‘Writing with Conceited Assurance’: A ‘Lost’ Brontë Fragment

By Grace Moore, The University of Melbourne

I’ve never been great at manuscript work. An early-career incident with Charles Dickens’ Hard Times manuscript at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London left me convinced that I would never do this kind of work again. Dickens was a notorious over-writer, cramming new thoughts into the tiniest spaces, crossing words through and writing across them, all in a hand that might most generously be described as ‘spidery’. Add to this trickiness the fact that I wasn’t permitted to touch the manuscript. The delicate pages were turned by a white-gloved museum employee, who must have despaired at my squints and sighs, as I tried to glean something new and important from the novel’s cancelled passages. I eventually abandoned the venture, concluding that I had neither the skills nor the right personality type for this important and painstaking kind of work. Seventeen years later, I found myself poring over a hand even tinier than that of Dickens: the microscopic scratchings of Branwell Brontë.

‘Branwell Brontë: Self Portrait’ 1840.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
‘Branwell Brontë: Self Portrait’ 1840. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While today the works of Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë are well known and widely read, the creativity of their brother Branwell is often overlooked. Regularly cast as a tragic wastrel, Branwell in fact seems to have been as talented as his three famous sisters, albeit without a clear sense of direction for his abilities.

Branwell’s upbringing was unorthodox in that while his sisters were sent away to school, he remained at home to be educated by his father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë. He seems to have been a sensitive and slightly lost young man, who suffered from the absence of a mother (she died when he was just four years old) and struggled to find an outlet for his talents as a poet and painter. Branwell didn’t always help himself, most famously writing to the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine in December 1835, offering himself as replacement contributor for James Hogg, who had recently died. With what appears to be extraordinary bravado, the young man wrote

Now Sir, to you I appear writing with conceited assurance, — <by> but I am not – for I know myself so far as to beleive in my own originality; and on that ground I desire of you admittance into your ranks; And do not wonder that I apply so determinedly, for the remembrances I spoke of, have <fik> fixed you and your Magazine in such a manner upon my mind that the Idea of striving to aid another periodical is horribly repulsive. My resolution is to devote my ability to you, and for Gods sake, till you see wether or not I can serve you do not so <coldly> coldly refuse my aid.[i]

'The History of 'Angria': fragments', Branwell Brontë (estimated 1836-37). Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Library.
‘The History of ‘Angria’: fragments’, Branwell Brontë (estimated 1836-37). Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Library.

Reflecting upon the lack of response to this and two other letters he sent to Blackwood’s, Branwell was later to remark, ‘I have perhaps spoken too openly respecting the extent of my powers’.[ii] Furthermore, as the Brontë biographer Juliet Barker has commented, Branwell’s sloppy spelling and multiple crossings through would not have enhanced his case, its presumptuousness aside.

Anecdotes like these, combined with what we know of Branwell’s descent into opium use and alcoholism, make it easy to dismiss him as the black sheep of the family. Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë’s first biographer, wrote of him that ‘His talents were certainly very brilliant, and of this he was fully conscious’, bemoaning his ‘strong love of pleasure’ and ‘irregular habits’.[iii] Branwell, however, was not simply a doomed hedonist. In his lifetime, he published 15 poems and 10 critical essays in newspapers including the Leeds Intelligencer, The Halifax Guardian and the Yorkshire Gazette. These were all publications whose poetry columns were well regarded, and whose contributors included eminent figures such as Thomas Hood, Leigh Hunt, Tennyson and Wordsworth.

Branwell was also the co-author, with his sister Charlotte, of a remarkable collection of stories and poems which are today known as the ‘Angrian Saga’. The works are juvenilia, never intended for publication, and they are companion pieces to Anne and Emily’s imaginary world, Gondal. The children began working on their stories in 1826, having received a box of toy soldiers that provided a creative stimulus for a sequence of adventures which became increasingly exotic and elaborate. Branwell and Charlotte continued to write stories of their world, Angria, well into adulthood and while their plots can be difficult to follow, the work offers fascinating insights into the authors’ emerging genius.

