NOTES ON THE HISTORY AND LANGUAGE OF OBLIVION
Updated: Jun 20
What follows is basic biographical information about the primary and secondary characters of Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë. They are given in alphabetical order, with the exception of Branwell, who is placed first. Readers interested in more detail about fact and fiction, or the style in which the book is written, are invited to read the “Historical Note” and the “Note on Language.” Though the text of the novel strives to employ British spelling, these appendices follow North American usage, since the author is a writer and academic in the USA.
Brontë, (Patrick) Branwell (1817-1848), the narrator and main character of Oblivion. Painter, poet, tutor, railway employee, and leader in the creation of the Brontë siblings’ imaginary childhood worlds. Published numerous poems in the Yorkshire newspapers. Commonly held to be an alcoholic and an opium addict, though concrete evidence about the latter habit is scant. Died in Haworth of tuberculosis, aggravated by addiction and, possibly, delirium tremens, though Dr. Wheelhouse gave the cause of death as “chronic bronchitis-marasmus.”
Brontë, Anne (1820-1849). Youngest of the Brontë siblings. Novelist and poet, after serving several years as a governess to two families. Author of Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which is often considered the first feminist novel in the English language. Its reprinting was suppressed by Charlotte after Anne’s death, a decision that affected Anne’s popularity and remains controversial to this day. Died in Scarborough of tuberculosis, and is buried at Saint Mary’s.
Brontë, Charlotte (1816-1855). Eldest of the siblings to survive into adulthood, and the only to become known and celebrated under the name of Brontë. Novelist and poet, author of Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), and The Professor (first novel, but published posthumously in 1857). The only Brontë to marry, she may have died from dehydration due to morning sickness, though her death certificate gives tuberculosis as the cause.
Brontë, Emily (1818-1848). Second of the Brontë sisters, and third of the siblings to survive childhood. Novelist and poet, whose Wuthering Heights (1847) and is now considered one of the greatest works in the English language. Information about her life is almost entirely second-hand, as her poems and novel, along with a handful of diary papers and letters, are all that remain. There is some evidence that she had written a second novel, destroyed after her death by Charlotte. Died in Haworth of tuberculosis.
Brontë, Rev. Patrick (1777-1861), born Patrick Brunty. Irishman educated for the clergy (Church of England) at Cambridge, and father of the famous Brontë siblings. Married Maria Branwell (1783-1821), daughter of a successful merchant from Penzance, Cornwall, in 1812. She died of ovarian cancer when Anne, the youngest, was only 20 months old; her death and, later, that of the two eldest siblings, Maria and Elizabeth, had a lasting impact on all of the surviving children and the content of their literary works.
Brown, John (1804-1855). Haworth sexton and stonemason, and Branwell’s confident and mentor in “worldly” things. He was believed to be quite well read but seems to have shared and encouraged many of Branwell’s worst habits.
Coleridge, Hartley (1796-1849). Eldest son of the great romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He did, indeed, receive Branwell Brontë at Nab Cottage on May Day 1840.
Crosby, Dr. John (1797-1859). Trusted physician of the Robinson family of Thorp Green, and friend of Branwell Brontë. Remained in contact after the latter’s dismissal and may have been used as a conduit for information and funds from Lydia Robinson.
Grundy, Francis Henry (c. 1822-?). Engineer and surveyor on the Manchester and Leeds Railway, 1841-42, where he met Branwell in Halifax and Luddenden Foot. Later emigrated to Australia. In 1879, he published Pictures of the Past, where he provides a lively but often inaccurate portrait of Branwell.
Liszt, Franz (1811-1886). Hungarian pianist and composer, and one of the greatest musicians of the nineteenth century. The date, location, and detailed program of his concert in Halifax in January 1841 are exactly rendered in Oblivion, but whether any Brontës attended is unknown—although it is unlikely that Branwell would have missed it. The soirée afterwards, at Leyland’s studio, is pure invention (see “Historical Note” for more information).
Leyland, Joseph Bentley (1811-51). Halifax sculptor and friend of Branwell Brontë. Like John Brown, he was not always the best influence on his younger friend, often encouraging his excessive drinking. Though the fictional version of Leyland in Oblivion is perhaps larger than life, it may not be too far off the mark: a relative called the actual Leyland “self-opinionated, sarcastic, and unreliable, scornful of religion and of anyone who disagreed with him, only working when the spirit moved him.” All the Leyland sculptures mentioned in Oblivion were real, though few have survived. One prominent exception is the monument to Dr. Beckwith, which may still be seen in York Minster. Leyland was arrested and imprisoned for debt in 1850, and died early the following year, in the Manor Gaol, Halifax.
