by Jennifer Young
|The Parsonage. (Image courtesy of SMJ.)|
Recently I enjoyed a literary weekend away, to Stratford-on-Avon via the Lakes and Bronte Country. There’s material there for a dozen blogs, but I’m going to confine myself to just one aspect. And it’s the one aspect of a wonderful weekend that disturbed me.
You think of the Brontes and you think, first of all, of the sisters — of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Of course, there are other Brontes, too — their parents, the sisters who didn’t write and the adored but feckless only brother, Branwell. But it’s the three who wrote the books who are the focus of the whole Bronte experience. Isn’t it?
I’m sure the Bronte Parsonage Trust would argue that that’s what they’ve done, but the subliminal messages I picked up weren’t quite so clear. The Parsonage itself is a strange place, austere as you might expect it to be. In the first room on the left there’s the dining room. Charlotte’s portrait — the famous one — hangs on the wall and there are sheets of paper and a quill on the spot where Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. Upstairs, the sisters’ bedrooms are full of glass cases, letters they wrote, costumes from the BBC dramatisation of their lives. To go out, you go through Branwell’s room.
|On the outside looking in - Charlotte, Emily and Anne.|
(Image by Rich Tea.)
And here’s the thing. In the rest of the house the girls and their genius are confined to their glass cases, but Branwell’s tortured spirit is allowed to roam free. His bed is unmade. His desk is chaotic. His room is plunged into shadow. It’s beautifully done — but why this one room?
When we left the Parsonage itself we were directed through an exhibition space that was devoted…well, to Branwell. There’s a window onto a garden where there’s a statue of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. They’re on the outside, looking in. Symbolic or what? There’s nothing explicit, and certainly no direct claim that he wrote his sisters’ books, but I came away from the whole place with a very strong sense that somebody responsible for the exhibition design felt that poor Branwell was mightily hard done by.
The theory that Branwell was the author of his sisters’ books or, at the very least, the creator of Heathcliff, is for me an implausible one. Let’s remember: it was so hard for women to get published that the three sisters, literary geniuses all, had to pretend to be men, so why, if Bramwell had written any or all of the books, would he go through such peculiar hoops to avoid taking the credit?
I’m not an expert on the Brontes, but Haworth did leave me troubled. It was difficult enough for the sisters to find publication and recognition during their lifetimes. It’s all the more awkward to see them overshadowed by their brilliant but troubled brother over 150 years after their deaths.