An impressionist portrait of the least known of the Bronte siblings.
Branwell (1817–48) was the fourth child, after Charlotte, Maria and Elizabeth. Then came Emily and Anne. Maria, Branwell’s first love, died very young, as did Elizabeth; then their mother went. Death was everywhere. In the parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, Branwell was the most cosseted, because of his gender. Their father sent the girls off to school but kept Branwell home, teaching him Latin and Greek. The children had an intense imaginative life. Branwell and Charlotte created the Kingdom of Angria, originating in the boy’s love of toy soldiers; Emily and Anne had Gondal. Martin hews quite closely to the biographical record. We see Branwell weighing two ambitions, to be a painter or a poet; his early love of strong drink and opium; his checkered life in the workplace. Twice he is hired as a private tutor, and twice he is fired. He is also fired as a railroad clerk for sloppy bookkeeping. The once-outgoing young man stops writing, withdraws into himself, and hurries to his death at 31, alcohol- and opium-dependent. Martin sees Branwell’s loss of his second job as a tutor to be pivotal, alienating him from Charlotte and Anne, leaving Emily as his only support. At Thorp Green, Anne taught the girls while Branwell taught young Edmund. Was he dismissed for pederasty (Martin’s implication) or for having an affair with his employer’s wife (the conventional view)? Martin prizes ambiguity, as he showed in his debut (Outline of My Lover, 2000), but here he piles innuendo on top of innuendo for little fictional gain. There are other problems. The author writes in brief paragraphs, often consisting of only one sentence; the stop-start rhythm is tiring. Consistency is a factor, too. Sometimes he writes from the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator and sometimes from Branwell’s—not a good mix.
Martin has given himself a novelist’s license, but has not used it to make Branwell’s self-destruction affecting.