Thursday, July 6, 2017

Did Branwell Write 'Wuthering Heights'?

In Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), Mr Mybug (portrayed as somewhat eccentric) is writing a book to show that Branwell Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights:

‘“You see, it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff…”’

His further theory is that it was Branwell’s sisters who were drunkards, not he, and that they passed the books off (he had written Shirley and Villette too) as theirs so they could get money for drink. Flora, the heroine, raises some not unreasonable objections, but Mr Mybug has answers for each of them, at least to his own satisfaction. '“There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the Heights,”' he avers.

Most readers have probably assumed this was all Stella Gibbons' entertaining invention. But in fact there were indeed real Branwellians. The idea had already been put forward before the publication of her comic satire, though lacking the picturesque extension that he had written any other Bronte books.

The main champion of the Branwellian hypothesis was Alice Law, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society. Her book Patrick Branwell Bronte (London: A M Philpot, no date, but c. 1924) offers a short biography of her subject, and a selection of his poems, but its main purpose is to advance the idea that Wuthering Heights was largely his work. Chapter V is entitled “’Wuthering Heights’ – by Emily?” and Chapter VI is entitled “’Wuthering Heights’ – by Branwell?”.

I had in fact come across this proposition before, in a copy of John O’London’s Weekly, the popular book magazine. A correspondent had written to their letters column to give a circumstantial account of Branwell reading chapters from Wuthering Heights to a circle of local gentlemen whom he knew, and presenting it as his own work. Even if the anecdote is authentic, it is not very strong evidence of his authorship. The listeners may have simply assumed it was his; he might have represented it so because he thought they would give it more attention; he and Emily may have both been involved in presenting it as his for the same reason, or are as a mild joke.

Alice Law was already a published poet before she put forward the Branwellian theory. Her Songs of the Uplands appeared from T. Fisher Unwin in 1908, and Cupid and Psyche, and Other Poems from the Nineties publisher Elkin Mathews in 1919: she also put lyrics to music. She later issued volumes from what looks her like her own Old Parsonage Press at Altham, Lancs, in the Twenties and Thirties, and a further volume in the Branwellian campaign, Emily Jane Bronte and the Authorship of Wuthering Heights, came out from this imprint in 1928.

Wuthering Heights first appeared in 1847 under the pseudonym of ‘Ellis Bell’. Rumours, says Law, circulated that the book was by Charlotte. The author of Jane Eyre did not want the stormier book associated with her, so she asked Emily and Anne to accompany her on a visit to their publisher, to convince him they were three separate authors. Anne agreed: but Emily would not. The book must only be known as by ‘Ellis Bell’. In fact, avers Law, she insisted that Charlotte write to Mr Williams, the reader at their publisher Smith, Elder, now denying that each of the three sisters had written a book.

The origin of the idea that Branwell was the author comes largely from a book written by a friend of the Bronte family. This was Pictures of the Past. Memories of Men I Have Met and Places I have Seen by Francis H. Grundy (London and Edinburgh: Griffith and Farran, 1879). The author recalls a visit he made to the Parsonage at Haworth in 1846, when Charlotte was away but Branwell, Emily and Anne were present. Alice Law quotes from the book:

“Patrick Bronte declared to me, and what his sister said bore out the assertion, that he wrote a great portion of ‘Wuthering Heights’ himself. Indeed, it is impossible for me to read that story without meeting many pages which I feel certain must have come from his pen. The weird fancies of diseased genius with which he used to entertain me in our long talks at Luddenden Foot reappear in the pages of the novel, and I am inclined to believe that the very plot was his invention rather than his sister’s.”

Law states that the first attribution of the book to Emily was in Charlotte Bronte’s preface to the 1850 edition. Charlotte, she argues, genuinely thought Emily was the author: she had not been present when Mr Grundy visited in 1846. Her main further argument against Emily’s authorship, apart from the curious episode of the letter to Smith, Elder and the recollection (over 30 years later) of Mr Grundy, is that Wuthering Heights is not mentioned in the surviving letters between Anne and Emily – they are full of the secret history of Gondal, the fantasy world the two had invented.

So much for the evidence against the full authorship by Emily. What is the evidence for any authorship of the book by Branwell? Law quotes from a September, 1845, letter by him to his friend Leyland Smith: “I have, since I saw you at Halifax, devoted my hours of time…to the composition of a three-volume novel, one volume of which is completed”. This, he hopes, gives a “vivid picture of human feelings for good and evil…the conflicting feelings and clashing pursuits in our uncertain path through life.”

Further evidence is put forward by another friend of Branwell, William Dearden, in a letter to the Halifax Guardian of June, 1867. He recalled that he and Branwell met at an inn with Leyland Smith to read their poetry in a spirit of friendly rivalry: but when Branwell pulled his manuscript from under his hat, he found he had brought part of a novel “by an annoying mischance.” His friends pressed him to read this instead and he “riveted our attention for about an hour…”. It was a scene from Wuthering Heights. Dearden adds that Branwell had also read passages from the book to another friend, Edward Sloane, who recognised them at once when Ellis Bell’s book appeared.

Alice Law’s proposal is that Branwell had written significant parts of the book, that “Emily urged him to continue, and offered to help him with the copying or with the more tedious parts of the composition,” discussed it with him, and helped him to finish the work. That was why she compelled Charlotte to deny she had written it, and wished to retain the Ellis Bell attribution. But following Emily’s death, Charlotte, who had been estranged from her brother, promoted Emily as the author, in defiance of her sister’s express wishes. When the evidence of Branwell’s contemporaries emerged, much later, the image of him as a dissolute failure had already taken hold, and so the book could not be seen as his.

Just as the Shakespeare authorship controversies often begin with the assumption that a glover’s son could not have written such works, and their author must have been a sophisticated courtier, so the Branwell theory is influenced by the prejudice that a young woman could not have written so stark and powerful a book as Wuthering Heights. In both cases, of course, the premise is quite wrong. But whereas in the Shakespeare case the alternative arguments rest on very thin evidence, sometimes involving improbable ciphers, the Branwell case does at least have some curious aspects to it, in Charlotte’s behaviour and the evidence of his friends.

And it raises the question: was there ever at least part of a now lost novel by Branwell Bronte, the one Mr Grundy mis-remembered, the one he told Leyland Smith about, the one from which his other friends heard him read?

Mark Valentine

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