Patrick Branwell Brontë is one of those peripheral figures in literary history, lurking in the shadows of his more famous siblings. The sole Brontë brother, Branwell was educated at home with his sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne after the death of their mother and two sisters—a cloistered environment that fed their voracious communal imagination. The foursome created fantastical stories about the kingdoms of Gondal and Angria. But while the three sisters went on to achieve literary fame (despite near impossible odds for women writers), Branwell drifted through his short life, unable to stick with any of his jobs as portrait painter, railroad clerk, or tutor.
Martin avoids the temptation of plunging headfirst into the gothic, instead conveying Branwell’s psychic turmoil in simple, stripped-down sentences. A hopeless romantic, Martin’s hero lives inside a dream, dazed by his failure and an unacceptable interest in other young men. Most Brontë biographies suggest that he was fired from a tutoring position because he fathered an illegitimate child, but this novel hints at another kind of scandal involving Branwell’s male charge: “He can show him some things if he doesn’t tell his parents, in the stable. He could have a little drink there sometime. Just one.” Martin sparsely fills in the outlines of Branwell’s dissolution, a suitably phantom account of the man who painted himself out of his own family portrait.