The Forgotten Brontë Sibling
Douglas A. Martin on writing a queer novel about Branwell Brontë
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Douglas A. Martin’s novel Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother has been described as a “queer speculative biography.” In imagining the life of the only brother in the Brontë family, Martin borrows language from letters and diaries, but the real magic of the book is Martin’s ability to inhabit the gaps and silences that surround Branwell himself.
As a boy, Branwell suffers through the deaths of his mother and two oldest sisters. The surviving siblings—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—live with their minister father and maiden aunt in a parsonage that borders a graveyard. When the children aren’t roaming the windswept moors, they collaborate on massive volumes of stories about the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondol. As he grows, Branwell seeks out the local pub, where the red-haired minster’s boy drinks and talks and boxes with the other men. He craves alcohol and later opium—Martin writes with heartbreaking clarity about the slippery logic of addiction—and from an early age, his sisters can see that “their brother’s affections are given almost entirely to men.” But Branwell himself is more evasive. He is desperate to be noticed, but fearful of being too visible. While he searches for “signs, tokens, in other people’s eyes,” he is also “afraid he might have been born with an evil nature.”
Unsure of his place in the world, Branwell fails to gain notice as a poet, translator, portrait painter, and a railway clerk, until he is hired as a tutor at Thorp Green. But he is soon dismissed under a cloud of scandal, and his trajectory turns from turbulent to tragic. Brontë biographers have pointed to a possible affair with his employer’s wife. Martin’s novel treats that as a cover story, and intimates that Branwell may have been grooming the boy he was hired to teach. Like Branwell himself, the novel is constructed of hints and conjecture, and fascinated by what might have been.
First published in 2005, Branwell has just been reissued by Soft Skull, with an introduction by Darcey Steinke. I caught up with Martin in the days before publication, and after sorting out the technological glitches of the social-distance era, we started by talking about Branwell, the Brontës, Byron, and Bowie.
Brendan Mathews: When did you first learn that there was a brother in the Brontë family—a sibling who didn’t write one of the classics of 19th century British literature?
Douglas A. Martin: I didn’t know about him at all, which is what intrigued me completely because I’d been taught the Brontës like everybody else in school, and Wuthering Heights was one of the first important reading experiences for me. I had been out of my MFA program for a year or so, and as I walked around the city I would stop to see Darcey Steinke at the New School. One day, she was writing a lecture on the Brontës and she casually mentioned that there was a brother, which completely took me aback. The way she described him fascinated me and made me feel like this was a person that I would have been in love with immediately if I’d been taught about him in school.
BM: What was it about him?
DAM: It was the way that Darcey talked about his awareness of self-fashioning. When I did my MFA, my critical thesis was on self-presentation in the work of Patti Smith and Anaïs Nin, and how they styled themselves determined the reception of their work—one being hyper feminine and the other being hyper masculine. When Darcey talked about Branwell’s sense of self-drama, and the way that he would faely comport himself around in his poet blouses, because he wanted to be Byron, that was really electric to me. But she also had ideas about how he was like David Bowie, and so, two things came together really nicely for me—this idea of self-determination, but that one can make one’s own codes, one could begin to forefront how one wanted to be read. You know, create a metaphor of the self, and that was as much through how he moved through the world as what he put on the page.
BM: If anyone’s pitched to you as a little bit Byron, a little bit Bowie, it’s hard not to feel drawn to that.
DAM: It was a weird thing for me too, because at the time, I was still really strongly female identified. I read only women writers, and I myself was much more interested in makeup and such than I am now. So I think he was also like a gateway drug to the male muse.
BM: Tell me a little more about you in that moment. Did you grow up in a family where writing or making art was an acceptable profession?
