I’ve been trying to spend more time lately figuring out why it is that I think Branwell Brontë is an inherently funny person. (I was in the woods in the mountains above Bakersfield over Christmas, in a cabin with no cell phone reception, which may have had something to do with it.)
(OH, also, my friend who is super into David Lynch movies finally showed me Blue Velvet, which I have steadfastly avoided until this year, when I completely gave up on avoiding things that I’d sort of developed my personality around not having seen, and I hated it every bit as much as I knew I always would, because of course I hated it, but in a way that I knew would be ultimately productive, if that makes any sense, because I knew I was going to have to reflexively hate it before I could get anywhere with it. Does that make sense? I have to leave “hating anything that can be described as ‘dreamlike’” back in 2017, I don’t have the storage space to drag that particular quality into 2018.)
Anyhow, back to Branwell. There’s the fact that both his first and last name start with B, which is one of the funnier sounds in the English alphabet. There’s the fact that in the one portrait of the Brontë siblings he’s been hastily and super badly painted out, so it looks like something you’d describe to guests as, “And here are my children, Anne, Charlotte, Emily, and INTERDIMENSIONAL GOLD-BEAM Brontë.” (And he painted himself out! What an unsettling sort of self-own!)
There’s a whole subplot of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, which is not a perfect book but which does contain the line “I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute,” where this dude Mr. Mybug is trying to prove that Branwell secretly wrote Wuthering Heights and was in love with his aunt he wrote to once asking for money.
There’s something, too, in the way people forever seem to want to put forward a slightly lesser-known Brontë as if they are rediscovering a hidden treasure, like, “Have you heard of ANNE BRONTË? Only slightly less INCANDESCENTLY FAMOUS than the one who wrote JANE EYRE, she was the author of such forgotten classics as SLAGMIRE MANOR and THE DOWDY-EYED TUTORESS, both of which were shoved hastily under a rock in Lancashire in 1839 and only rediscovered this morning, by me.”
“Say, ever heard of BRANWELL BRONTË, the dude someone mentions literally any time the Brontë siblings come up in conversation? He ate half of Elizabeth Gaskell’s face in 1843 and painted the faces on all of Charlotte’s toy soldiers when they were nine, so his contribution to English letters cannot possibly be understated.”
Like: The Brontës are very, very famous! There are no obscure Brontës at this point, even if we haven’t all gotten around to finishing Agnes Grey. And yet the hope never dies among us, does it, that one day we are going to be able to hoist a totally unheard-of Brontë before a grateful public and shock everyone. And because so much of the whole Brontë thing is that all the sisters were incredibly bummed-out and creepy, there’s this weird sort of arms-race to produce the saddest, most forgotten, most terrifying Brontë of them all.
Here comes ROAN BRONTË, who burned down Haworth parsonage in 1821 and was immediately mailed to Brussels as punishment for her crime!
SACKWELL BRONTË, who insisted on spelling the family name BRUNTY and vandalized Emily’s mailbox for thirteen consecutive years!
FLAWBREAKER UNWORTHINESS BRONTË, best known as the author of Lord Sleetheart, a deeply interior novel about a young woman who uncovers an insufficiency of pillows at a local boarding school, and also meets a married man who cannot unclench his hands.
SKIMSHINT CRANNABELL BRONTË, who ate the first manuscript of Shirley, and afterwards retreated to a sea-cave, where she declared war against all other Brontës, Bruntys, Bronntachs, Bronns, Pruntys, Pronntaighs, and Brondes! She fights on to this day!
O horrors! It’s NIGHT-NELL JACKSONHEART BRONTË, the youngest of the Brontë cousins, who lost all vision in her right eye after Anne threw a Bible at her in a fit of pique after losing badly at a game of nine-men Morris!
HEARTHOLOMEW BRONTË, who died of embarrasment at 29! William Thackeray begged to marry him on his second trip to London in 1834, and never recovered from his death!
MICKELWORTH “THE ENCYRUSED” BRONTË, who was taken into The Gloom as part of Gloomself in 1841!
EPAPHRODITUS “TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE” BRONTË, who hung the laundry among the headstones in the local cemetery and deliberately infected the local gentry with typhus after being forced to work as a governess!
HONORA GRASPHEATH BRONTË, who, upon being asked what she wanted for Christmas at the age of four, replied, “Respect and betterment, and a cellar full not of lies but jam!” She took acid in 1830 and became Shirley Jackson!
SINIFRED “THE FINGERLESS” BRONTË, who was arrested for shoplifting on no fewer than nine occasions, and was sent to Northumberland to taxonomize ghosts!
VIRGINIA REEL BRONTË, who kicked Arthur Bell Nicholls under the dinner table every night for a period of not less than seven years before creating one of the most memorable literary heroes of all time, the frustrated Swiss orphan Scrimothy Crutchandler in Shan’t A Clergyman Haven’t?
YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU are the forgotten Brontë, forgotten even by your own birthright, but I have never forgotten! You round out the last! Take your place among the family, sister! Tighten your dark curls, incline your delicate head, enter in mittens and in silence! Grave, stern, murmeress! The last Brontë, after whom no Brontës shall ever come again! Frustrated, expended, cut short, a constrained Byron in women’s weeds, fighting the triple devils of Papism, your father-curate, and the steel bands wrapped tightly ‘round your own swollen heart! Author of such novels as Privation in Girlheart, Stay-At-Home Percy, and The Enwickening of Thrushmore Grange! Painfully shy, but daringly brave in the face of an enfeebling, lingering death! Never spoke a word outside the family, burned every manuscript you ever wrote, razed over seventeen churches with your telepathic Brontë powers, nineteen feet tall and terrible to behold! Died at publication! Mourned, beloved, feared by all, guarding the entrance to Hell! We are here, we have all come as Orpheus to Rediscover you!