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