‘The Dunedin Fragment’.  Photo credit: Thomas McLean, University of Otago.  Image reproduced by kind permission of the Dunedin Public Library, New Zealand.  With thanks to Julian Smith, Rare Books Librarian.
‘The Dunedin Fragment’. Photo credit: Thomas McLean, University of Otago. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Dunedin Public Library, New Zealand. With thanks to Julian Smith, Rare Books Librarian.

The public library in Dunedin, New Zealand, has a rich and impressive special collections department, which includes a remarkable archive of nineteenth-century manuscripts, letters and ephemera. There, hiding in plain sight, was a missing piece of the Angrian saga, which had been classified as a letter – probably because Branwell closed the piece with a flourishing signature, and also because his tiny writing requires significant time and attention before it can be deciphered. In fact, as my collaborator Tom McLean realised, the half-page fragment from 1837 had a much more important role in literary history than a piece of correspondence.

And so, in the bicentenary of Branwell’s birth, we sat in a quiet room, piecing together Branwell’s prose, sometimes word-by-word, at others letter-by-letter. It is a deeply affective experience to read a manuscript that has been overlooked for years. In A. S. Byatt’s academic novel Possession (1990), the central character, Roland Michel, is so amazed and thrilled when he comes across a hidden set of letters, tucked away in another manuscript, that he steals them. His impulse is to possess his find, to keep it to himself, and to revel in the fact that he has knowledge of his subject (the imaginary poet, Randolph Henry Ash) that nobody else can enjoy. Byatt brilliantly conveys the frisson of excitement that accompanies such a find, and which in our case grew incrementally as we transcribed Branwell’s prose and slowly worked out where the fragment might fit in the broader body of his work, which fills several volumes.

As it turned out, a fire held the key to the mystery, and we were able to place the fragment at the end of a scene in an inn, notable for its emphasis on blazing fires and also for the rather surprising nakedness of a gigantic renegade parson. Our fragment (for by now, it was ‘ours’, recognition forming a type of affective ownership) involved a ‘demolished fire’, which (along with a date just a couple of months later than the incomplete published work) helped us to connect it to the pub scene, which involves a dramatic brawl. The fragment will help readers to understand how characters move from this scene to the next, and it is also exciting to think about how this piece of literary history made its way to New Zealand.

Literary critics and historians often find ourselves pursuing lost objects, whether as part of a quest for meaning or through our desire to hold and possess a piece of the past. Carolyn Steedman has suggested that, interpretatively as well as literally, history is ‘just one long exercise of the deep satisfaction of finding things’.[iv] While I’ve always loved archival work, it has taken a very long time for me to appreciate the pleasures and frustrations of the original manuscript. While Tom is known for his work with letters and other handwritten works, I suspect that for me the delight of this project was as much about solving a puzzle as decoding Branwell’s minute sentences. Yet this was an experience laden with emotion, as we inserted this little piece of literary heritage back where it belongs.

Thomas McLean and Grace Moore’s article ‘The Concluding Page of an Angrian Story by Branwell Brontë’ will appear in the December issue of Notes and Queries. An advance online copy is available behind the journal’s pay wall: https://academic.oup.com/nq/article-abstract/doi/10.1093/notesj/gjx159/4430803/The-Concluding-Page-of-an-Angrian-Story-by?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Grace Moore is, until the end of 2017, a Senior Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at The University of Melbourne. Grace’s CHE research project is an examination of the representations of bushfires in nineteenth-century settler literature, and she is also in the early stages of a book on Dickens and the emotions and another on Trollope and ecology. Her co-edited collection, Victorian Environments (with Michelle J. Smith) will be published by Palgrave in 2018 and, with Stephanie Trigg, she will convene the ‘Wild Emotions: Affect and the Natural World’ collaboratory at the University of Melbourne on December 14 and 15.
[i] Branwell Brontë, to the Editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, 8 December 1835. Quoted in Juliet Barker, The Brontës (London: Abacus, 1994), p. 270. Branwell’s spelling was idiosyncratic to say the least, while words and fragments marked < > show crossings through.

[ii] Quoted in Barker, The Brontës, p. 270.

[iii] Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) (London: Everyman, 1997), p. 133.

[iv] Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 12.]

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