Leyland, Francis A. (1813-94). Antiquarian who ran a bookshop and circulating library in Halifax. Became a Roman Catholic and married Anne Brierley in 1845. Later in life he would defend Branwell’s reputation, publishing The Brontë Family: With Special Reference to Patrick Branwell Brontë (1886).
Maeve (c. 1812-1847). Irish prostitute residing in Halifax. With Maggie (Heaton) Mortimer, one of two entirely fictional characters to play an important role in the novel.
Mortimer, Margaret, née Heaton (c. 1820-?), also known as “the Sinless Kilmeny.” Along with Maeve, one of only two important characters in Oblivion who did not exist in reality. Her married name and employment, however, are inspired by a real publican, one Benjamin Mortimer of the Royal Hotel, who was convicted in 1860 of “Adulteration of Beer” by the use of grains of paradise. Though Leyland’s sculpture of her, inspired by Hogg’s poem Kilmeny, has been destroyed, a photograph of it remains: https://www.calderdale.gov.uk/wtw/search/controlservlet?PageId=Detail&DocId=100145.
Postlethwaite, Robert (1786-1859) of Broughton House in Broughton-in-Furness, Branwell’s employer from January to June 1840. The elder of his sons, John, would later study at Trinity College, Cambridge, and become an Anglican Priest. The younger, William, became a magistrate in Cumberland, before emigrating to New Zealand and then, in the early twentieth century, to California.
Riley, Agnes (1819-1908). Like Eleanor Nelson and Francis Atkinson, Agnes Riley was a real person. All three were unwed mothers in the months following Branwell Brontë’s six-month tenure with the Postlethwaites. Agnes Riley did indeed give birth to a child named Mary—who appears to have died very young—before marrying a certain Thomas Mingins and moving to Bootle in 1846, eventually leaving for Australia with him and their three children in 1852, where she lived until 1908—dying a full sixty years after the young man who may have fathered her first child.
Robinson, Lydia, née Gisborne (1799-1859). Mistress of Thorp Green near York, and wife of the Rev. Edmund Robinson, employer of both Anne and Branwell. The likely inspiration for Mrs. Murray in Agnes Grey, and believed by many to have had an affair with the much younger Branwell, the discovery of which likely led to his dismissal. Just as Branwell himself, in Oblivion, imagines several different scenarios leading to his dismissal, so too have scholars. Lydia Robinson married Sir Edward Scott on November 8, 1848, just weeks after the death of Branwell and three months after that of Sir Edward’s first wife. Died of liver disease in 1859.
Robinson, Lydia Mary (1825-?). Eldest daughter of the Robinson family of Thorp Green, and the likely inspiration for Rosalie Murray in Agnes Grey. She eloped to Gretna Green with the actor Henry Roxby of Scarborough in October 1845, prompting a change in her father’s will.
Sowden, Rev. Sutcliffe (1816-1861). Branwell’s young clergyman friend from his days at Luddenden Foot, who would go on to become friends with Patrick Brontë’s curate and Charlotte’s eventual husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, at whose marriage he officiated. He tragically drowned in the canal at Hebden Bridge on a stormy night in 1861, perhaps as the result of a fit or stroke. This demise provides the rather dark inspiration for the fictional Branwell’s comment twenty years earlier: “I really am not going to…drown myself in the Calder, or the Rochedale Canal over yonder.”
Weightman, Rev. William (1814-1842). The Reverend Brontë’s second curate, of whom the Brontës were exceedingly fond. The girls all seem to have been somewhat in love with him, Branwell called him “one of my dearest friends,” and Patrick said that the two clergymen had been “always like father and son” (the memorial sermon for Weightman in Oblivion is reproduced word for word, and almost in its entirety). It is likely that he inspired, at least in part, Edward Weston in Anne’s Agnes Grey. He died of cholera at age 28.
