I decided, for reasons not all together clear to me, that I ought to read a little Anne Brontë. I certainly wasn’t going to read any Lord Byron wannabe poetry, so that left me with her two novels: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Andrea told me that the latter was better and so I picked up a copy at the library today. I mentioned to the librarian that I figured I should read “the other Brontë” and she asked if I had read the brother. I had not. All I knew of him was that he was an opium addict, and I said as much.
I wish I hadn’t. It seems clear that had he been an opium addict, it was probably to medicate his undiagnosed tuberculosis. We tend to forget in this modern age of pill variety, where those with erectile dysfunction have a large choice of pills to take, that it was not always so. Indeed, most of the push during the 19th century to develop drugs from morphine to heroin came from a desire to treat tuberculosis. Even today, there really isn’t an effective cure and if you aren’t dying from it, it is probably more due to public health measures than anything.
Now I can say that I have read Branwell Brontë. And I can see why he is generally referred to as an artist rather than a poet. The painting in this article is an example of his work. This is Anne, Emily, and Charlotte—from left to right. But if you look in the space between Emily and Charlotte, you can see a kind of ghostly figure. This apparently was where Branwell originally painted himself. Later he decided to paint over himself. This could have been because he didn’t think it was very good. But I prefer to think that this is what a tortured soul like him would do. He was 31 when he died.
All the Brontë children died young: Charlotte at 38, Emily at 30, and Anne at 29. Anne also died of tuberculosis shortly after her brother, so she probably got it from him. This has led me to speculate that the Family had bad genes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Their father, Patrick Brontë, lived to be 84 years old. He outlived his wife, Maria, by almost 50 years.
As for the writing of the Brontë’s, I used to be very fond of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But I’ve cooled off on them. Jane Eyre has too much nonsense in it (like the first 100 pages and the last 100 pages) to make up for the good parts. And Wuthering Heights is just 400 pages of foggy mood. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has potential. It starts well enough:
And you must know by now: I will let you know.