Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 8

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Emily Brontë  (1883)  by A. Mary F. Robinson
Chapter VIII. A Retrospect.



"Poor, brilliant, gay, moody, moping, wildly excitable, miserable Brontë! No history records your many struggles after the good—your wit, brilliance, attractiveness, eagerness for excitement— all the qualities which made you such 'good company' and dragged you down to an untimely grave."

Thus ejaculates Mr. Francis H. Grundy, remembering the boon-companion of his early years, the half-insane, pitiful creature that opium and brandy had made of clever Branwell at twenty-two. Returned from Bradford, his nervous system racked by opium fumes, he had loitered about at Ha worth until his father, stubborn as he was, perceived the obvious fact that every idle day led his only son more hopelessly down to the pit of ruin. At last he exerted his influence to find some work for Branwell, and obtained for his reckless, fanciful, morbid lad the post of station-master at a small roadside place, Luddendenfoot by name, on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Thither he went some months before Charlotte and Emily left for Brussels. It was there Mr. Grundy met him; a novel station-master.

"Had a position been chosen for this strange creature for the express purpose of driving him several steps to the bad, this must have been it. The line was only just opened. The station was a rude wooden hut, and there was no village near at hand. Alone in the wilds of Yorkshire, with few books, little to do, no prospects, and wretched pay, with no society congenial to his better taste, but plenty of wild, rollicking, hard-headed, half-educated manufacturers, who would welcome him to their houses, and drink with him as often as he chose to come, what was this morbid man, who couldn't bear to be alone, to do?"[1]

What Branwell always did, in fine, was that which was easiest to him to do. He drank himself violent, when he did not drink himself maudlin. He left the porter at the station to keep the books, and would go off for days "on the drink" with his friends and fellow-carousers. About this time Mr. Grundy, then an engineer at Halifax, fell in with the poor, half-demented, lonely creature, and for a while things went a little better. Drink and riot had not embellished the tawny-maned, laughing, handsome darling of Haworth. Here is his portrait as at this time he appeared to his friend:

"He was insignificantly small—one of his life's trials, He had a mass of red hair, which he wore brushed high off his forehead to help his height, I fancy a great, bumpy, intellectual forehead, nearly half the size of the whole facial contour; small ferrety eyes, deep-sunk and still further hidden by the never-removed spectacles; prominent nose, but weak lower features. He had a downcast look, which never varied, save for a rapid momentary glance at long intervals.' Small and thin of person, he was the reverse of attractive at first sight."

Yet this insignificant, sunken-eyed slip of humanity had a spell for those who heard him speak. There was no subject, moral, intellectual, or philosophic too remote or too profound for him to measure it at a moment's notice, with the ever-ready, fallacious plumb-line of his brilliant vanity. He would talk for hours: be eloquent, convincing, almost noble; and afterwards accompany his audience to the nearest public-house.

"At times we would drive over in a gig to Haworth (twelve miles) and visit his people. He was there at his best, and would be eloquent and amusing, although sometimes he would burst into tears when returning, and swear that he meant to amend. I believe, however, that he was half mad and could not control himself."[2]

So must his friends in kindness think. Mad; if haunting, morbid dreads and fancies conjured up by poisonous drugs and never to be laid; if a will laid prostrate under the yoke of unclean habits; if a constitution prone to nervous derangement and blighted by early excess; if such things forcing him by imperceptible daily pressure to choose the things he loathed, to be the thing he feared, to act a part abhorrent to his soul; if such estranging and falsification of a man's true self may count as lunacy, the luckless, worthless boy was mad.

It must have galled him, going home, to be welcomed so kindly, hoped so much from, by those who had forgiven amply, and did not dream how heavy a mortgage had since been laid upon their pardon; to have talked to the prim, pretty old lady who denied herself every day to save an inheritance for him; to watch pious, gentle Anne into whose dreams the sins she prayed against had never entered; worst of all, the sight of his respectable, well-preserved father, honoured by all the parish, successful, placed by his own stern, continued, will high beyond the onslaughts of temptation, yet with a temperament singularly akin to that morbid, passionate son's.

So he would weep going home; weep for his falling off, and perhaps more sincerely for the short life of his contrition. Then the long evenings alone with his thoughts in that lonely place would make him afraid of repentance, afraid of God, himself, night, all. He would drink.

He had fits of as contrary pride. "He was proud of his name, his strength and his abilities." Proud of his name! He wrote a poem on it, "Brontë," an eulogy of Nelson, which won the patronising approbation of Leigh Hunt, Miss Martineau and others, to whom, at his special request, it was submitted. Had he ever heard of his dozen aunts and uncles, the Pruntys of Ahaderg? Or if not, with what sensations must the Vicar of Haworth have listened to this blazoning forth and triumphing over the glories of his ancient name?