Oblivion is above all a work of fiction, as much as it is based on the life of a real person. I will leave it to others to decide whether the book has any merit, but it is very ambitious in its aims: it attempts to be a tribute to the works of the Brontë sisters (see the “Note on Language” that follows); tries to understand the inner workings of a troubled individual who also happened to be the only male sibling in the most famous literary family in history; recreates a society in radical transition; wrestles with some of the “big questions” of human existence; and finally, to an extent, offers itself as a bit of a “romp”—a “big read” that encompasses humor, sadness, intrigue, love, lust, sex, addiction, as well as class and gender differences and the resentments they can fuel, among other things.
The reader who wishes to know more about the facts of the historical Brontës should consult the many fine works of scholarship on the family, especially Juliet Barker’s The Brontës; Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family, or such references as The Oxford Companion to the Brontës. All of the works—and they are legion—of use to me in the writing of Oblivion will be given due credit when this novel is published in permanent, copyrighted form at a future date.
At present I would like to assure those readers who may not be Brontë experts or enthusiasts that the general chronology of Branwell’s and his sisters’ lives has been rigorously respected, while leaving room for invention and imagination. Thus, all of phases of the fictional Brontës’ lives as portrayed in Oblivion precisely mirror those of the real Brontës, from Branwell’s different employments and residences from 1840 to 1845, to his sisters’ time in Brussels, from most of his visits to Halifax and Haworth, to something as specific as the siblings’ picnic at Bolton Abbey on June 20, 1844.
Indeed, the Bolton Abbey passage provides a perfect illustration of my approach to the creation of Branwell’s story. Rather than planning everything in advance, I worked my way through the chronology of his life, and so this particular episode is informed in an organic way by multiple factors: the characters as they have developed in the course of the book (itself informed by research, including correspondence); the school scheme and the offer of a job in Manchester to Charlotte (again informed by her own correspondence); Branwell’s preoccupation with Lydia Robinson and his simultaneous attraction to and fear of young Lydia; the antipathy between him and Charlotte; and the physical setting of the Abbey ruins, juxtaposed with a recent poem (“O’er Grafton Hill the blue heaven smiled serene”). Nearly every section of Oblivion was composed in this multifaceted manner, with an attempt to weave the different elements together seamlessly.
It is worth noting in passing what an important and often serendipitous role the rapid research afforded by the internet at times played in rendering the details of the narrative. For example, the long section at the end of Volume I that prominently features Franz Liszt grew quite simply out of a relatively minor wish to feature such an illustrious person in the novel, since Juliet Barker notes that Branwell would have been highly unlikely to have missed his appearance in Halifax. As I researched the concert, however, I was able to find not only the entire program for the evening, but also the actual lyrics to John Orlando Parry’s popular “Wanted, A Governess.” It was then obvious that I would need to have Charlotte Brontë herself be present at the performance, to reinforce the expectations, humiliations, and poor remuneration of that occupation, which is so central to the Brontës’ lives and works. Whether the historical Charlotte was there mattered less to me than the larger thematic point made by having her suffer through Parry’s “jolly song,” as Leyland calls it. This is a typical instance of the minor liberties I have taken in this work of historical fiction.
Once I had decided to extend Liszt’s stay in Halifax to a soirée hosted by Leyland, himself the creator of a massive Head of Satan, how could I not then have the great virtuoso—known for improvising variations on themes long before they became formal compositions—perform an early improvisation of his Faust, especially since he developed sketches of this work throughout the 1840s? Similarly, his Totentanz or Danse macabre was planned as early as 1838, so could he not have similarly improvised it in 1841? Coincidentally, by then the Branwell-as-Faust and Leyland-as-Mephistopheles relationship had already developed, and so the final touch was simply to rename the fictional young woman Margaret (her initial name was, I believe, Sally) to make the Faust-in-Halifax story complete. This section and, later, the complex intrigue involving young Lydia Robinson and Roxby in Scarborough and Thorp Green, are the most fanciful and least historically-grounded parts of the novel but, in my opinion, are two of the liveliest. They were certainly among the most enjoyable to write.
Other minor exceptions to the facts were simply inadvertent, and only discovered later. For example, long after writing the passage where Anne returns to Haworth for Aunt Branwell’s funeral, and where she and Branwell read the words of the new memorial to William Weightman in the church, I discovered that it was not in fact placed there until several months later. I decided to leave the passage alone, as it captures the spirit of what I was seeking to convey. Some purists may find this objectionable, but for me, it is a sacrifice of a minor fact to a larger truth.