DAM: Not at all, but in a complicated way. I mentioned that one of the most formative early reading experiences for me was being assigned Wuthering Heights in school and not being able to understand it. I was an extremely high-strung, emotional kid and I wanted to be smart and I did not feel smart. A lot of this had to do with my class background, but also the schooling system that I was in, and not being able to understand this book that I was meant to read for class had me in literal tears. My mother gave me a lesson in reading, which is something I’ve really taken forward with me: that I wasn’t meant to understand anything, that it was about relaxing into the book. I remember very vividly allowing myself to dream through the reading experience of Wuthering Heights and knowing that pages could go by before something would become distinct for me—but that I also was absorbing something. So there’s that, and there’s the fact that at one point, my sister started writing poems and I was really jealous of that, and I thought I could do better.
BM: Your sister writing poetry and you being convinced you could do better puts you pretty squarely in the Brontë tradition.
DAM: Yeah, but I was not in a world where “poet” could be one’s profession at all. At the time, the writers that I’d been exposed to were Jackie Collins and Stephen King and Agatha Christie. These were the books that were around.
So it wasn’t that there was an idea that I was going to be a poet, but my sister had done something that I thought I could do better for whatever reason. I’m sure that says something about me, and there’s a gender dynamic there as well. But I did in earnest start writing poetry around the time I was 16. It was after I began having sexual experiences, and I had no other place to put this experience outside of a poem and it felt like poems held that.
So I was writing poetry and I went to college and I thought that that was just a foolish thing that one did in high school. Then I began keeping a diary and I slowly came to accept that one being a writer could be a valid profession and it could be a discipline and it could be something that one could work at and make come true no matter what one’s background was.
BM: The Brontës were a poor family living out on the moors, but they’re convinced from childhood that they’re all going to be artists; it’s just a matter of choosing which art. And Branwell, based solely on his gender, was going to be the greatest of them all. But it’s the sisters whose names we know.
DAM: Thinking about Branwell, I just thought more and more about what it means to be essentially erased from history—and that became for me this thing about well, “he doesn’t matter because he didn’t create art,” which became a really close-to-home problematic for me. It seemed like this space that I could really get into, that one is meant to rise to certain occasions, to make this kind of worthwhile art.
Before I’d really started with the book, I picked up a biography of the Brontës and I flipped to the index and began looking at entries about Branwell. The words Thorp Green completely electrified me. They made instant poetic sense to me. And the more I began looking into that dynamic there, that piece of the story, the mystery of it, the student-teacher stuff, it just was like, there’s no way I can’t write this right now. These are all of my issues: the larger dynamic of making art, making the right art, succeeding at art or not, and then within that—psychically, erotically—what’s happening for somebody in terms of power dynamics really just galvanized me and I said, I’ve got to do it.
BM: For all the ways in which the novel is soaked in desire and longing, there’s also an evasiveness, a kind of discretion, about what Branwell is doing and with whom he’s doing it. Was that an effort to protect his privacy, to think about how he would have thought about his life? Was it some kind of 19th century decorum? Or was it just Branwell’s inability to name what he was feeling or to express his own desires?
DAM: For me, it’s all of them, and it’s a blend of them. Certainly, taking the premise of what could and could not have been said in a 19th century novel, there’s that decorum idea, and it’s complicated by the words not existing. But additionally, there’s what a character can or can’t admit to themselves, or allow themselves to see.
I’ve long thought that Branwell himself needed the Henry James of the tales. He needed “The Turn of the Screw.” He needed to some extent what Joseph Conrad was doing in “Heart of Darkness.” Not triple-decker-novels, but those tales, the psychological cul-de-sacs that those writers are writing those fraught sexual dynamics from. I think that that could have made sense for him.
BM: This past year I taught Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray, and there’s something about those books that can be shocking to 21st century students, because they read Jekyll’s inability to name the feelings inside him and the students are like, “well, he’s gay, right? How could no one have seen this?” And then they read Dorian Gray and they think Wilde is just putting it all there.