Branwell had fits of passion, too, the repetition of his father's vagaries. "I have seen him drive his doubled fist through the panels of a door—it seemed to soothe him." The rough side of his nature got full play, and perhaps won him some respect denied to his leverness, in the society amongst which he was chiefly thrown. For a little time the companionship of Mr. Grundy served to rescue him from utter abandonment to license. But, in the midst of this improvement, the crash came. As he had sown, he reaped.

Those long absences, drinking at the houses of his friends, had been turned to account by the one other inhabitant of the station at Luddendenfoot. The luggage porter was left to keep the books, and, following his master's example, he sought his own enjoyment before his employers' gain. He must have made a pretty penny out of those escapades of Barnwell's, for some months after the Vicar of Haworth had obtained his son's appointment, when the books received their customary examination, serious defalcations were discovered. An inquiry was instituted, which brought to light Branwell's peculiar method of managing the station. The lad himself was not suspected of actual theft; but so continued, so glaring had been his negligence, so hopeless the cause, that he was summarily dismissed the company's service, and sent home in dire disgrace to Haworth.

He came home not only in disgrace, but ill. Never strong, his constitution was deranged and broken by his excesses; yet, strangly enough, consumption, which carried off so prematurely the more highly-gifted, the more strongly-principled daughters of the house, consumption, which might have been originally produced by the vicious life this youth had led, laid no claim upon him. His mother's character and her disease descended to her daughters only. Branwell inherited his father's violent temper, strong passions and nervous weakness without the strength of will and moral fibre that made his father remarkable. Probably this brilliant, weak, shallow, selfish lad reproduced accurately enough the characteristics of some former Prunty; for Patrick Branwell was as distinctly an Irishman as if his childhood had been spent in his grandfather's cabin at Ahaderg.

He came home to find his sisters all away. Anne in her situation as governess, Emily and Charlotte in Rue d'Isabelle. No one, therefore, to be a check upon his habits, save the neat old lady, growing weaker day by day, who spent nearly all her time in her bedroom to avoid the paven floors of the basement; and the father, who did not care for company, took his meals alone for fear of indigestion, and found it necessary to spend the succeeding time in perfect quiet. The greater part of the day was, therefore, at Branwell's uncontrolled, unsupervised disposal.

To do him justice, he does seem to have made so much effort after a new place of work as was involved in writing letters to his friend Grundy, and probably to others, suing for employment. But his offence had been too glaring to be condoned. Mr. Grundy seems to have advised the hapless young man to take shelter in the Church, where the influence of his father and his mother's relatives might help him along; but, as Branwell said, he had not a single qualification, "save, perhaps hypocrisy." Parson's sons rarely have a great idea of the Church. The energy, self-denial, and endurance which a clergyman ought to possess were certainly not in Branwell's line. Besides, how could he take his degree? Montgomery, it seems, recommended him to make trial of literature. "All very well, but I have little conceit of myself and great desire for activity. You say that you write with feelings similar to those with which you last left me; keep them no longer. I trust I am somewhat changed, or I should not be worth a thought; and though nothing could ever give me your buoyant spirits and an outward man corresponding therewith, I may, in dress and appearance, emulate something like ordinary decency. And now, wherever coming years may lead—Greenland's snows or sands of Afric—I trust, etc. 9th June, 1842."[3]

It is doubtful, judging from Branwell's letters and his verses, whether anything much better than his father's 'Cottage in the Wood' would have resulted from his following the advice of James Montgomery. Fluent ease, often on the verge of twaddle, with here and there a bright, felicitous touch, with here and there a smack of the conventional hymn-book and pulpit twang—such weak and characterless effusions are all that is left or the passion-ridden pseudo-genius of Haworth. Real genius is perhaps seldom of such showy temperament.

Poor Branwell! it needed greater strength than his to retrieve that first false step into ruin. He cannot help himself, and can find no one to help him; he appeals again to Mr. Grundy (in a letter which must, from internal evidence, have been written about this time, although a different and impossible year is printed at its heading):—

"Dear Sir,

"I cannot avoid the temptation to cheer my spirits by scribbling a few lines to you while I sit here alone, all the household being at church the sole occupant of an ancient parsonage among lonely hills, which probably will never hear the whistle of an engine till I am in my grave.