Similarly, I did not take great pains to research secondary and minor characters, though I worked, as noted, almost entirely within the known framework of the Brontë story, in particular respecting the major events and extent texts by and about the Brontës. Aside from the major characters of Maggie and Maeve—created to explain Branwell’s otherwise mysterious depression and descent into debauchery during a period where he should have been reveling in his professional advancement—there are precious few purely invented characters: the gentleman farmer Rutherford, the engine driver [North American English: engineer] Matthews, the York publican Dimock [D’Amico], the railway accountant Hallowell, and the young James Drake (whose older cousin Joseph did, however, exist, and was indeed a friend and associate of Leyland). In each case, these characters serve an important, if minor, role in the plot, providing connective tissue between the known facts. Rutherford is an interesting example: I am sure that, with enough digging, I could have discovered the name of the true owner of Sunny Bank in 1840, but I just didn’t feel it important enough to the story to warrant the effort. His name could be anything, and it would not change the substance of the novel.
All of the other characters in Oblivion are based on actual people from the Brontë story, though I generally used them as “empty vessels” to build my story as I saw fit (a particularly striking example of this is the Rev. Robinson, for whom I have no evidence at all of his villanous behavior toward his wife earlier in their marriage, though such a detail makes Mrs. Robinson slightly more sympathetic, and also foreshadows the abusive Arthur Huntingdon character in Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The great majority of the minor characters come directly and accurately (in terms of chronology) from the historical background materials, whether in Broughton (the Postlethwaites, the Fishes, the Rileys, the Nelsons, Hartley Coleridge) in Halifax and Luddenden Foot (Leyland, Titterington and his merry band, Frobisher and the other poets, Grundy, Sowden, the other employees of the railway, the different publicans); in Haworth (the successive owners of the Black Bull and, of course, John and Martha Brown, as well as Tabby); and finally, at Thorp Green and in York and Scarborough (the younger Robinson children, Roxby, the lady’s maid Ann Marshall, the coachman Billy Allison, and even the gardener Robert Pottage, who may well have seen Branwell and Lydia in the Scarborough boathouse—one of many theories of the events leading to his dismissal).
When evidence of a character’s words existed (Grundy, Crosby, Francis Leyland, etc.), I did my best to incorporate those into dialogue; if not, I invented (the stammering but otherwise quite real Bellerby, Postlethwaite, Dr. Fish, Weightman, Sowden). In some cases, I moved the language of correspondence into actual dialogue (Hartley Coleridge, Mary Taylor, the Brontës in general); on rare occasions, I even transposed words from one character to another, if I felt it was part of an overall Zeitgeist within the family at the moment, although I usually have characters attribute the words (“as Charlotte often says” or “Emily says you are a ‘hopeless being’”). For more on this, see the “Note on Language” below.
In all I have done my best to be true to the personalities of the Brontës themselves, by using their own letters, poems, and novels. We see everything, of course, through Branwell’s eyes, and I constructed his psychological state at each stage of the novel by immersing myself in the facts of his life, the poems and letters he was producing, as well as what others wrote to and about him, both at that time and (less reliably, of course, as with Grundy and Francis Leyland) later. My primary goal was to make Branwell in particular, if not likeable, at least more human—someone in whom, for all his faults, most readers could see just a bit of themselves. A secondary goal was to reveal to the public how much, indeed, he and his sisters had in common, and to ask why, despite the advantages of being a man in a patriarchal society, he failed where they ultimately succeeded. That they died so soon after he did (for even Charlotte lived less than a decade after his death) makes the question even more poignant.
Let me conclude this brief note with a few words about Branwell’s final days, and the fate of his sisters and their work, for those who are not already aware of these facts.
Branwell’s last extent verses are an obscene, ironic poem about Dr. Wheelhouse (“While holy Wheelhouse far above”), while the final letter we possess, a note scrawled to John Brown, reads as follows, including the misspellings and other errors (two redundancies are eliminated):
I shall feel very much obliged to you if [you] can contrive to get me Five pence worth of Gin in a proper measure
Should it be speedily got I could perhaps take it from you or Billy at the lane top or what would be quite as well, sent out for, to you.
I anxiously ask the favour because I know the good it will do me.
Punctualy at Half-past Nine in the morning you Will/ be paid the 5d out of a shilling given me then. Yours, P.B.B.
