The new film of Wuthering Heights has put the Brontës back centre stage. Two members of the family also had links with a lost North Yorkshire country house. And one – Patrick Branwell Brontë, brother of the three famous sisters – was involved in a scandalous affair that matched anything in his sisters’ novels. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

ON JUNE 1, 1846, a heartsick young man sat down and wrote a poem to doomed love. “On Ouse’s grassy banks last Whitsuntide/ I sat, with fears and pleasures in my soul/ commingled, as it roamed without control/ o’er present hours and through a future wide/ where love, methought, should keep my heart ...”

The poem quickly turned darker in tone. “But as I looked, descended summer’s sun, and did not its descent my hopes deride?/ The sky, though blue, was soon to change to grey…”

That young man was Patrick Branwell Brontë – usually known just as Branwell – the brother of the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

And the woman who inspired those lines? Branwell scrawled her name, in large Greek letters, at the top of the poem: Lydia Gisborne.

Gisborne, however, was her maiden name. Unfortunately for Branwell, she had long been married to the Rev Edmund Robinson, the wealthy owner of Thorp Green Hall at Little Ouseburn, near York.

More than three years before, aged 25, Branwell had gone to live at the house to be tutor to the Robinsons’ youngest child, a son also named Edmund. He promptly fell in love with Mrs Robinson, who was much older – probably 43 – and already a mother of five.

Accounts of exactly what happened next vary. According to Mick Armitage, a University of Sheffield IT engineer who has an interest in the Brontës and has set up a website about them, shortly after Branwell’s arrival, “Mrs Robinson enticed him into a secret affair”.

That affair went on for two and a half years, Mick writes, before it was discovered by Mrs Robinson’s husband. Branwell was summarily dismissed.

The Brontë Society’s official biography of Branwell has it slightly differently. He was sacked in July 1845, it agrees. But while the details are not fully known, it says Branwell “seems to have misjudged his relationship with his employer’s wife. Branwell’s own story, that he and Mrs Robinson were in love, is not corroborated from any other source”.

Thorp Green Hall was destroyed by fire in 1895. A few years later, in 1912, a new hall was built next to where the old one had stood. Today that hall is home to Queen Ethelburga’s College and it celebrates its links to the Brontës to this day.

It wasn’t only Branwell who lived and taught at Thorp Green Hall. His younger sister Anne – who was later to write Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – worked there as a governess, too. In fact, it was Anne who arranged for her brother to join her there, as tutor to the Robinsons’ son.

Little could she have anticipated the scandal that was to result. It was largely hushed up at the time, believes Lesley Hitchen, Queen Ethelburga’s press liaison officer.

But Branwell’s life was ruined nonetheless.

He returned to Haworth Parsonage in disgrace. There, according to Mick Armitage, he “immediately sank into a deep state of depression, turned heavily to drink and became increasingly dependent on opium”.

Lesley Hitchen says his disastrous affair with Mrs Robinson is “believed to have been the main cause of Branwell’s decline into ill health”.

Others seem to have shared that view.

The Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell – who wrote a biography of Branwell’s sister Charlotte – once wrote to her publisher describing Mrs Robinson as “that bad woman who corrupted Branwell Brontë”.

But what was the true nature of the relationship between the two?

Branwell clearly loved his ‘Lydia Gisborne’. But did she love him? Anne Dinsdale, the head of collections at the Brontë Museum in Haworth, believes that on Mrs Robinson’s part, it was probably just a flirtation In 1846, a year after Branwell had been dismissed, Mrs Robinson’s husband died.

Branwell appears to have briefly had hopes of returning to the woman he loved.

Then Mrs Robinson informed him her husband’s will stipulated that if she were ever to resume her relationship with him, she would lose the estate, and access to her children.

“But such a clause didn’t exist in the will,” Anne says. It would seem she simply wanted nothing more to do with him.

Towards the end of his life, Branwell fell into a “welter of self pity”, according to the Brontë Society. He died on September 24, 1848, at the age of 31, ostensibly of bronchitis, though it is more likely he had tuberculosis or consumption, the disease which killed his sisters Emily and Anne. And perhaps a broken heart contributed as well.

And what of Mrs Robinson? In 1848 – the year Branwell died – she married a wealthy widow, Sir Edward Dolman Scott, and became Lady Scott. He was 75, she was 48.

BRANWELL wasn’t the only Brontë to have a connection with Thorp Green Hall. His younger sister, Anne, also worked there, as a governess.

