Clare B. Dunkle

Background material for The House of Dead Maids

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

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For those who wish to learn more about the background of The House of Dead Maids, I have written a number of web pages dealing with my research into the Brontë family and Wuthering Heights. You may reach all of those pages by clicking on this link.

All the research in this article comes from a single source: Juliet Barker's masterful and exhaustive biography, The Brontës. The numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in that text, the complete citation of which appears below.

"Rougue"—Branwell's Pirate

In early June 1826, when Charlotte was ten, Branwell was eight, Emily was seven, and Anne was six, their father returned from a journey with a box of toy soldiers for his son, who would soon be celebrating his birthday. When Branwell showed the soldiers to his sisters, each of the children immediately claimed and named one: "This is the Duke of Wellington it shall be mine!!" Charlotte writes of her choice. Emily's took the name Gravey from his grave expression; Anne's, according to Charlotte, was "a queer litle [sic] thing very much like herself" that she christened, oddly enough, Waiting Boy. Branwell named his soldier Bonaparte. It is interesting to note that from the very beginning, Branwell's soldier was the villain of the group, the arch enemy of Charlotte's shining hero. (154)

Not content with inventing and playing out their characters' stories, the children soon began to write down the adventures in little "books," using tiny print that they modeled on the magazines their father shared with them. Unfortunately, Emily's and Anne's writings about their fictional world have been lost to us, but many of Branwell's and Charlotte's writings survive. (These are called the "Brontë juvenilia" because the Brontës wrote them while they were juveniles.) Branwell's character Bonaparte (Bony) quickly acquired the additional name, Sneaky. Three and a half years later, he had become Rogue, arguably the most charismatic figure in the Brontë juvenilia and Branwell Brontë's greatest creation—a character who, according to biographer Juliet Barker, "was to haunt him for the rest of his life." (180)

Who was Rogue? Charlotte wrote a description of him in 1829, when Branwell was twelve and she was thirteen:

Rogue is about 47 years of age. He is very tall, rather spare. His countenance is handsome, except that there is something very startling in his fierce, grey eyes and formidable forehead. His manner is rather polished and gentlemanly, but his mind is deceitful, bloody and cruel. (188)

In 1831, Branwell put Alexander Rogue (whose name he tended to misspell as "Rougue") at the center of a bloody revolution which resulted in the devastation of Charlotte and Branwell's fictional city of Great Glasstown. In an 1833 story, which Branwell titled "The Pirate," the villain-hero Rogue turned to preying on the shipping of France, England, and the Brontës' fictional kingdom, disposing of his spoils through his company, Rogue, Sdeath and Co. Rogue was still handsome and cynical, but he had become as well a heavy drinker. Even more startling (given that his author was the fifteen-year-old son of a clergyman), Rogue appeared to be an atheist. (189)

Alexander Rogue eventually acquired the full name of "Feild Marshal [sic] the Right Honourable Alexander Percy, Earl of Northangerland." (205) His father had been a scoundrel who had sold off the family estates, abducted a lady, and fled to Africa to escape the consequences of his crimes. The young Rogue (now generally called Northangerland) was intelligent, sensitive, and extremely ambitious. Although sunk in what Branwell termed "fixed, hopeless and rayless Atheism," (205) Northangerland turned to religion when it suited him, at one point impersonating a Methodist preacher and delivering a blasphemous sermon. (250) He married in defiance of family wishes the beautiful, ambitious, and unprincipled Augusta Romana di Segovia, like him a "determined" atheist, and their love committed both to a life of spectacular crime and passion. By Branwell's 1835 writings, Northangerland was telling his soul mate, Augusta, "I know thee and thou knowest how I love thee We will not confess what needs no confession but rather let me live an hour of heaven here in the arms of one with whom I sacrifice all hope of it hereafter ... Years with thee are bought cheaply by Eternity—" (232)

All of this would have been well and good had Branwell left fiction to be fiction, but, sadly, Branwell began to fancy that he was a bit of a rogue himself. In 1839, leaving home to take a post as tutor to two boys in the Lake District, Branwell bragged in a letter to a friend that he had spent such a riotous night in the pub that he had awakened the next morning to find himself in bed with "a bottle of porter, a glass, and a corkscrew beside me." (320) Moreover, he boasted that, like his hero Northangerland, he had fooled his new companions into thinking he was good while hiding his dissipated habits and evil thoughts:

I take neither spirits, wine nor malt liquors, I dress in black and smile like a saint or martyr. Everybody says 'what a good young Gentleman is Mr Postlethwaite's tutor!' ... I ride to the banker's at Ulverson with Mr Postlethwaites [sic] and sit drinking tea and talking scandal with old ladies – as to the young ones! – I have one sitting by me just now – fair-faced, blue eyes, dark haired sweet eighteen – she little thinks the devil is so near her! (323)

Branwell's employer dismissed him from his post after only six months. Biographers have brought forward two explanations: either Branwell had been found drunk, or he had fathered an illegitimate child with one of the family servants. (333-334)

Instead of learning caution from this escapade, Branwell seems to have solidified the connection between his identity and his former character. He was the first Brontë sibling in print and, like his sisters, chose a pseudonym, but when Branwell's poem appeared in the 22 May 1841 edition of the Halifax Guardian, the byline was 'Northangerland.' That newspaper went on to publish thirteen of Branwell's poems over the next six years. All but two of them appeared, as the first one had, under the name of Branwell's childhood villain-hero, the pirate Rogue.