Branwell’s old friend from his railway days, Francis Grundy, came to visit him in Haworth in September of 1848, reserving a private room at the Black Bull and ordering dinner and drinks for the two of them. As Grundy reported many decades later (and so caution as to the exactitude of his account is warranted), the Reverend Brontë came first to see him, warning him of the great alteration in his son.
His friend describes Branwell’s appearance as “a mass of red, unkempt, uncut hair, wildly floating round a great, gaunt forehead; the cheeks yellow and hollow, the mouth fallen, the thin white lips not trembling but shaking, the sunken eyes, once small, now glaring with the light of madness,—all told the sad tale but too surely.”
Grundy strove to cheer his old friend, pressing two stiff glasses of hot brandy upon him, which seemed, for a few brief moments, to revive “something like the Brontë of old.” He claimed he was longing for death, “and happy, in his sane moments, to think that it was so near.” Grundy reports that as he left, Branwell took a carving knife from his sleeve, claiming that when he had received the message that an old friend was awaiting him at the Black Bull, it must really have been from Satan in disguise. “I left him,” concludes Grundy, “standing bare-headed in the road, with bowed form and dropping tears.”
Juliet Barker, in her biography of the Brontës, summarizes the various reports of his final hours. On Saturday, September 23, Branwell was unable to get out of bed. Dr. Wheelhouse was sent for, and he promptly reported to the family that the young man was near death. The Reverend Brontë had “knelt in prayer by his bedside and wrestled for his soul,” but Branwell had long ago abandoned religion and at first refused to repent of his many sins.
However, his sister Charlotte claimed in a letter to her publisher and friend William Smith Williams that their father brought Branwell to a recognition of his vices and the repentance of them. She reported that Branwell spent much of his last night talking of his “misspent life, his wasted youth, and his shame,” and that she herself “with painful, mournful joy, heard him praying softly in his dying moments, and to the last prayer which my father offered up at his bedside, he added ‘amen’.” She would later add that she believed that “a most propitious change marked the last few days of poor Branwell’s life…his demeanour, his language, his sentiments were all singularly altered and softened…a return to natural affection marked his last moments.”
All of this may be quite true, but the reader should keep in mind that Charlotte Brontë was, herself, singularly gifted at rewriting the history of her siblings after their deaths. There is a recognizable, almost patent Victorian piety about her statements, a neat and orderly narrative sequence of events that reminds one more of fiction than of reality. As Branwell himself says in the Oblivion, “do we not all create such happy stories to fit our desires?”
One anecdote that certainly rings true, but can no more be proven than any other, is Francis Leyland’s report that near the end of his last night, as his old friend John Brown kept him company, Branwell recognized at last that had never “loved any but the members of his family, for the depth and tenderness of which affection he could find no language to express.” At one point he clutched at Brown’s hand and said simply, “Oh, John, I am dying!,” adding, sotto voce, “In all my past life I have done nothing either great or good.”
Interestingly, Charlotte had expressed similar feelings about herself early in 1847, just before the sisters’ novels were published, and the ever-modest Anne famously claimed, in a letter written a few days before her death and well after the publication of both of her brilliant novels, that she “longed to do some good in the world,” and that she feared dying having “lived to so little purpose.”
The family gathered around Branwell's bed at nine o’clock on the morning of Sunday, September 24. After a struggle of twenty minutes or so, Branwell, just thirty-one years old, died in his father’s arms. Mrs. Gaskell claimed to have it upon good authority that he had insisted on standing up at his death, while others report that he merely started, involuntarily, in such a way that he nearly rose to his feet. We will never know, but given his consistent lack of resolve throughout his life, the latter seems more likely.
On Thursday, September 28, Patrick Branwell Brontë was at last reunited with his mother Maria and his sisters Maria and Elizabeth, beneath the pavement of the parish church. Dr. Wheelhouse recorded the cause as “chronic bronchitis—marasmus,” though it is now believed he was likely suffering from the same consumption that took his two eldest sisters and would soon claim Emily and Anne. John Brown chiseled his young friend’s name into the family monument on the church wall. One would have to have a heart of stone to believe the poor sexton did not do so with tears in his own, usually mischievous, eyes.
Charlotte took to her bed for a week at her brother’s death, leaving the practical work of bereavement to her sisters. Her letters in the days following her brother’s death reveal a telling blend of resentment toward, and yet ultimate forgiveness of, her beloved childhood playmate.
