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The Prodigal Brothers

By (December 1, 2010) 2 Comments

A bad brother is truly God’s gift to biographers. How differently might things have turned out for the child of fame had there not been a bounder, a blackguard, or a bankrupt leering from the next branch over on the family tree – in plain speaking, a scapegrace brother whose disreputable deeds cast an illuminating shadow over the sibling’s success story. Same parents, same upbringing, different outcomes. What about evil twins? That may be asking too much, but I would love to be surprised.

Bad sisters are just not common enough to cohere into a category, so Elisabeth Foerster Nietzsche, the Big Sis from Hell, is excluded, along with the anti-Semitic forgeries she passed off as her brother’s legacy. Nor need we concern ourselves with rivalry between over-achievers. Decades after being humiliated by pacifist Heinrich Mann in World War I, brother Thomas avenged himself with niggardly handouts to the newly penniless sibling who shared his Hollywood exile and was burdened with an alcoholic, suicidal young wife. Another writer of best-sellers, Alec Waugh, asked why he had fallen out with brother Evelyn, answered “What makes you think we ever fell in?”

Of course, there is no reason why a willing brother may not prove a useful adjunct to the struggling artist. Self-effacing Stanislaus Joyce spent his entire life “fascinated” (his choice of word — T.S. Eliot called him “possessed”) by his brother James, following him to Trieste, and maintaining that proximity for the remainder of the latter’s life. “He has used me, I fancy, as a butcher uses steel to sharpen his knife,” admitted Stanislaus the Saintly, the Sancho Panza (Italo Svevo dixit) who loaned his brother money, gave him usable ideas for characters and stories, never again set foot in Ireland, and died upon a Bloomsday.

Here, though, we are after a much rara avis, the true yellow-bellied ne’er-do-well. That would be Branwell Brontë, whose demise aged 31 came as a huge relief to surviving sisters Charlotte, Anne, and Emily, his childhood companions and co-creators of an elaborate fantasy universe that filled thousands of notebook pages.

Scholarly bets remain open as to the psychological pathogen that seized hold of Branwell shortly before his 20th birthday, fracturing his self-esteem and sending him into a depressive meltdown. The golden boy became listless, perpetually angry and morose, dashing his father’s hopes of apprenticing him as a society portrait painter. Instead, he took to drink in a big way, with a sideline in opium and bad company, and was dismissed as a railway clerk for “misplacing” a fair sum of money.

Branwell also wrote, and was just as secretive about it as the sisters who outlived him – by only a few months, in the case of Emily. Some of his verse is not too bad, just not particularly striking or original. One faction of Brontë devotees tries to make the case for him as clandestine coauthor of Wuthering Heights — brought in as a debauchery consultant, so to speak. That Emily drew on painful memories of her brother’s wildness and impetuosity in creating “fierce, pitiless and wolfish” Heathcliff, is not to be doubted, but claiming he deserves co-credit on the title page is pushing things a bit.

When tubercular bronchitis finally caught up with him, Branwell was humored in his deathbed desire to depart this world standing up, which he did, propped against the mantelpiece.  (Despite being polished up for retail by the late Douglas Adams the story is true.) The Black Bull public house, which received his custom, is now a Haworth tourist attraction.

Painting of Brontë siblings by Branwell, in which he painted himself out

In her 1857 biography of Charlotte, Elizabeth Gaskell unwisely revealed details of Branwell’s undoing. He had been seduced and cast off by a married woman whose children he had been hired to tutor, until her husband got wind of the affair and booted him back to the rectory. Mrs. Gaskell seems to have got details of Branwell’s toxic infatuation direct from hard-hearted, judgmental Emily, but letting them seep into print was a blunder, for it was easy enough to identify the lady in question, whose name was…Mrs. Robinson. So here’s to you, Branwell Brontë, and your life of conspicuous underachievement that, in these complicated times, seems to attract almost as much attention as your far more accomplished and therefore less interesting sisters used to receive.

Suicide would have been more in character for Branwell. “Cheerful company does me good till some bitter truth blazes through my brain, and then the present of a bullet would be received with thanks,” he wrote. But he never found the nerve or the occasion to put one there, unlike Otto Mahler, the younger brother of composer Gustav, another tale of youthful promise unfulfilled.

