Angry ’Un

Terry Eagleton

  • The Hand of the Arch-Sinner: Two Angrian Chronicles of Branwell Brontë edited by Robert Collins
    Oxford, 300 pp, £30.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 19 812258 6

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.

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