Friday, 3 April 2015
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte by Daphne du Maurier
[1838/9 Bronte is living a vivid imaginary life as he works as a portrait painter, thinking constantly of the made-up heroes he first invented as a child]
The insignificant Bronte, bespectacled and small, who had not grown an inch since he turned 14, vanished with the flick of an eyelid, and Alexander Percy, a positive danger to female society, stood in his place; so that taking tea with Mrs Thompson, wife of his artist friend, became a mild excitement instead of 60 minutes of discomfort. Mrs Thompson, did she but know it, was judged with an appraising eye; the polite young man who sat before her, balancing a teacup and saucer, could strip her in seconds. And not only Mrs Thompson; any maiden, wife or widow who walked the streets of Bradford or anywhere else would fall an easy prey to Percy, had he the mind to take them.
This dual existence must have enabled life to be lived with greater enjoyment. The snubs and slights received by a young man endeavouring to make his way into a wider circle need not even be felt.
observations: This is a short book, to represent a short life, and a man who very sadly achieved little – whereas his sisters came to enduring fame.
I’ve read most of the works of Daphne du Maurier, and most of the writings of the Brontes come to that, so I was bound to get round to this one eventually: the tragic story of the lost Bronte brother. The family’s story is so odd: six siblings, living in a parsonage in Yorkshire. There are the horror stories of the two sisters who become ill at school and die, just glimpsed in the distance. Branwell was the one boy, and the family’s hopes were pinned on him, but he dissipated any talent he had, never made a success of anything, and died horribly at the age of 31, having made everyone’s life a misery for years. Charlotte wrote about him in her letters to her great friend Ellen Nussey: the letters are astonishing in their frankness about the horrors of looking after an alcoholic. I feel that most people – then and now – would not be spelling out so much detail of the family shame, even to a close friend.
Du Maurier is obviously fascinated by Branwell Bronte, and though it seems almost facile to say this, the book is – though well-researched and referenced – very much a product of its time and of her personality. It’s well known now (from her own papers) that she felt there were two sides to her, and that she was torn between them: this is how she sees Branwell. The passage above is an imaginative reconstruction of his thoughts – I’ve said before that Du Maurier was a sexy writer. She likes weird families and moors, and emphasizes any Cornish connection. She speculates that in other times, the Rev Bronte – widowed with his 6 children – would have eventually married the sister-in-law who came to help out (it would have been illegal at that time) to their great mutual benefit.
It’s a sad and clever book, one I found it well worth reading. Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte is always a good read too – Du Maurier corrects her on some issues, using papers and researches unavailable to Gaskell. Antonia Forest’s Peter’s Room is a wonderful YA novel (which I now suspect to have been inspired in part by the Du Maurier) about a group of modern – 1961 – teenagers who start playing Bronte-esque pretend games, and discover the dangers thereof. The characters in the Forest book all discuss the Brontes and their games in a most illuminating way. And of course Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm was convinced that Branwell wrote all his sisters’ books…
The top picture shows a wooden statue by the Rochdale canal depicting Branwell Bronte ‘as well as other landmarks and characteristics of Calderdale. Branwell was for a couple of years a booking clerk at the nearby Luddendenfoot railway station but left under a cloud.’ The picture was taken by John Illingworth for geograph.org.uk, and shared on Wikimedia Commons.
The other two pictures are sketches of himself (and of one of his sisters) by Branwell Bronte.