There was promise enough for Otto to be accepted by Anton Bruckner as a pupil and compose three symphonies. But one looks in vain for the decisive trauma — leaving the conservatory without a diploma, a hypothetical heartbreak — that prompted him to blow his brains out just short of his twenty-first birthday.

The elder by twelve years (and there were eleven intervening siblings, just think), Gustav smothered his baby brother with headpats and pre-arranged jobs, but even so, one detects a certain tension inter frateres. “My brother, who was present, was greatly pleased with the partial failure of the symphony, and I, ditto, with its partial success,” wrote Gustav after the premier of the staggering First. What could be achieved in the shadow of someone already famous, already being hailed as a genius? What a small consolation ordinary success must have seemed. Alma Mahler may have been speaking truthfully (for once in her life) when she claimed Otto left a note saying he was disappointed with life and “handing back his ticket.”

Gustav Mahler

W. Somerset “Willie” Maugham had just begun to taste success as a dramatist when the other literary black sheep in the family, his older brother, Henry “Harry” Maugham, turned up late and thoroughly sloshed at the party that followed the first performance of one of his early comedies. “I’m glad my little brother has had some success,” he declared. Some months later, he would choose a hideous method for doing away with himself in a low-rent London boarding house.

Six years older than Willie, Harry had gone off to live in Italy after spurning Cambridge and the family law firm, never coming anywhere near realizing his dream of supporting himself by a life of literature. Talent there must have been: his poems were published in magazines and five unperformable plays in verse somehow made it into hardcover. The Book of Italian Travel is a lively survey of writings by foreign travelers in Italy from the Renaissance onwards, combining scholarship and what now would be called the higher cultural journalism. But there was no more money in that than there was to be had from turgid verse plays on offer to the West End theatres where his brother would soon be packing them in with sex, snobbery, and realistic characterizations of self-interested human behavior.   

Willie Maugham was reticent on the subject – and a great many other things — and not until late in life, when he was drawn out in conversation with his nephew Robin, did he talk about being called to Harry’s lodgings in July 1904 where he found that his brother had swallowed nitric acid and been writhing in unspeakable agony for three days. Somehow Maugham got him into a cab and rushed him to hospital, where Henry’s ordeal ended that same night.

“I’m sure it wasn’t only failure that made him kill himself,” Willie said. ”It was the life he led.” A gloss on that characteristically ambiguous remark comes from Maugham’s nieces, who, nearly a century later, shared with biographer Bryan Connon the family tradition that Uncle Harry was homosexual (as was their brother Robin and of course their uncle Willie) and may have been tormented by sexual guilt, unrequited desire, or some combination thereof. But the intriguing thing is the nieces had proof that it was not Willie who was summoned to take charge of the dying Harry, but the older brother, Frederick, a future lord chancellor of England.

Now why should the dramatist in Willie Maugham feel impelled to write a part for himself in his brother’s tragedy? One place to look for an answer is the essay on Wuthering Heights that Maugham wrote near the end of his life. Instead of focusing on the book or its author, almost the entire piece is given over to a vivid, detailed account of the life and death of Branwell Brontë. Was Maugham transposing long-buried guilt about his brother – the sympathy he should have felt for him, the homosexual connection, the nobility and bathos of his unrealized ambitions – to Haworth Parsonage?

Otto ended it with a bang in the brainpan, but others take the Whimper Drive exit when life’s highway turns bumpy. Charles Dickens’ once-favored younger brother Frederick grew into a professional sponger. When his pleas for money were rebuffed, he attempted to put the bite on the novelist’s friends and business associates. The final straw came when Fred’s wife was granted a divorce on grounds of adultery, and Fred skipped the country to avoid alimony. On his return to Britain, he was imprisoned for debt, and after his release drank away the remaining years of his life. His famous brother paid for the funeral, which he did not attend, but being Charles Dickens, could hardly let go by without moralizing (“It was a wasted life, but God forbid that we should be hard on it, or upon anything in this world that is not deliberately and coldly wrong”) or using it as raw material for his fiction. Frederick Trent, Little Nell’s worthless and scheming older brother in The Old Curiosity Shop, is generally taken to be a portrait of Frederick Dickens.

