Patrick Branwell Brontë was the only brother of the Brontë sisters.

He was also an alcoholic, a wanderer, a railwayman and a reckless poet who died at the age of 31 having, so he thought, ruined his life. Robert Edric's Sanctuary is a strange and sad novel that depicts Branwell's last few months of regret and pain and self-destruction.

The year is a revolutionary one: 1848. The enclosures of the common land are driving families to starvation; on the Yorkshire farmlands Antinomians are crawling around naked in the dirt, screaming of the coming apocalypse; industrialism, rather than bringing wealth, is destroying hope for the future.

Loading article content

The opening scene describes a meeting on Sober Hill between Branwell and a pack man with his "string of Galloways", delivering unmade kersey to Leeds and Bradford. The man's trade is being usurped by the railways: "Everyone talks forever of 'progress'," he says to Branwell, who responds: "meaning they speak of it when they profit from it most?" Sanctuary is full of sleek dialogue like this, and plenty of historical fodder to chew on.

Branwell spends most of his time avoiding creditors and yearning for when "all hope rose daily like the sun". He loves his sisters and father but not their pious way of life, and says of Emily: "however well she wrote, she did not live well". He constantly finds himself on the wrong side of conflicts like this. His father, the parson, works relentlessly for the poor and needy, but Branwell has lost any faith that a morally pure life has its rewards in death. He is more at home with the tinkers, gypsies and itinerant labourers, or drinking and talking in public houses with his equally indebted artist friends. Constantly chased by creditors and subject to violent seizures, he increasingly needs a peaceful place to recuperate.

Sanctuary is provided by his sisters and their father at Haworth parsonage. He knows if he gave up his spirited roaming and restlessness he could return to the productive life of the imagination, a talent which he shares with Charlotte, Anne and Emily. He is trapped, however, in a complex rhetoric of hopelessness, which only worsens as his sisters start to become famous for their work. It does not help that he is partly responsible for unveiling their real identities to the literary world. They pay off his debts, and as they do each party grows more resentful of the other. The sisters also have their own problems. Emily is ill and losing her faith too. At one point she goes missing, and is found standing amid the heather and bracken shouting "answer me, answer me" at the "wind-filled emptiness". In real life she was to die only months after her brother.

The strangeness of the book is in the feeling the story isn't going anywhere. The plot hangs around like the thick mist that clings to the Yorkshire moors. At this point Branwell's life is also going nowhere. The chapters are occasionally just brief encounters between Branwell and some hapless acquaintance he meets on the road. This is no criticism. The cast is never dull, and Edric is wonderful at creating a sense of place and atmosphere in few words. By the end you need only be reminded of the "call of a distant curlew" on the moors and a panoply of imagery gathers around you again.

It should be tiring to read about a man making the same mistakes over and over, but you rarely feel bogged down. This is not surprising. Edric has written more than 20 novels, and has had plenty of practice in how best to break the rules. His prose can be sentimental and a few phrases, such as "home grown revolutionaries", stick out as too modern. But these are quibbles. Sanctuary slow-burns its way into the mind and sits there, waiting for you to re-read its depictions of the Yorkshire countryside, the poverty of agricultural existence, and of the faltering life of the male Brontë who never lived up to his own or his family's hopes.

The novel's epigraph is an extract from one of Branwell's letters to his friend Joseph Leyland. It captures the mindset of a man resigned to failure: "I am betrayed by my instincts and damned by my desires. It was ever thus."