In search of Bran­well Brontë

Poet Si­mon Ar­mitage has cu­rated a new ex­hi­bi­tion for Bran­well Brontë’s bi­cen­te­nary year. Yvette Hud­dle­ston re­ports.

Yorkshire Post - Culture & The Guide - - FRONT PAGE -

A com­plex, trou­bled fig­ure Bran­well Brontë is most of­ten de­picted as the black sheep of the fa­mous lit­er­ary fam­ily

– at best a fail­ure and a bit of an em­bar­rass­ment, at worst a trou­ble­some, pos­si­bly vi­o­lent, al­co­holic who blighted the lives of his sis­ters and fa­ther.

So, it may at first seem per­haps not the eas­i­est of tasks to find ways of cel­e­brat­ing his bi­cen­te­nary, which takes place this year as part of the on­go­ing Brontë 200 com­mem­o­ra­tions.

That job be­longs to Si­mon Ar­mitage who is the Brontë Par­son­age Mu­seum’s Cre­ative Part­ner through­out 2017 and he has cu­rated a new ex­hi­bi­tion – Man­sions in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of Bran­well Brontë – which opened at the mu­seum ear­lier this month. It fea­tures a se­lec­tion of writ­ings, draw­ings and per­sonal pos­ses­sions, cho­sen by Ar­mitage from the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion, as well as a se­ries of new po­ems he has writ­ten in re­sponse to each of the items on dis­play.

When we meet at the Par­son­age Ar­mitage ad­mits that it wasn’t im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent how he should ap­proach the project. “When the mu­seum got in touch I didn’t re­ally know that much about Bran­well other than the im­age of him be­ing a trou­ble maker and a drunk,” he says.

“So it was about try­ing to think of a way of cel­e­brat­ing him and ac­knowl­edg­ing him. When I started, I won­dered if he could be re­stored in some way, whether his writ­ing had been un­der-rated. But it seemed to me that he burned out – he had very early prom­ise and en­thu­si­asm but that only took him so far. So it was about find­ing some­thing to con­nect with.”

His way in was a let­ter that the am­bi­tious 19-year-old Bran­well wrote to Wil­liam Wordsworth ex­press­ing his hopes and dreams, his in­ten­tion to build ‘man­sions in the sky’, and en­clos­ing one of his own po­ems, for which he sought some kind of val­i­da­tion. He never re­ceived a re­ply.

“When I read about the let­ter I got ex­cited be­cause I could con­nect with that – think­ing about be­ing a poet and try­ing to get recog­ni­tion, hav­ing your voice heard,” says Ar­mitage. “The poem it­self has some re­ally good lines in it, but over­all it is a kind of Ro­man­tic pas­tiche. To me that let­ter is so full of bravado, but it is des­per­ate as well.”

Ar­mitage’s poem Wil­liam, It was Re­ally Noth­ing, dis­played along­side the let­ter, which is on loan from the Wordsworth Trust, is a per­fect bal­ance of hu­mour and pathos. After paint­ing a slightly ir­rev­er­ent por­trait of the great Lake­land Bard re­ceiv­ing Bran­well’s mis­sive ‘mid-break­fast, let­ter in hand/eyes on stalks… a loaded knife-blade of Dorothy’s dam­son pre­serve/stalled be­tween lid­ded porce­lain jam-pot and toast’ he de­liv­ers the killer lines ‘what glit­tered like charmed finches over Ha­worth Church/ drifts as rain across Scafell Pike. No re­ply’. It’s in­cred­i­bly poignant.

“Bran­well clearly had weak­nesses and frail­ties but I think it was his dis­ap­point­ments that re­ally broke him,” says Ar­mitage. “I did feel sorry for him – ev­ery­thing seemed to end badly for him.” His dreams of be­com­ing a revered poet came to noth­ing as

Bran­well clearly had weak­nesses but I think it was his dis­ap­point­ments that broke him.

his writ­ing never matched up to his sis­ters’ work, his short-lived pe­riod of fruit­ful em­ploy­ment as a rail­way clerk at Lud­den­den Foot ended abruptly after a mi­nor ac­count­ing er­ror and he was dis­missed from a tu­tor­ing post after hav­ing an af­fair with Ly­dia Robin­son, the much older wife of his em­ployer. Bran­well’s hope was that she would even­tu­ally set up home with him, but when this didn’t hap­pen it seems to have trig­gered his fi­nal de­cline, as was so pow­er­fully de­picted in the BBC’s re­cent Brontë drama

To Walk Invisible, writ­ten by Sally Wain­wright.

The cen­tre­piece of the ex­hi­bi­tion is a dra­matic recre­ation of Bran­well’s bed­room, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grant Mont­gomery, the pro­duc­tion de­signer on To Walk Invisible. The in­stal­la­tion imag­ines what the room might have looked like in the late 1830s when Bran­well had am­bi­tions to be­come a por­trait artist (an­other thwarted de­sire).

It presents his un­made bed, with half-fin­ished sketches and writ­ings scat­tered around. There is a sense of chaos and un­ordered, al­most fren­zied, cre­ative ac­tiv­ity. “I see that up­stairs room as the in­te­rior world of Bran­well,” says Ar­mitage. “I wanted to cre­ate a feel­ing of walk­ing into his mind.”

With his new po­ems Ar­mitage has clev­erly made con­nec­tions be­tween the past and the present, the specifics of Bran­well’s dif­fi­cul­ties and how that re­lates to cur­rent con­cerns sur­round­ing ad­dic­tion and men­tal health.

“I was re­ally con­scious that I wanted the work to bleed into the now,” he says. “Mak­ing con­nec­tions with how we might feel about some­body like that to­day. I think even with some­one like Bran­well you can slightly ro­man­ti­cise all that but it would have been re­ally grim for every­body around him.”

When I tell Ar­mitage that my ex­pe­ri­ence of walk­ing through the ex­hi­bi­tion – and read­ing his po­etic re­sponses – made me feel sad, he smiles. “That is my aim,” he says. “Sym­pa­thy was my over-rid­ing re­sponse to Bran­well’s story. As a poet, it’s your job to ex­plore feel­ings rather than facts. It is dif­fi­cult to cel­e­brate Bran­well as an artist other than in the way he en­livened his sis­ters’ imag­i­na­tion when they were chil­dren and how he was in­cor­po­rated in to some of their char­ac­ters later on. But his pres­ence in this house was dy­na­mite.”

Man­sions in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of Bran­well Brontë is at the Brontë Par­son­age Mu­seum un­til Jan­uary 1, 2018. For de­tails of a full pro­gramme of events visit www.bronte.org.uk

PIC­TURES: BRUCE ROLLINSON

BLOOD TIES: A recre­ation of Bran­well’s fa­mous por­trait of the Bron­tës, made for the BBC drama.

CRE­ATIVE PART­NER: Si­mon Ar­mitage in the recre­ation of Bran­well Brontë’s bed­room at the Par­son­age Mu­seum and, in­set, a se­lec­tion of Bran­well’s po­ems.

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