Within just a few weeks it became clear that Emily Jane Brontë, the enigmatic young woman behind the author Ellis Bell, was herself extremely ill. The received wisdom has always been that she “caught a chill” at Branwell’s funeral, but it is far more likely that the tuberculosis that killed her siblings was already silently, and for a time unnoticeably, eating away at her as well. Like her character in Wuthering Heights, Catherine Earnshaw, who claims she would be “miserable in heaven,” Emily was “torn from life in its prime,” with even the pious Charlotte confessing that her sister had turned “her dying eyes reluctantly from the pleasant sun.” Refusing all medical intervention until it was too late, she died on December 19, 1848. This time Charlotte rallied, and become the great support of both her father and remaining sister Anne.
Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, considered one of the first feminist novels, had been published in June 1848. Given Branwell’s state of mind by that time, it is unlikely that he ever saw this novel, but its disturbing scenes of drunken debauchery, vulgar language, and unabashed adultery—not to mention the fairly constant, flippant blasphemy—of Arthur Huntingdon surely owe a great deal to her brother’s behavior. This second novel caused a sensation every bit as great as Wuthering Heights, and its reputation suffered for more than a century at the hands of her surviving sister, Charlotte, who refused to permit its reprinting at the height of its popularity.
There is no denying, however, the elder sister’s anxious, loving care for her younger sister, who upon Emily’s death began, in turn, to show serious signs of tuberculosis. After lingering in delicate health for several months, Anne was at last granted her fervent wish to return to her beloved Scarborough, where she died, serenely, on May 28, 1849, in the company of Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey. She is buried high above the sea, at Saint Mary’s,—the inspiration for “the venerable old church” of Agnes Grey—near the very spot where, according to Oblivion, she and Branwell stood together on that windswept day in 1843, and where the view on glorious summer evenings recalls just what her heroine Agnes saw at the moment of Edward Weston’s proposal, when her heart was “filled with gratitude to heaven, and happiness, and love—almost too full for speech.”
Charlotte Brontë would go on to publish two more novels, Shirley and Villette, the second of which is considered by many critics to be her masterpiece, though it will forever be eclipsed in popularity by Jane Eyre. She was the only Brontë to be known by true real name in her lifetime, and to enjoy the literary and social fame she and her brother had craved all their lives. After much resistance—initially her own, but especially her father’s—she married his Irish curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, in 1854. She claimed to be “so happy” in marriage that writing ceased to be the overwhelming compulsion it had been for as long as she could remember. On March 31 of the following year, however, she was dead. A number of theories concerning her death have been advanced, but it seems clear that she was pregnant, and that constant vomiting and subsequent dehydration were determining factors in her early demise.
In 1857, Smith Elder published Charlotte’s rejected first novel, The Professor, with a brief preface by her widower Bell Nicholls, as well as the first edition of Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. The Brontë legend had begun.
The Reverend Patrick Brontë famously outlived all of his children, dying in 1861, at the age of 84. He had transmitted his passion, his erudition, his wit and his sense of humor to all of his children, but they—and particularly his son, who seemed simultaneously to venerate and reject his father—had far more difficulty making the difficult transition to adulthood, and exercising duty and self-control over passion and self-indulgence.
The early claims that Branwell was the true author of Wuthering Heights have long ago been dismissed. Anyone reading Emily’s novel next to his own fragment, And the weary are at rest, written at roughly the same time, can see this: the first is almost impossible to put down, while the second is nearly as difficult to soldier through to its conclusion, despite its brevity. Indeed, it becomes even clearer with the passage of time that very little of what Branwell wrote has much literary merit. Despite Matthew Arnold’s (surely sexist) supposition in his famous poem, he does indeed seem to have been “the least gifted” of the four Brontës to survive childhood. In any event, he certainly was, by far, the least disciplined and persistent, a theme that runs throughout Oblivion.
Branwell remains a fascinating character in his own right, however, for what is also increasingly evident with the passing of the decades is that his early, frenetic, brilliant, even visionary enthusiasm and leadership in the siblings’ collective experiment in childhood writing, which was surely a kind of “grief therapy” avant la lettre—the feverish creation of thousands upon thousands of pages of juvenilia, an activity the Brontës called Scribblemania—was a critical apprenticeship for the three women who would go on to write some of the most treasured novels in the English language. It is certainly also true that besides their somewhat austere, if loving, father, their brother was the only man in the world they truly knew, so that their male characters—more often at their realistic worst than at their idealized best—are enormously indebted to this deeply flawed and troubled young man.
