Books | May 26, 2021 5:03 pm

Meet Branwell Brontë, the Rob Kardashian of Victorian Literature’s Most Famous Family

A relatively unsuccessful brother overshadowed by three powerful sisters? Sounds familiar.

Photo of "The Bronte Sisters" painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte
Branwell Brontë painted himself out of this portrait of his famous sisters.
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Unlike their enduring literary legacy, the Brontë sisters weren’t terribly long-lived. The eldest and most prolific, Charlotte, died before 40, and she still managed to outlive her two famous sisters by a decade. While they were able to crank out at least one literary masterpiece each before their untimely deaths, the Brontë sisters didn’t have time to produce as much work as longer-lived contemporaries like Charles Dickens, so when more of their work does become available, it’s a big deal for those in the know.

News of a “lost library” of unpublished Brontë paraphernalia going up for auction at Sotheby’s, as reported by the Guardian, is some of the biggest that Brontë fans have come by in some time. First compiled by Charlotte’s husband after her death, the collection of letters, sketches and unpublished manuscripts has been out of the public eye for nearly a century, remaining inaccessible even to academics. The highlight of the collection is an unpublished, “incredibly rare” manuscript of Emily’s poems, which big sister Charlotte praised, if rather backhandedly, as “not common effusions, nor at all like poetry women generally write.” The collection also includes the family’s heavily annotated copy of A History of British Birds, as well as a letter in which Branwell Brontë — in typical Branwell Brontë form — reminds a friend that he, too, has some literary ambitions of his own.

Those ambitions, as the Guardian noted, “would not be realized.”

If you don’t know who Branwell Brontë is or what doing something “in typical Branwell Brontë form” entails, you’re not alone. The only and oft-overlooked brother of the Brontë clan, history remembers Branwell — when it remembers him at all — as the unsuccessful, black sheep brother of his famous sisters. Despite displaying an early love and talent for literature, Branwell never came close to the literary success of his sisters. As an adult, he bounced around from job to job, picking up various artistic pursuits that came to little fruition while his sisters wrote their masterpieces. Aside from being the Brontës’ brother, he’s mostly known for having an ill-fated affair with an older married woman, getting addicted to opium and alcohol, racking up a lot of debt, then coming home to fulfill the family tradition of dying young. His one significant contribution is a portrait he painted of his three sisters in 1834, which hangs in National Portrait Gallery. It’s one of the best known paintings of the Brontës — even the most casually literate would know it if they saw it — but, it’s also an embodiment of Branwell’s legacy, one that one rests entirely on the success of his sisters. In fact, Branwell originally painted his own likeness alongside Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but later painted himself out of the now-iconic portrait, as if in acknowledgement that his own name, reputation and talent would always be overshadowed by that of his famous sisters.

Though widely regarded — again, when he is regarded at all — as a failure, perhaps Branwell Brontë was simply ahead of his time. As the less successful, overshadowed and overlooked brother of three famous women, Branwell seems to have a 21st-century successor in the form of one Rob Kardashian. The younger brother of Kim, Kourtney and Khloé, the three Kardashian sisters responsible for first catapulting the Kardashian-Jenner clan to the heights of international stardom the family enjoys today, Rob has never approached the level of fame nor financial success of his sisters (or his younger half-sisters Kendall and Kylie, though their presence kind of throws off this analogy a little).

Despite making frequent appearances in early seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Rob failed to grow with the family’s expanding empire and has since largely faded out of the greater Kardashian narrative. Today, he’s best known for starting a marginally successful sock line, having a disastrous relationship with Blac Chyna, starring in a short-lived reality show detailing just how disastrous the whole thing was, and then all but vanishing from — or perhaps painting himself out of — the Kardashian family portrait.

We tend to think of these lesser-known brothers of famous women as failures, but maybe their willingness to be overshadowed by the more powerful women in their lives is actually an act of bravery, or at least noble forfeiture. Perhaps in stepping out of their sisters’ limelight, in painting themselves out of the family portrait, these black sheep brothers are actually sacrificing themselves in the name of matriarchal power, or at least willfully conceding to it.