Did Branwell Brontë really die standing up?
The writer Somerset Maugham says he did… maybe.
We mentioned earlier that in his 1948 book Great Novelists and Their Novels, Maugham lists Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights as one of the 10 greatest novels of all time. Branwell Brontë was Emily’s older brother, and he preceded her in death by just a few days. That’s how Maugham came to relate a curious anecdote about the actual moment of Branwell’s death.
The setup: Branwell Brontë was hired to tutor the children of a wealthy clergyman, Mr. Edmund Robinson. “Mr. Robinson was an elderly invalid with a youngish wife and Branwell, though she was seventeen years older than he, fell in love with her and she with him.”
Mr. Robinson discovered the affair and ordered his wife never to see Branwell Brontë again. Branwell, despairing, turned to booze and opium.
But wait! The clergyman died! Branwell was given sudden hope that he would be reunited with his lover — until a letter from her arrived the next day, begging him to stay away forever. The old man had arranged it that she would lose her new fortune and the custody of her children if she saw him even once.
Maugham describes what happened next:
Branwell proceeded to drink himself to death. When he knew the end was come, wanting to die standing, he insisted upon getting up. He had only been in bed a day. [His sister] Charlotte was so upset that she had to be led away, but her father, Anne and Emily looked on while he rose to his feet and after a struggle that lasted twenty minutes died, as he wished, standing.
Yowza! Maugham doesn’t explain why anyone might want to die on his feet. Branwell Brontë was later said to be set on demonstrating “the power of the human will.” Perhaps he was remembering the Roman emperor Vespasian, who was reported by Suetonius to have said “An emperor ought to die standing” and then died while attempting to get up.
Or maybe Branwell just liked to seem different. Somerset Maugham does add a qualifier about the story:
I should warn the reader that this account of Branwell’s love and death is such as was gathered from persons who may be supposed to have known the facts; but the author of the article on the Brontes in the English Dictionary of National Biography, writing many years after the event, claims that there is no truth in it. Perhaps with a little more imagination and less bile against Branwell he might not have been so positive.
Maugham’s right: the standing-up tale is too good to debunk. In any case, there’s no dispute that Emily Brontë’s death followed Branwell’s in short order:
Emily never went out of doors after the Sunday following his death. She was ill. “Her reserved nature occasions me great uneasiness,” Charlotte wrote to a friend. “It is useless to question her; you get no answers. It is still more useless to recommend remedies; they are never adopted.” When a doctor was sent for she would not see him. She made no complaints; she wanted neither sympathy nor help. She would let no one do anything for her, and when anyone tried resented it.
One morning Emily Brontë got up, dressed herself and began to sew; she was short of breath and her eyes were glazed, but she went on working. She grew steadily worse and at midday asked for a doctor. It was too late. At two she died.
Those high-strung writers.
[Update: Turns out it is possible to die standing up… if not necessarily noble.]