DAM: That was one of the challenges of the book for myself: How do you write an identity when certain words don’t exist? I think oftentimes identity becomes a holding container and helps one feel a little bit more put together. For me, another big drama with Branwell is this expectation that one sets out into the world, and one’s work—one’s worth as a poet—is the adventure. You point to Dorian Gray and Jekyll and Hyde and these are books where what’s been constructed is how one stays inside with oneself. I think that was experienced in Branwell’s case as an effeminizing thing, which became a bad thing, a judgment thing, a failure thing, a castrating thing, to even go into those kind of words.
Before I published Branwell I had published one other novel and I felt to succeed as a writer, there were expectations for me to do other things. It took me a really long time to figure out how to do what was expected of me, which was phrased as, “leaving my world behind.” And the solution became for me, it’s not that I’m going to leave my world behind—I’m going to find the connections to my world within these other worlds.
BM: What world was it that you were expected to leave behind?
DAM: My narration of my struggles with my family, with my sexuality, with my upbringing in the South. The kind of loose fictionalizing of autobiography that I was doing in my earlier work—work that I think has a lot in common with the work of early Jean Rhys. She was a really important figure for me in figuring all this out. She’s a writer who has integrity. And she moved from doing this thing that’s based in the self to figuring out where the self might be in a book like Wide Sargasso Sea, right? So that was that was something I came to. That was important.
BM: Who do you imagine Branwell might have been in the 21st century? There are aspects of his identity that he may have been able to accept or even celebrate. So I wonder if there could have been a 21st century Branwell, or if he’s very much a product of his own time?
DAM: I would be hard pressed to find a 21st century equivalent. I think when you say “a product of his own time,” that’s what makes sense to me. He’s constructed from the archive of his time. But I do think the possibilities for what art might look like would be numerous—if he had the right critics, if he had the right guides. For him, it’s not so much that “I want to go to the bar to get drunk.” It’s that “I want to go to the bar because that’s where my audience is, that’s where I can actually write and be alive.” It’s an act of writing; a writing on one’s feet. So now I’ve talked myself into an answer, which is I could see him like a Lenny Bruce character, a monologuist, where one could perform oneself in public in a way that was an elaboration and that allowed for exaggerations, and then those moments of tender truth within that. I could see him pulling something like that off. There’s no doubt that the people that experienced his ability to converse and tell a story were riveted by him. They really did fall in love with him.
One of the problems for him was our demand for singular authorship. Those stories that he wrote with Charlotte as a child, if that could have progressed—or if he would have just been allowed to be in that book of poems [Note: in 1846, the Brontë sisters published a collection of poems; Branwell’s work was not included]. He’s not a good poet, despite my dream that he might have been, but I don’t think Charlotte was either. I don’t think Anne was. I think Emily was a poet of her time. But his being left out of that book was a huge turning point. Quite honestly, I think it was a vindictive move. I’m not dismissing the historical person Charlotte Brontë’s feelings here about having been let down or embarrassed by her brother, but I think that the way that it played out was the ultimate ostracism. The home that they had together was in that writing, and he effectively experienced himself being ghosted within his realm of sanctity.
BM: It’s fascinating to see how you embed moments from the sisters’ novels in Branwell’s story—whether it’s the lightning-struck tree or the burning curtains or the way the relationship between Emily and Branwell feels awfully like Heathcliff and Cathy. You can see he’s living his art and they’re living it too and it’s finding an expression for them in their work. And he just has himself to be the page or the canvas.
DAM: In many ways, it’s a nonfiction novel, because I always felt like I was writing along with something that had already been written about him. I never proceeded by a blank page; any bit of writing would happen with me opening one of their books and trying to enter onto that page of whatever book through Branwell’s eyes. That was the kind of translation that I was actively inscribing. What it would be like to fear that this might be the trace of you—and indeed it was.
And so it’s not that I’m myself as an author trying to present the picture of Branwell, it’s more a curating of different angles of him. And then doing some kind of sculpting on that as well. I felt like all the books that were there were raw material and it was up to me to just polish him out of it.