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Patrick Branwell Brontë: An Affair of the Mind

Posted by. Sam Cummings
Posted on 15 September 2016

blogs:Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, blogs:Research

The Parody

In the latest post from the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies​, MA Victorian Studies student Sam Cummings writes about the archival research she is undertaking for her dissertation.

​​​Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817-1848) is the forgotten brother of Yorkshire's most prolific literary sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. In his famous portrait of the sisters, he has painted a pillar over his face, deleting him from the family history. Branwell, as he was known, is now mainly known for his alcoholism and for his notorious affair with Mrs Lydia Robinson of Thorp Green. This affair has never been proven and taking Branwell's mental health into question, some people may even consider that it was entirely within his own mind. There are multiple writings, poems and accounts of this affair, but most of are circumstantial, none are concrete evidence.

 

'The Brontë Sisters, by Patrick Branwell Brontë (circa 1834)'. 

Branwell's Letters as Creative Writing Therapy

Aside from no concrete proof of an affair, there are only a few letters available to us that even make reference to a relationship of any sort. Two such letters were written to Branwell's friends, one written in 1846 to Joseph Leyland; shortly after the death of Mrs Robinson's husband. The other is one to John Brown, the sexton at Haworth at the time of dismissal, from c. 1843, rewritten by a visitor to the Parsonage in 1859.

Writing and being creative as therapy has been around for a long time; artwork produced by those in psychiatric units in the Victorian era are still around today. Looking at both letters you can see a touch of this. With the 1846 letter there is the sketch that shows exactly how Branwell is feeling at the time, and in 1848 he produced a further sketch entitled 'The Parody' which again shows how he is feeling at that moment in time. The letter to John Brown promotes ideas which can also be found in his early fiction, which makes the affair appear real on paper, but almost completely fictionalised in our eyes.

 

'Myself': Branwell Bound

In the 1846 letter, Branwell is immensely protective over Mrs Robinson. The tone of this letter is filled with hope, stating that 'she suffers even more than I do.'[i] Branwell is acknowledging here that his mental state has not been great; indeed, he recognises throughout most letters and work that his mental state is not a happy one. For him to recognise that Mrs Robinson suffering the loss of her husband is a bigger suffering than his own must mean that she meant a lot to him.

The letter includes a sketch entitled 'Myself'. The sketch shows a bound figure, introducing the idea of slavery. Now it obviously goes alongside the text, but could this also be a metaphor that maybe Branwell feels trapped by Mrs Robinson: she is the one who sent carriages to him after her husband has died to tell him of her grief, and he does not appear to be retaliating.

(A digitized copy of the sketch can viewed on the Brotherton Library Special Collections website.)

[Hyperlink on 'Brotherton Library Special Collections website'; to https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/27917/letter_with_pen_and_ink_sketch_entitled_myself]

 

'The Parody':

The next source is a letter supposedly written to John Brown. The original copy of this letter no longer exists – or if it does it has not been found. Scholars say that there is no doubt that the writing style is similar to Branwell's and there is 'no doubt about authenticity.' [1] However, this is not concrete proof: the text of the letter was copied by a visitor to the Parsonage in 1859 – 16 years after the supposed affair. This makes the letter circumstantial evidence.

However, the text of letter makes it interesting: it is written in the same style of Branwell's other letters. It gives the impression that Mrs Robinson groomed Branwell. He was very vulnerable at the time that he first arrived at Thorp Green. He tells John Brown that 'my mistress is DAMNABLY TOO FOND OF ME.' [2] Nowhere in this letter does he particularly outline his feelings for her, the entire onus is on her affections and not his own. This letter also outlines Branwell's issues relating to his mental health.

Most of the letters to his friends hold lines such as: 'I am unable to finish it at present from agony to which the grave would be far preferable.' [3][ii] or contain sketches that outline his state of mind. He always highlights his mental health and yet the excerpt of this letter available to us mentions nothing of the sort outright. It does mention quite odd things though, he apparently sent with the letter a lock of Mrs Robinson's hair 'which has lain across my bosom'. [4][iii] This is reminiscient his tales of a charming seducer, Northangerland, in his childhood juvenilia and provides an alternate account of the vulnerability he is confessing on paper.

 

Rewriting Himself

However, looking back at writing therapy could it be a coping mechanism? With the first letter, it is completely realistic; the only thing unrealistic about it is the sketch. If it were not entitled 'Myself' then it would appear more realistic but as it stands we see this as the way Branwell saw himself at that time.

Within Branwell's childhood juvenilia, Northangerland is a scoundrel. It is the image that we ourselves have of Branwell, but this sketch (amongst others) presents a different message. Even John Brown's letter also represents Branwell as a similar character to Northangerland. Because of the parallel between Branwell and his own creation, could it also be that through the rouse of an affair with a real person, he has again created a new character for an entirely different story?

In light of these letters and from the little we know of Branwell's mental state, we don't know if this affair was real, or if we just perceive it to be. But based on these sources – and there are many more poems, writings and accounts to delve into – we can all agree that something happened. Branwell could have quite easily been calling on his earlier stories of adultery to make his obsession for Mrs Robinson seem real on paper; it just seems slightly more likely to have a lonely wife taking appreciation where ever she could.

Header Image: The Parody, by Patrick Branwell Brontë

​​[1] Barker, J., The Brontes, (Phoenix Giants, 1994) pp. 460

[2] ibid.

[3] Bronte, B., Letter with pen and ink sketch 'myself' (1846), MS Brotherton Library: Special Collections, Leeds University, BC MS 19c Bronte: B4/11

[4] Barker, J., The Brontes, (Phoenix Giants, 1994) pp. 460

Sam Cummings is an MA Victorian Studies student at Leeds Trinity. Having undertaken her undergraduate dissertation on Branwell Bronte's portrayal in his sister's novels, she endeavoured to find out more about him. Her MA dissertation will be entitled 'It is impossible to evade the question of how, in what manner, and driven by what motives, an individual may come by such a remarkable and unprofitable attitude toward life.' - A Psychoanalytical evaluation of the life and work of Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817 – 1848). It will take a look at Branwell's relationships and the different effects they had on him.

​Read more from the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies​​