During her short life, Anne was to become even more celebrated than her two sisters, although today she is the least well-known of the three. She arrived at Thorp Green in 1840, aged just 20.

At first, she seems to have been desperately unhappy. She had four children in her charge – Lydia, 15; Elizabeth, 13; Mary, 12; and Edmund, then eight. A fifth child, Georgina, died aged two.

Anne had already had one job as a governess, at Blake Hall, Mirfield, which hadn’t worked out. The children there, according to Mick Armitage, were “spoilt and wild, and persistently disobeyed, defied, teased and tormented her”.

But at least, at Blake Hall, she had been only 20 miles or so from Haworth. Her new job, at Thorp Green, was further away – about 40 miles – and there wasn’t a local railway station to make getting home easy.

The Brontës were a close-knit family, says Lesley Hitchen, who has been researching the family’s connections with Thorp Green Hall, on the site of which Queen Ethelburga’s now stands. Anne was especially close to Emily.

“She really missed her,” Lesley says. “But because she was such a long way away, there was no chance to pop back.”

Initially, Anne had the same problems with the Robinson children that she’d had with the children at Blake hall.

“She wrote in her diary that the four Robinson children were unruly and badly behaved,” says Lesley.

“With her shy and quiet demeanour, she found her position very difficult.”

There may have been another reason for her low spirits, however.

Soon after she moved to Thorp Green, William Weightman – her father the Rev Patrick Brontë’s curate at Haworth – moved to Ripon, not far from Thorp Green. Anne seems to have been in love with him – a love later fictionalised in her novel Agnes Grey – but nothing came of it.

A poem she wrote shortly after arriving at Thorp Green gives a pretty good idea of her mood: “Oh, I am very weary/ Though tears no longer flow/ my eyes are tired of weeping/ My heart is sick of woe.”

Gradually, though, she began to enjoy life at Thorp Green. She may have been shy, but she had a “core of steel”, says Mr Armitage, who has produced a website dedicated to the Brontë family.

“Her charges, the Robinson girls, ultimately became her lifelong friends, and years later turned to their former governess, rather than their mother, in times of trouble.”

The Robinsons treated Anne well. “They seem to have started encouraging her to go out with them, on trips to York, to the races, and even to Scarborough,” Lesley Hitchen says.

Having brought Branwell to Thorp Green Hall in 1843, Anne left in 1845, shortly before the scandal of his affair with Mrs Robinson was revealed.

She returned to Haworth, where she wrote the two novels for which she is remembered today: Agnes Grey (about the life of a Governess, which drew on her own experiences at Blake Hall and Thorp Green) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Emily died three months later, aged 30, of the same disease. Within a couple of weeks, Anne had contracted the disease herself.

She asked to visit her beloved Scarborough one last time, and died there, aged 29, on May 25, 1849.

The Brontës links to Thorp Green are celebrated at Queen Ethelburga’s School.

The connection with the Brontës is a “source of fascination for students”, says the school’s principal, Steven Jandrell.

“The fact that Anne taught the children at the hall adds to the link that pupils feel with the literary family. We have classrooms named after the siblings, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell and our drama studio is called the Brontë Hall.”

• The Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth is opening every day from 11am to 5pm.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson...

Like his sisters, Branwell Brontë was tutored at home at Haworth Parsonage. The only brother in a family of sisters, he was the indulged, spoiled darling of the family. But he was also, like his sisters, highly talented.

A willing scholar with a ‘precocious intellect’, he translated Horace to critical acclaim, played the organ in his father’s church, and aspired to being a professional portrait painter.

Physically small, he had flaming red hair, was impulsive and quick-witted, and had a “penchant for showing off in company”, according to the Brontë Society’s biography.

He also had an erratic and emotional nature that stopped him making the most of his talents, however.

Even before his disastrous job at Thorp Green, he had failed as a portrait painter, been sacked from a job as tutor with a family in Westmoreland, and then dismissed as clerk-in-charge at Luddenden on the Leeds-Manchester railway for having missed a discrepancy in the accounts.

Not much is known about Lydia Robinson, but there are clues in Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey. The fictional Murrays of Horton Lodge bear many similarities to the Robinsons, says Lesley Hitchen.

In the novel, the dashing Mrs Murray is described as needing “neither rouge nor padding to add to her charms”. When Anne first went to live at Thorp Green, Lydia would have been a “handsome woman of 40”, Lesley says.

Branwell clearly thought so when he arrived three years later.