorted tales, poems, dramas, journals and histories, all written at fever pitch. He wrote more than the sum total of his sisters’ output, though without a particle of the talent. But he was already slipping out of the parsonage to the Black Bull pub rather too regularly, a youth of sizeable personality and minuscule character who had developed a curious obsession with boxing. Packed off to London as an art student, he wandered around the capital in a dream, realised how shabby and provincial he looked among the metropolitan crowd, and kept his letters of introduction to distinguished painters firmly in his pocket. He washed up instead in a Holborn pub run by one of his pugilist heroes, drank away his money, and returned to Haworth with an implausible tale of having been mugged. London had confirmed what he already suspected: that he had megalomaniacal ambitions and no practical interest whatsoever in achieving them.
Back home with a flea in his ear, he wrote florid, fruitless letters to Wordsworth and Blackwood’s Magazine, cadged gin money from his pals and became, improbably enough, secretary of the local Temperance Society. Though a confirmed atheist, he also taught in Sunday school, savaging his pupils in befuddled vengeance for his misfortunes. A second stab at an artistic future, this time as a portrait painter in Bradford, proved equally abortive: it was characteristic of Branwell’s blighted career that he took up portrait painting at just the point when the industry was being killed off by the daguerreotype. In any case, he spent most of his time engaged in raffish carousals with louche artists in Bradford’s George Hotel. To blot out this latest debacle he mixed opium-taking with his already well-entrenched alcoholism, and began to run up some alarming debts. There was now no avoiding a mundane job, and the prodigy of the parsonage was reduced to the ignominious role of assistant clerical secretary at Sowerby Bridge railway station. A year later, he was fired from the job for embezzling £11 1s 7d, an offence compounded by the lurid fantasies he had sketched and scribbled all over the company’s accounts. He was particularly keen on pen portraits of himself hanged, stabbed or plunged into eternal perdition.
Broken in health, permanently boozed and blackly despairing though Branwell now was, the President of the Immortals still had a nasty surprise or two in store for him. When a post was swung for him as tutor in a respectable middle-class family, Branwell promptly fell in love with his pupil’s mother and was pitched out on his ear by her irate husband. The pains of opium addiction were now compounded by the pangs of thwarted love; the husband died soon after, but his will threatened to cut his wife off if she married Branwell, and any insane thought of wedlock she might conceivably have entertained was quickly laid to rest. With the law breathing down his neck for unpaid debts, Branwell took to his bed, scrawled his final document (a begging note for gin), and died in his father’s arms of wasting sickness and chronic bronchitis in September 1848. Profligate and preposterous though he was, an entirely fictional character in a world he couldn’t handle, he had doggedly sprung back like his beloved pugilists from every cynical blow the fates had seen fit to deal him. He may have been disastrously bereft of the reality principle, but he certainly had guts.
The place where one can wreak vengeance on reality is known as art; and if Branwell wrote as compulsively as he did, it is because he was determined to give a malicious destiny a run for its money. So it was that at the age of 17 he created the kingdom of Angria, and roped Charlotte into writing chronicles about it. Emily and Anne, distressed by the macho militarism of Branwell’s fables, created the more peaceable kingdom of Gondal in a separatist gesture. The hero of the Angrian myths is Alexander Percy, anarchist and aristocrat, a Branwell in everything but the dope, spinelessness and pen-pushing in a railway station. Like his creator, Percy is a dissolute, self-destructive figure given to grotesque fits of passion; unlike him he is beautiful, powerful and prodigiously gifted, a haughty, arch-revolutionary Übermensch who – like Branwell himself before he ran out of drink money – arrogantly refuses to serve.
The Hand of the Arch-Sinner, lovingly reconstructed by Robert Collins from Branwell’s preternaturally minute handwriting, contains two of the Percy stories, ‘The Life of Northangerland’ and ‘Real Life in Verdopolis’. (‘Northangerland’ is Percy’s aristocratic title, but also an apt term for Brontë country.) Like the rest of Branwell’s work, the tales are of indifferent literary value, a slipshod brand of Gothic replete with fiendish sneers, vengefully knitted brows and vindictively curled lips. ‘The Life of Northangerland’ is a murderous oedipal fantasy of a kind unsurprising to anyone acquainted with the character of Patrick Brontë Senior. Percy is in hock to the tune of £300,000, a suitably glamorised version of his author’s slate at the Black Bull, and is egged on by his rebel comrades to commit parricide to relieve his debts. Prominent in this persuasion is Mr R.P. King, otherwise known as S’Death, or occasionally as R.P. S’Death, a revoltingly evil old retainer who speaks the Yorkshire dialect despite the fact that the tale is set in Africa, and who is clearly the prototype for old Joseph in Wuthering Heights. In the second story, Percy is now called Rougue (Branwell himself got through a bewildering array of extravagant pseudonyms), and is to be found spearheading a political coup against the Angrian government, flanked by his trusty companions Naughty and Lawless. He and his men have bound themselves to atheism and revolution by a sacred oath, though Percy, a stickler for political correctness, concludes the oath with the words ‘So help me, my mind.’
The Angrian myths, as Robert Collins points out, revolve on a conflict between anarchy and order, republicans and royalists, individual ego and social responsibility. But so does the Brontë sisters’ mature fiction, one might add. What fires that writing is a hunger for culture and gentility edged with a smouldering animus against those who represent it. It is the paradox of the Victorian governess, who is at once servant and gentlewoman, socially inferior to her employers but a spiritual cut above them, outwardly subservient while inwardly disdainful of their philistine habits and pampered brats. Or the paradox of the ending of Jane Eyre – ‘pornographic’, D.H. Lawrence typically called it – in which the novel finally unleashes its repressed female fury by maiming and blinding the aristocratic Rochester, but thereby reverses the power-relation between him and the petty-bourgeois Jane and clears the path for a fulfilling relationship between them. (It has, of course, first toppled mad Bertha Rochester conveniently off the rooftop, thus removing another awkward obstacle to their wedlock.) Alexander Percy, the gentleman rebel, unites in a single character Branwell’s pathetic desire for worldly power, and his revolutionary spurning of that very goal. In this schizoid division between conformity and dissent, Anglican Tory father and the Nonconformist aunt who brought them up, the Brontës faithfully lived up to Marx’s description of the lower-middle class they belonged to as ‘contradiction incarnate’.
It is also, one might hazard, a conflict between imperial Britain and rebellious Ireland. Perhaps Heathcliff is not Irish after all. But it is interesting that several of Alexander Percy’s rebellious comrades have Irish names; and one of his closest confidants, formerly a lawyer, is the son of one William Daniel Henry Montmorency of Derrinane Abbey. Derrynane, one of the most beautiful spots in County Kerry, was the ancestral seat of the lawyer Daniel O’Connell, the greatest of all Irish radicals during Branwell’s lifetime. In 1829, when Branwell was 12 years old and in the process of launching his ‘Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine’, O’Connell victoriously concluded his campaign for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland; throughout the 1840s, when Branwell, now on his uppers, was still furiously scribbling, O’Connell was waging his struggle for the repeal of the Union, which the famine brought slithering to a halt. Alexander Percy is a supremely well-practised demagogue, able to stir crowds to insurrection; Daniel O’Connell, specialist in the ‘monster meeting’, led the greatest mass movement in 19th-century Europe. When the good people of Haworth, stung by Branwell’s defence of the father he loved and hated, fashioned an effigy of ‘t’ parson’s Patrick’ with a potato in his hand, they may not have been quite as off-target as it might appear.