But it was another turn as tutor that would deliver the coup de grâce to Branwell Brontë and shatter his happiness for good. In January, 1843, he joined his sister Anne at Thorp Green, where she was the governess, and became tutor to young Edmund Robinson. By May, he was writing to a friend back home that "my mistress is DAMNABLY TOO FOND OF ME ... She is a pretty woman, about 37, with a darkish skin & bright glancing eyes." (459) Thus began the alleged but well substantiated affair between Branwell and his employer's wife. The affair lasted two years and ended abruptly when Mr. Robinson wrote him a letter dismissing him and (according to Branwell) threatening his life. (468)

It is here that Branwell's outlook tipped over from being that of a rascally but reasonable young man to that of Branwell/Northangerland, hero of his own grand novel. Up to now, Branwell's conduct, while reprehensible, had not been that unusual; many a bored spouse must have sought comfort among the domestic staff, and Branwell appears to have been a charming and good-looking young man. (334) Of course, Northangerland would have been the seducer and not the seduced, as Juliet Barker points out; still, when one is a tutor instead of a nobleman, one must take one's opportunities for roguishness where they present themselves, and certainly Branwell could say, with Wilde's Algernon, that he had been very bad in his own small way. (460) He might easily have overcome this dismissal as he had the first and gone on to make something of himself—but he did not.

For Branwell, arguably a literary genius, the mind from whence had stepped the thrilling villain-hero Rogue, had already made something of himself. He had made himself into what he most loved: a character in a novel. He was the sorrowing but faithful lover of a beautiful, passionate woman who was tied to a cruel and impotent husband. This almost-widow had fallen madly in love with him and intended to make him master of her estates. Branwell had no more need to work for his bread. He would soon gain a beautiful woman, great wealth, and the world's respect. Author had thus merged with character: he was living out a self-imposed narrative. All he had to do was remain true to his love, and the story would close with his living happily every after.

In the year that followed, Branwell refused to prepare himself to take another position, remaining idle and emotional. He wrote such verse as lovers write when they endure mournful separation. He spoke to those he knew of his beloved's "great and agonizing present afflictions" over being parted from him. (473) He embarked on writing a novel, in which Northangerland—his erstwhile alter ego but now his stand-in—succeeded in seducing the virtuous Mrs. Thurston, a neglected wife who longed for love, just as he was sure Mrs. Robinson yearned for him. (476) And (discouraged, perhaps, by the generally unsympathetic and disapproving atmosphere at home) he spent a great deal of time and money in the local public houses, strengthening his attachment to the lost Mrs. Robinson by rhapsodizing about her to his associates there.

When the ailing Mr. Robinson died the following year, Branwell was beside himself with joy, anticipating hourly the summons to join Mrs. Robinson as her spouse and write the final chapter of his happy romance. When the blow fell, it was final. The Thorp Green coachman came to tell Branwell that he would never see his lover again—her husband's will had forbidden it. "Her Coachman," he writes, "said it was a pity to see her, for she was only able to kneel in her bedroom in bitter tears and prayers." Another confidant reported to him that "she in turns dwelt on her inextinguishable love for me – her horror at having been the first to delude me into wretchedness, and her agony at having been the cause of the death of her husband ... Her sensitive mind is totally wrecked." (495-496)

As for Branwell, it was all up with him. He was found after the interview with the coachman bawling like a calf "in a kind of fit," literally knocked senseless by the news. (495) Neither self respect nor concern for his family could recall him from the abyss into which he sank, turning to opium and alcohol to stun his grief and disappointment. In a little more than two years, he would be dead, worn to a disreputable shadow of his former vivacious self by poor health and bad living. "In all my past life," he sighed on his deathbed, "I have done nothing either great or good." (567)

Mercifully, Branwell never seems to have known the worst of it: there had been no change to his employer's will. The woman who supposedly had knelt in "bitter tears and prayers" had been free to marry her penniless tutor if she liked. While we will never know the exact details, it appears that Lydia Robinson had understood her lover well. Rather than explain that she had intended him only for an entertaining fling, Mrs. Robinson played her part in Branwell's fictitious romance to perfection: thanks to the help of her confidants, who brought him sorrowful news of her from time to time, she remained in Branwell's eyes the loving, grieving victim of a brute whose viciousness had extended beyond the grave. This little fiction allowed her to keep the ardent but potentially embarrassing Branwell far away from her and ensured that he would not become disillusioned and attempt to confront her or wish to expose her to public gossip.

Meanwhile, Lydia Robinson had her sights set on something much more useful than a tutor's love. Only six weeks after Branwell's death, she married into a title. "She is now Lady Scott," Charlotte Brontë reported to a friend. "Her daughters say she is in the highest spirits." (573)

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. London: Phoenix Press, 1994.

"'Rogue': Branwell's Pirate" copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.

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