Darkly shaded lives

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, painted around 1834 by Branwell (who has erased his own image). National Portrait Gallery

Juliet Gardiner: The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth.
A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings 

Collins & Brown 1992

We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair […]

For life is darkly shaded
And its joys fleet fast away!

— from ‘Retrospection’ by Charlotte Brontë (1835)

2017 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the least celebrated of the Brontë siblings, Branwell. As with the group portrait he painted of his surviving sisters and himself he appears as a ghostly figure, barely mentioned and then only with sadness. He left some poetry, youthful writings, a handful of paintings (on the evidence we have mostly of mediocre merit) and a record of a life wasted, an existence which brought him and those who knew him pain and distress.

But Branwell — for all his likely hidden talents — is not the gifted individual who springs to mind when the name Brontë is mentioned; more likely it will be Charlotte, Emily or Anne who commands our immediate attention. The World Within recounts the family history, from Patrick Brunty’s birth in County Down in 1777 to Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855. There will be little I suspect to surprise Brontë fans so rather than give a synopsis of their lives and accomplishments I will merely point out what makes this title worth more than a brief look.

First of all what recommends The World Within is the variety of illustrations. Maps, portraits, photos, landscapes, prints, silhouettes — all bring the family’s existence into vivid focus. Particularly worthwhile are the sketches and paintings by the siblings, which to me show how much artistic talent Charlotte and Emily had, certainly in comparison to the pedestrian efforts of their brother Branwell.

Next are the copious quotations from the letters, diaries, poems and other writings that have survived from the siblings — particularly Charlotte, the longest living of the six children — and from their contemporaries such as biographer Mrs Gaskell and literary critics from various periodicals.

Finally, Juliet Gardiner’s own commentary lays out their story in strict chronology, serving to contrast the setbacks and tragedies with the accomplishments and triumphs. To the biographical details Gardiner adds a list of personages, relevant topographical sites in Yorkshire and suggestions of places for modern pilgrims to visit, along with an index, a list standard sources and acknowledgements of sources for illustrations, help and advice.

The title, by the way, is a quote from lines by Emily, rather poignant in its implications and perfectly pointing out how imagination was the lifeline that saved the sisters from drowning in a sea of cares and worries:

So hopeless is the world without
The world within I doubly prize.

14 thoughts on “Darkly shaded lives

    1. Ha! Trust you to come up with le mot juste! No, I wasn’t aware of Branwell much until recently, especially after watching an excellent television drama by Sally Wainwright called To Walk Invisible — well worth watching if you ever get a chance to see it.

      (Interestingly, one of the few criticisms I read of the film was that they should have spoken with a Northern Irish accent rather than broad Yorkshire. This despite the fact that the siblings were all born in Yorkshire — their isolation meant that they were more influenced by their father’s way of speaking than by other family members or, indeed, by their neighbours.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Criticisms tend to be levelled at lack of ‘authentic’ accent often because of ignorance. My own learned offspring in UK never watch Poldark because they say the accents are incorrect. I think they may well be wrong. On the other hand, there is the aspect that some correct accents are indecipherable to anyone not born to them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. When you don’t know an accent a faux one rarely offends, but familiarity with one means a put-on one is inevitably jarring. Bristol, in the west of England — Wess Vinglund to those in the know — has a distinctive accent, but many actors mock up a generic West Country patois, which never works.


  1. Always interested in the Bronte family. I was lucky enough to visit Haworth before there were busloads of tourists. It’s hard to know what to make of Branwell – were the girls just more gifted, hard-working, or was it his father’s expectations of him that weighed him down?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been near Haworth but never in so that doesn’t count! Lucky you!
      As for Branwell, I’ll let you know about the quality of his writing once I’ve got round to his Angria pieces. But it is clear that there was great pressure on him to find his talents and get out and earn some money — pressure he was ultimately unable to cope with.
      I also wonder if Charlotte based her hero in The Professor on an idealised version of her brother: a clerk who advances to become a successful and sympathetic teacher.


        1. I don’t know if it ever got beyond the ogling/canoodling stage, but certainly there were enough passions raised to occasion Branwell’s sacking by the affronted husband.


    1. Apart from a description of Patrick Brunty’s childhood and marriage there’s not much else about him sadly, bar outliving the whole lot of them. Like you though I’ve heard he was a bit of a despot, to say the least, which makes the accomplishments of his surviving daughters all the more remarkable.

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  2. All i know of Branwell comes from a dubious bio/novel titled “Dark Quartet”. The author paints Branwell as a troubled young man who felt the pressure of being asked to make something of himself to support his impoverished family. His story was sad; it seems alcohol got the best of him and his “sensitive” nature. At least this is how the author saw him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And that was pretty much the case, Sari; and I wonder if his masculine sense of self-esteem was dented by having his sisters match if not exceed his creative abilities and, moreover, hold down jobs — however briefly — even ones they hated. Without excusing him perhaps that’s why he turned to drink and resorted to self-sabotage.


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