Having read (and enjoyed) a handful of novels by Daphne du Maurier, and last year, one collection of her short stories (here), I was keen to explore some of her non-fiction and so for #DDMReadingWeek hosted by Ali at Heavenali this year, I picked up a book that has on my radar for quite some time, The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte (1960).
The Brontës have long been a subject of fascination for writers and readers alike, with so much talent and so many memorable and powerful writings from the pens of the three sisters (often associated with living in relative seclusion in that small parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire), and the only brother Patrick Branwell, seen as bold, bad, and drunk bringing about his own doom. From Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote the famous Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) to E.F. Benson’s Charlotte Brontë (1932), or E.M. Delafield in The Brontës: Their Lives Recorded by their Contemporaries (1935), and of course, Juliet Barker’s definitive The Brontës (1995) authors and biographers aplenty have explored this extraordinary family and its genius.
So it should be no surprise when du Maurier did too, particularly considering, as both daphnedumaurier.org and annebronte.org note, the influence on du Maurier of the Brontës whom she began reading at the age of 12 and whose books she found herself returning to again and again. While a poem by Emily was the source of the title of The Loving Spirit, du Maurier’s first novel, the sisters’ works are also seen to have influenced Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. When du Maurier was asked to write an introduction to a 1954 edition of Wuthering Heights, she visited Haworth, and during her research began to develop an interest in Branwell. After more thought and much more research, in 1960, she published this book. Of course, as the two sites also confirm (and one can guess too, even if not told), the Cornwall connection that the Brontës had, Maria Branwell having been Cornish, and the children’s upbringing having been in the charge of her sister Elizabeth Branwell after her death, no doubt deepened her interest. Her 1967 book, Vanishing Cornwall, in fact has an entire chapter devoted to the Brontës. The annebronte.org site also highlights another point which may have led to Daphne being more particularly interested in Branwell, which was her husband, Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning’s struggles with alcoholism towards the end of his life, much like Branwell. du Maurier’s biography was perhaps the first that focused on Branwell Bronte for while biographer Winifred Gérin was working on one at the same time, Daphne du Maurier’s was published first.
du Maurier to whom Mrs Gaskell’s biography was ‘unsurpassable’, saw her own biography as only a starting point, an introduction to Branwell’s life and work, which will ultimately be the subject of a definitive biography. But what she did also intend to do was to bring ‘some measure of understanding for a figure long maligned, neglected and despised’ and ‘to reinstate him in his original place in the Brontë family’.
To form a picture of Branwell Brontë, separate myth from reality, and explore the question of whether Branwell was a genius thwarted or just the drunken wastrel of popular lore, du Maurier relies on not only biographical material published so far and the family’s correspondence and papers, but most importantly on those manuscripts the siblings produced as children—tales of the worlds they created—of Angria, of Glasstown, of Gondal—where dreams and fantasies played out but also reflections of the real—and which was in a way the infernal world created by their minds to which Charlotte and Branwell, as du Maurier believed, often returned for solace (Interestingly, Hartley Coleridge whom Branwell went on to befriend, had also created a similar place Ejuxria). du Maurier’s biography I felt read somewhat on the same lines as Nancy Mitford’s Madame de Pompadour which I read last month, written based on strong research but framed not as an academic biography but directed to the general reader.
In the book, Branwell does come across as a rather intriguing person, and perhaps one’s view of his genius would depend on how one saw his many talents. True, his writings and his verse were not (as du Maurier acknowledges right at the start) at par with what his sisters produced and as he deteriorated, so did the quality of his work. Yet he was their ‘leader’ in childhood, the ‘Chief Genius Branii’ who directed their plans and games, who played a central role in developing the world of Angria with Charlotte, writing over the years, pages and pages of tales and verse, building and destroying kingdoms, bringing to life (and killing off) characters. While left-handed, he was able to write letters with both hands—at the same time! He could speak in entirely different accents on different days of the week. He also painted, with some ambition of wanting to enter the Royal Academy over which episode there is some confusion and the version du Maurier presents being different from what was subsequently shown by others. He was also a Freemason, initiated into the local lodge, worked in the railways, as a tutor, tried to set up a career as a painter, and had literary ambitions.
But while he may have had dreams and ambitions aplenty, all sadly failed to come through, with either circumstances or his own mistakes coming in the way, like his somewhat arrogant letter seeking to be included as a contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine or to Wordsworth seeking an appraisal of his work. Having had to be educated entirely at home (due most likely to epilepsy that afflicted him from the start), and not exposed to school like his sisters were and also to directly face death of his older sisters and later his aunt, would have had their impact. This du Maurier feels (and illustrates) is reflected in his Angrian poetry, as are many of those he met in real life; life for Branwell’s Angrian counterpart, Alexander Percy, Earl of Northangerland also making up for what he saw as his own failures and shortcomings in the real world (in appearance, temperament and deeds). Constant disappointments would have certainly increased his resentments and sent him on that downward spiral, seeing not only his own deterioration but also that of his relationship with his family.
du Maurier raises some interesting questions, surrounding for instance, the real causes of Maria and Elizabeth Brontë’s deaths, the plans for admission at the Royal Academy, Branwell’s possible contributions to what became Wuthering Heights, and also around his affair with his employer’s wife Mrs Robinson, and brings up the idea of how some incidents and happenings associated with Branwell in real life might well have been mere reflections of what was playing out in the infernal world, and so not quite as real as one believes them to be. She does also speculate, based on the material she relies on and the character of the people she’s writing of, but also on the idea that much of Branwell’s reality was reflected in some guise or other in Angria and of the Angrian world at times spilling out into the real—at least in Branwell’s mind.
The book does evoke pity and sympathy for Branwell—he mayn’t have been quite the genius he and others believed he was—yet perhaps a different set of circumstances, different opportunities could have developed his talents, led him to a better position than the one he ended up in. He did squander the few opportunities he got at earning a living, but none were really of the creative kind which was where his dreams lay, and when his sisters began to see success, where his own attempts were repeatedly unsuccessful, one can understand the resentment, feelings of inadequacy or failure, and turns to drink or laudanum coming in. And here too, while many of his misdemeanours were attributed to his drunkenness, at his time, not enough account was taken of his epilepsy for the state that he often ended in. du Maurier certainly feels for her subject, and certainly gets one to see that there was far more to him than one perhaps knew.
du Maurier I think has given us a very readable biography, and one which for me (I must admit though that I’ve only so far read Mrs Gaskell’s book, while Benson’s is on my TBR and the Barker still feels intimidating) gave many new insights into Branwell Brontë and his world—his many talents, and importantly (one that relates to all four) also that Haworth wasn’t quite the uninteresting place one thinks it would be. One does wonder about her speculations, no doubt, but these didn’t really for me take away from the readability of the book. I would have liked though if some of the extracts included were trimmed down a bit: on some occasions I felt they ran too long.
An interesting and engaging read.