There was nothing terribly wrong or cold about H.G. Wells’ brother, another Fred, but neither was he charming nor gifted like Harry Maugham nor as hard up as Fred Dickens. By all reports, Fred Wells was a pleasant non-entity who remained a stranger to all forms of human ambition after internalizing their malignant mother’s dogma that “to wear a black coat and tie behind a counter was the best of all possible lots attainable by man.”

H.G.Wells invented his extravagantly overreaching self primarily to avoid a life as a draper’s assistant. Brother Fred was born for the job. Unfortunately, he lost it when his employer brought a son into the business, and it looked for a while like H.G. would have to support good old Fred just as he was already doing for his feckless, slightly mad father.

“In the colonies, shop apprentices do not run as straight or as steadily as they are compelled to do at home,“ Wells wrote. “They feel the reach of opportunity and the lure of personal freedom, so that out there his assets of steadiness and trustworthiness would be a precious commodity, and therefore I determined he must go.” Fred did well for himself in South Africa, squirreled away the wages of diligence, and eventually married and returned to England. It was the right decision: too bad it wasn’t his.

Another brother named Fred appears as a Jungian “shadow” figure in the life of Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Though Fred Davies ably managed technical operations for the chain of newspapers owned by their father, he was undoubtedly a hedonist and a Lothario, with a distinctly nasty side that he, the senior by ten years, drew upon in tormenting the little brother who had usurped his beloved mother’s attentions. Their “intense mutual dislike” lasted a lifetime.

Biographer Judith Skelton Grant was obviously channeling her subject when characterizing Fred Davies as a “self-centered, outspoken, often unpleasant person who, when angry could be uncontrolled and terrifying. All his life he was an embarrassment to his family.” By conspicuously neglecting to add comment or detail to her mention of Fred wrapping his car around a tree, she seemed to be implying he was a drunk or suicide. Probably he was neither, but Robertson Davies was a world-class holder of grudges and Fred was in no position to defend himself, having been dead for forty years when Robertson Davies: Man of Myth appeared in 1994.

Warren H. “Warnie” Lewis went on periodic alcoholic binges as a way of decoupling from his daily existence as crusty bachelor, undistinguished career army officer, and pipe-smoking brother of C.S. Lewis, with whom he shared a home and church pew for over 40 years. Out of consideration for the latter, Warnie would go off to Ireland to drink himself to the brink of an ethylitic coma, requiring increasingly longer stays in hospital to recover and dry out.

Himself sexually inert, Warnie nursed a harrumphing dislike of Janie Moore, the much older woman with whom his brother “made his home” (biographers are split over whether there was more to it than that), but confined his misogyny to his diaries, and overcame it sufficiently to join C. S. Lewis and the woman he thought “enslaved” him in buying a house à trois. Joy Davidman, who married Lewis after Janie Moore’s death, received a somewhat less grudging tolerance, bordering at times on approval.

Yet there is a baffling side to Warnie, for this dyed-in-the-Wodehouse character is also the author of five well-researched and tremendously readable books of popular history on life as it was lived in the courts and cottages of 17th-century France. The one still in print, The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV,  makes it clear that one doesn’t need to be naughty (like Nancy Mitford) to write with authority and engaging wryness about that lascivious, extravagant, and profane era. His piece on doctors and medicine in the age of Molière is a wonderful read.

How, then, to reconcile historian W. H. Lewis with the tweedy boozehound known around Oxford as “a great big baby, totally unable to fend for himself” and who, when it came time to sell their father’s home, implored his brother not to junk the contents of their childhood nursery, which he wanted to recreate at home? The 36-year-old career soldier just could not bear to be parted from his toys and games.