Long after Grundy and Leyland tried to do him justice, others would come to share their fascination with Branwell, notably Daphne Dumaurier and Winfred Gérin, who published biographies in 1960 and 1961, respectively. Many other treatments have followed, with Barker’s magisterial biography of the family (1992; revised 2010) giving him his rightful place in the family dynamic and history.
Branwell has become increasingly prominent in films—some more strictly biographical than others—concerning the Brontës, from André Téchiné’s Les soeurs Brontë (1979) to Sally Wainright’s To Walk Invisible (2016). In the last decade or two in particular, writers and artists have also progressively focused on his role in the family, with works including, among many others, plays by Lee Bollinger and Blake Morrison, a short story by Michael Yates, and novels by Glyn Hughes, Douglas A. Martin, and Robert Edric. The past two years have even witnessed a rock opera (Wasted, 2018) and a graphic novel (Isabel Greenberg’s Glass Town, 2020), both focused on the siblings’ relationship throughout their short lives.
Two centuries have passed since the Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria welcomed their fourth child and only son into the world, on 26 June 1817. When he died thirty-one years later, his sister Charlotte wrote:
My poor Father naturally thought more of his only Son than of his daughters, and much and long as he had suffered on his account—he cried out for his loss like David for that of Absalom—My Son! My Son! And refused at first to be comforted.
The great hope and joy of the family in his youth, he brought them only shame and heartache later in life.
Unfit for the realities of a rapidly-changing society, Patrick Branwell Brontë longed first for eternal literary fame, and later for oblivion, in every sense of that word. As fate would have it, he seems, at last, to have achieved something of both, for it has become increasingly evident that the works of the brilliant Brontës would not remotely resemble what they are without the three sisters’ experience—much of it unpleasant, tinged with what they, themselves, might call “wormwood and bitter gall”—with their only, once-cherished brother.
As in his “Pillar Portrait” of the siblings in the National Portrait Gallery, where he famously blotted himself out, Branwell’s image is slowly emerging from oblivion, though surely not for reasons he or his family would have preferred.
A Note on the Language of Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë
Most historical fiction tends to be written in a somewhat neutral, modern style, with hints of the period in question, to provide “local color.” That the historical figures of this novel—the Brontës—were, themselves, writers, presented both a challenge and an opportunity, which was how to incorporate their own words into the text where appropriate and use their language to shape the remainder of it. Oblivion thus attempts to echo the cadences and vocabulary of the letters, poems, and novels of the family, but in a style more accessible to the modern reader. It is unapologetically earnest, romantic, and at times even melodramatic, as are the works of the Brontës themselves.
Aside from a few archaic and chiefly British expressions to provide a flavor of the time and place, the book attempts to straddle the chasm between the 1840s and the 2020s. What developed as a guiding principle was this: I strove to create, as much as possible, a seamless fabric both entirely understandable to an educated reader in 2020 and yet which, if it were picked up by the Brontës themselves, would be immediately comprehensible (if at times a little strange, no doubt). For this reason, as I composed, I frequently consulted the “use over time” function of Google Chrome to assure that words that seem contemporary today were in fact already in use in 1840. This led to the occasional surprise, such as words of Greek or Latin origin I had assumed to be quite old, but which had entered the language long after the death of the Brontës, usually through scientific or technological developments in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. While I am sure I have missed an anachronism here or there, I can assure the reader that the bulk of Oblivion would be entirely understandable and even ring as quite typical in the Brontës’ ears, if, inevitably, a bit odd here and there.
