A new edition of Juliet Barker’s 1994 biography, The Brontës, tells a story about Branwell, the brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
In 1834, Branwell began to study painting with a member of the Royal Academy of Art. The student painter sketched a portrait of his sisters and penciled his face in among theirs. When it came time to paint, he brought color to the faces of his sisters, but rubbed out his own, blending it into the background.
Eventually, the painting ended up in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and now visitors can see that Branwell’s teacher failed to instruct his pupil how to mix the pigments properly. They shone for a while, but became transparent with age. Now, the delicate pencil sketches beneath, including the artist’s own face that he’d erased, are gradually re-emerging.
One review of the updated Brontë family biography used Branwell’s story as an analogy to praise the book. The reviewer compared Barker to a skilled restorer working on a family portrait, “gently rubbing off the lurid colors of myth and gossip, and revealing the bones of truth underneath.”
Revealing the bones of truth underneath. That’s what happens for me in my writing, at least when I silence the critic that sits on my shoulder and follow where the words lead me. As I strive to sketch portraits in words, I bring color to places I’ve been and people I’ve known. I work to tell some of the untold stories of struggle, of faithfulness, of hope, of fear. Mine and others. Sometimes, though, my words cover up more than they reveal. Unlike Branwell, I have a writing teacher who nudges me to peel away the pigments that hide the full story.
And when I remember that Spirit is with me when I work, I’m strengthened to let the stories emerge, revealing the bones of truth underneath.