"After experiencing, since my return home, extreme pain and illness, with mental depression worse than either, I have at length acquired health and strength and soundness of mind, far superior, I trust, to anything shown by that miserable wreck you used to know under my name. I can now speak cheerfully and enjoy the company of another without the stimulus of six glasses of whisky. I can write, think and act with some apparent approach to resolution, and I only want a motive for exertion to be happier than I have been for years. But I feel my recovery from almost insanity to be retarded by having nothing to listen to except the wind moaning among old chimneys and older ash-trees—nothing to look at except heathery hills, walked over when life had all to hope for and nothing to regret with me—no one to speak to except crabbed old Greeks and Romans who have been dust the last five [sic] thousand years. And yet this quiet life, from its contrast, makes the year passed at Luddendenfoot appear like a nightmare, for I would rather give my hand than undergo again the grovelling carelessness, the malignant, yet cold debauchery, the determination to find out how far mind could carry body without both being chucked into hell, which too often marked my conduct when there, lost as I was to all I really liked, and seeking relief in the indulgence of feelings which form the blackest spot in my character.

"Yet I have something still left me which may do me service. But I ought not to remain too long in solitude, for the world soon forgets those who have bidden it 'good-bye.' Quiet is an excellent cure, but no medicine should be continued after a patient's recovery, so I am about, though ashamed of the business, to dun you for answers to ———.

"Excuse the trouble I am giving to one on whose kindness I have no claim, and for whose services I am offering no return except gratitude and thankfulness, which are already due to you. Give my sincere regards to Mr. Stephenson. A word or two to show you have not altogether forgotten me will greatly please,

"Yours, etc."

Alas, no helping hand rescued the sinking wretch from the quicksands of idle sensuality which slowly engulfed him! Yet, at this time, there might have been hope, had he been kept from evil. Deliver himself he could not. His "great desire for activity" seems to have had to be in abeyance for some months, for on the 25th of October he is still at Haworth. He then writes to Mr. Grundy again. The letter brings us up to the time when in the cheerless morning—Charlotte and Emily set out on their journey homewards; it reveals to us how much real undeserved suffering must have been going on side by side with Branwell's purposeless miseries in the grey old parsonage at Haworth. The good methodical old maiden aunt—who for twenty years had given the best of her heart to this gay affectionate nephew of hers—had come down to the edge of the grave, having waited long enough to see the hopeless fallacy of all her dreams for him, all her affection. Branwell, who was really tender-hearted, must have been sobered then.

He writes to Mr. Grundy in a sincere and manly strain:—

"My dear Sir,

"There is no misunderstanding. I have had a long attendance at the death-bed of the Rev. Mr. Weightman, one of my dearest friends, and now I am attending at the death-bed of my Aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother. I expect her to die in a few hours.

"As my sisters are far from home, I have had much on my mind, and these things must serve as an apology for what was never intended as neglect of your friendship to us.

"I had meant not only to have written to you, but to the Rev. James Martineau, gratefully and sincerely acknowledging the receipt of his most kindly and truthful criticism—at least in advice, though too generous far in praise—but one sad ceremony must, I fear, be gone through first. Give my most sincere respects to Mr. Stephenson, and excuse this scrawl; my eyes are too dim with sorrow to see well. Believe me, your not very happy, but obliged friend and servant,

"P. B.Brontë."

But not till three days later the end came. By that time Anne was home to tend the woman who had taken her, a little child, into her love and always kept her there. Anne had ever lived gladly with Miss Branwell; her more dejected spirit did not resent the occasional oppressions, the little tyrannies, which revolted Charlotte and silenced Emily. And, at the last, all the constant self-sacrifice of those twenty years, spent for their sake in a strange and hated country, would shine out, and yet more endear the sufferer to those who had to lose her. On the 29th of October Branwell again writes to his friend:—

"My dear Sir,

"As I don't want to lose a real friend, I write in deprecation of the tone of your letter. Death only has made me neglectful of your kindness, and I have lately had so much experience with him, that your sister would not now blame 'me for indulging in gloomy visions either of this world or of another. I am incoherent, I fear, but I have been waking two nights witnessing such agonising suffering as I would not wish my worst enemy to endure; and I have now lost the pride and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood. I have suffered such sorrow since I last saw you at Haworth, that I do not now care if I were fighting in India, or——since, when the mind is depressed, danger is the most effectual cure."

Miss Branwell was dead. All was over: she was buried on a Tuesday morning, before Charlotte and Emily, having travelled night and day, got home. They found Mr. Brontë and Anne sitting together, quietly mourning the customary presence to be known no more. Branwell was not there. It was the first time he would see his sisters since his great disgrace; he could not wait at home to welcome them.

Miss Branwell's will had to be made known. The little property that she had saved out of her frugal income was all left to her three nieces. Branwell had been her darling, the only son, called by her name; but his disgrace had wounded her too deeply. He was not even mentioned in her will.

  1. 'Pictures of the Past.' F. H. Grundy.
  2. 'Pictures of the Past.
  3. 'Pictures of the Past.'