Suicides and alcoholics duly dispatched, it’s time to shake the family flakes from the bottom of the box. We are in serious freak show territory now, not to point and ridicule, but soberly consider the extent to which the gravitational pull of a bad brother can distort the orbit of the supposedly saner sibling. Robert Crumb, for example, says he was all but coerced into drawing by his older brother, Charles. Bullied at school, brutalized by his father, and tormented by repressed sexual longings, Charles became a life-long recluse for whom suicide was the only conceivable coda to the Terry Zwickoff documentary that stands as the ultimate statement on dysfunctional American families. Surviving Crumb brother Maxon has reportedly mellowed; he no longer begs on the street or exposes himself in supermarkets. This self-characterized “socially misfitted, god-mad, brooding ascetic and celibate, starving, eating a cloth string for meat and sitting on a bed of nails” has been dwelling for the last 30 years in the same San Francisco fleabag where one wonders if he might have had Bobby Reichenthal, brother of the formidable, self-truncated poet Laura Riding, for his neighbor in squalor. Bobby was reported to be living in such a place, compulsively clipping newspapers, when the world briefly took notice of Riding’s death in 1991.

R. Crumb with brothers Charles and Maxon

There is one more brother who spent his final days in a San Francisco flophouse and if a prize were to be handed out in the category of Most Piteously Powerful Performance by a Brother of Someone Famous, I would ask your consideration for Richard Ives Welles, brother of Orson.

From babyhood on, Dickie was treated as a moron, particularly by his father, who mocked his stammer and nurtured an abiding hatred for his eldest son and namesake. Denied the approval – never mind the love – lavished on Orson, who was coddled and groomed as a prodigy, Dickie was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. At age 23, they locked him up in not exactly the most comfortable of institutions for the insane and locked up he stayed for ten long years. The clothes he was wearing at the time of his commitment wore away to threads and shreds – and nobody once thought to see that he got a change of clothing. Or visit him. For ten years.

By the time Dickie was let out of the loony bin, Orson was already emerging from his wonder boy period and (if we are to believe the stories he told to and through Barbara Leaming) his brother turned up at one point to demand money for the War of the Worlds broadcast, which he claimed to have written. That was not true, of course, but Orson’s guardian actually had cheated Dickie out of his share of his parents’ estate. When processed by a paranoiac brain, might not this have resulted in distorted version of the truth: that he had been kept from receiving money he was entitled to?

We have Orson’s word that his “daffy” sibling was subsequently ejected from a monastery and that his stint as a social worker at Chicago’s celebrated Hull House ended when “he took a hooker upstairs and locked himself in with her and they couldn’t get him down for days.” (Chares Higham observed that the stammering, cowering, sex-obsessed hotel clerk played by Dennis Weaver in Touch of Evil may be a likeness of Richard Ives Welles — or of Richard Ives Welles, as seen through the eyes of his brother.)

The defining anecdote that sums up that whole relationship is from The Encyclopedia of Orson Welles, by Chuck Berg and Tom Erskine. “Between 1938 and his brother’s death in 1975, the brothers met only once, at one of Orson’s Mercury Theater Wonder shows [of stage magic]. Dickie appeared and volunteered to saw Marlene Dietrich in two. Orson asked the volunteer who he was, and Dickie responded ‘Don’t you know your own brother?’”

Another Welles biographer, Simon Callow, gave Dickie a brief elegy that could serve for all the siblings of the famous and flamboyant. He wrote of Orson: “What do we know of his brother? Nothing at all: an unperson, tolerated, fed, clothed, but seemingly allowed no affirmation — never encouraged, never admired, never enjoyed…. Ten years is an enormous gap between siblings, anyway, but life might have been rather different for both of them had they found in each other a friend.” The same might be said about Cain and Abel, but the fact that it is self-evident does not make it a lesser kind of truth.

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based journalist who writes about Spanish current affairs, photography and books in English.


  • Sverdlov says:

    A bit off topic but worth the digression:

    “The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy died one hundred years ago on November 20, 1910. Although eulogized by many writers, one of the best tributes to Tolstoy came two years before his death when Leon Trotsky wrote this article on Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday. It was first published in German in Die Neue Zeit on September 18, 1908; then in a Russian translation in Volume 20 of Trotsky’s Works in 1926; and finally in an English translation by John G. Wright in the journal Fourth International in May-June 1951 under the title, “Tolstoy, Poet and Rebel.” Minor revisions have been made to the original English translation. Several of the endnotes have been adapted from the 1926 Russian edition.”


  • Shelley says:

    From the looks of it, I think those two guys in the picture just needed a few good dinners.

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