… a little touch of Branwell in the night…

by Marie Marshall

I write in manic fits and starts. Not for me the discipline of a clock-timed hour set aside in the day, so don’t even suggest it. You will be familiar with my writing technique which is to ‘have an idea and throw words at it’ to see whether they stick. Often what results is a fragment that is laid aside. Sometimes I pick it up again and finish it (‘Lupa’ was written like that, as was ‘The Everywhen Angels’), at other times it lies unfinished. I throw none of them away, and I have several such works-under-scaffold that I’m concerned with right now, to a greater or lesser extent. The other day I found something I had started, fictionalising the life of Branwell Brontë, the under-sung brother of famous sisters. Here is an extract from it.

Branwell Bronte self-portrait 2“Would you forgive me if I loved anyone else?” I said as I lay with my head on Emily’s lap, she stroking my hair as though to straighten my curls. She laughed. I remember this well, I remember this with extraordinary clarity, better than I remember last night’s company or this morning’s desultory breakfast.

“I would be delighted if the Grand Prince of Angria found and married his one true love.”

“Say rather the Pretender! Say rather the Desdichado, the dark Prince disinherited and lost who has come back to fight for his kingdom, to take it back, to wrest it from the usurper. Say rather the revolutionary leader who will seize power in the name of the Commoner and rule justly and grant freedom.”

Oui mon brave Napoléon, mon Empéreur!” That would have scandalized Papa.

“We should have been twins, thou and I,” I said, turning to look at her, making her pause in her stroking and poise her hand in mid-air – oh how I wished to paint her at that moment. We thou’d and thee’d each other often, like Yorkshire folk, like Walloons, like Quakers more. “Thou, my secret twin, Princess of Gondal in white satin embroidered with golden thread; for I am thee and thou art I.”

“We are one person, but one.” Our catechism, our sacred liturgy. Emily’s response was accompanied by a laugh. At that moment Bounce came into the room. We never called Charlotte ‘Bounce’ to her face, but often referred to her by that soubriquet in secret.

“Idling again?” This from Bounce, her hands upon her hips; but she wasn’t angry. She was the Grand Marshall of Angria, and even though she was not of the Blood Royal she governed as a Vizier might, directing our policy at home and our imperial adventures. She and I used to write together, but that stopped. Then I wrote with Emily, but that stopped. It all seems to have passed in the space of a week. All my life. Everything.

I am an Englishman and a Yorkshireman by birth and by breeding-up, yet on the stage I am always Michael Murphy, a broth of a boy bejabers, showing all the flash and dash of my Celtic blood and heritage, Cornish-Irish. I longed to see a dagger before me, to read words, words, words, to see a light from yonder window; I would have hunted the badger by owl light, or, if levity was wanted, I would have taken a part of Sheridan’s or Goldsmith’s. My best was – once – Shakespeare’s MacMorris and – once – indeed Sheridan’s Sir Lucius O’Trigger, and I was even banished from those roles when the Producer saw me silently mouthing the Principals’ lines. My rest was low pantomime, low comedia, come-soon-and-forgot-soon nonsense in which I was obliged to grey my whiskers, knuckle my forehead and give out, “Good luck to Your Honour, and will Your Honour be after wanting ‘tay’?” and very little else. The shambling servant or the bully with his Wicklow blackthorn. Thank God that Papa never saw me in such roles. It was his voice that I took and exaggerated, the voice in which he preached his sermons and, once a year, asked for a collection to be made for the poor of Ireland…

… Papa was never proud of me, even on the day when I rode into battle for him, as it were. I pushed my way through the crowd of people to get to him. He was elevated above them, at the hustings, speaking, his usual Tory nonsense. No matter, he was sincere and deserved respect, and that was what he was not getting from the crowd. There were interruptions, insults. I mounted behind him and then pushed my way to the front. I told them he was an honourable man. I told them they knew him to be honest and honourable, and that they should hear him. Even if they disagreed they should hear him out and let him speak the truth as he perceived it.

“Oho. We’ve had Patrick O’Brunty and now we’re to have Branty Fitzpatrick… What a fine dish of potatoes… Get dahn, tha Irish puppy!”

I told them I was born and bred and Englishman, a Yorkshireman like them.

“Mim, mim, mim! Harken ter thasen! Airs and graces nah, is it… Sure and begob Oi’m after bein’ an Englishman at all… Being born in an oven does not make you a biscuit… I owe thee fer a blow or two at the boxin’!”

Someone threw a stone which hit my left cheek and stung like a wasp. I began to feel cold, my mouth was shut fast, my fists were clenched and I was about to leap amongst them and do murder. Hands, probably Papa’s, maybe someone else’s as well, pulled me down, back. Later Papa was ungracious: “I acknowledge your intentions, Branwell, but I fear you made the situation worse, much worse than it already was,” were his words. That night a bonfire was lit in Haworth, and a Guido placed upon it, a potato in one hand and a herring in the other, a piece of card around its neck saying ‘Branwell O’Prunty, the Fighting Irishman’. Murder. Revenge. Shame, hot tears in my pillow more like, as I murdered the pillow – “Englishman!” with a punch, “Yorkshireman!” with a punch. Emily’s hand on my shoulder quieted me. Emily’s, not Charlotte’s. I remember. I remember her scent, her voice…

© Marie Marshall