Beyond this “pastiche” quality, Branwell’s diaries also have an important element of what the French would call bricolage, or what we might today consider a “mash-up,” although both of those expressions imply a postmodern use of disparate elements to create something entirely new and possibly strange, whereas what I mean here is the use of the exact language of the Brontës both to provide a flavor of the time and to serve as a wink and a nod (what the French call a clin d’oeil) to lovers of the Brontës. Some of these are more famous than others, and I intend to list them all through extensive notes when Oblivion is published in a copyrighted, printed format. They include a number of brief passages from Agnes Grey (especially where Agnes and Rosalie, through a process of double-mirroring, are both inspired by the historical Anne and Lydia and, in turn, shape their fictional manifestations in my own novel), a handful of phrases from Wuthering Heights (“I even dreamt, once, that I was in heaven”; “Satan and all his legions”; “crush like a rotten hazelnut”) and Jane Eyre (“because I am poor, obscure, plain and little”), and great deal of language from the Brontës’ correspondence, especially Charlotte’s. Perhaps a better comparison to this practice is the feature in rap known as “sampling,” the reinscription of previous texts into a new work.
Thus, while the overwhelming majority of the words of Oblivion are my own, they are sprinkled throughout with the leaven of the language of the Brontës themselves. To take another example, at times Branwell’s real letters to Leyland, Brown, or his sisters invade his fictional journal, and he often notes that he had just been sharing such thoughts with his correspondent. On a handful of occasions, I have even used language from other writers (Baudelaire, Flaubert—in translation, of course) or, in one case, from Charlotte’s later work, Villette (young Margaret Fish is presented as “a dripping roast” by her mother, in Broughton, an expression Lucy Snowe uses for herself).
With only three exceptions, all letters, poems and drawings are real, and all are accurately dated and incorporated into the story. The exceptions are Postlethwaite’s note accompanying his letter of reference, the letter of dismissal from the railway, and Lydia’s note requesting that Roxby come to Thorp Green for a rendezvous. Indeed, as noted above, the true letters and poems largely provide the architecture of the plot of Oblivion. I did learn early, however, that there was no need to include all of Branwell’s poems, especially those that had no connection to the story I was trying to tell.
A brief word should probably be said about the explicit sex scenes, which of course would never have appeared in a proper Victorian novel. My justification for these is two-fold: first, Branwell was known, particularly in his written correspondence with John Brown, to use graphic sexual language. For example, from Broughton, he asks for news of Brown and his other drinking companions: “…you say something about having got a cock and hens—I know you have got a cock & a jolly good one too by Jupiter…And that bow-legged fellow who was always asking me—does your prick stand?—how is his going on or has he lost it altogether? Beelzebub means to make a walking stick of yours.” Second, and far more important, is the use of sex to underscore Branwell’s addictive nature, his constant search for something between the sublime and oblivion, his attempt to “get out of himself” (ekstasis) through the ecstasy or “earthly rapture” of sex. In making this critical point in a novel written well into the twenty-first century, I saw no reason to treat sexuality as would a Victorian romance or a PG-rated film.
There remain some minor, but I think interesting, issues of language. First, the attentive reader will notice that I have tried my best to use British spelling, but North American punctuation. That I am an academic who teaches writing in the United States explains the odd juxtaposition, although it should be noted that what is considered standand American punctuation was commonly in use in England at the time. Second, spelling and even vocabulary were similarly far more fluid and unstandardized in the 1840s. To take a single example, the Manchester and Leeds Railway was in fact called The Manchester and Leeds Railroad in its early days. Over the decades, however, “railway” became the chiefly British word and “railroad” the North American term, even though they were used interchangeably in the early days of rail. In such cases, I have opted, to avoid confusion, for the term that is today recognized as British. In the same way, words ending in -ize (such as “recognized” in the preceding sentence) were common on both sides of the Atlantic in the Brontës’ time, but are now almost wholly confined to North America, so I have opted for current British use: recognise. Such are the minutiae of writing historical fiction.
The rendering of the language of working people in Lancashire and Yorkshire was a challenge for a Californian raised in the 1960s and 1970s. I have done my best, using as my model characters in the works of the Brontës themselves, from Hareton and Joseph in Wuthering Heights to the poor cottagers in Agnes Grey and the servants in Jane Eyre, and even the Yorkshire accent of today in such television dramas as Sally Wainwright’s own Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax.
The frequent use of French by Charlotte, Franz Liszt, and the Robinsons has support both from history and from the works of the Brontës (see Blanche Ingram and her set in Jane Eyre, not to mention Jane’s use of it with her French pupil Adèle), but its frequency is doubtless greater (for example, when Hartley Coleridge quotes Pascal, or when Joe Leyland uses an expression such as un ange passe) because the author of Oblivion is himself a Francophile and, among other things, a professor of French. For that and so many other faux pas, Dear Reader, I beg your pardon.